Modak Motorcycles started in about 1930.
I’ve seen advertisements for Modak on Elizabeth St dating back to 1930, so I know that’s when it was operating.
Motorcycles were always popular in this country. Australia bought huge quantities before the war which was quite amazing considering our small population.
People raced them, scrambled them and it was a cheap form of transport before cars became readily available. But Modak started as a wrecker. They wrecked second hand bikes and sold the parts.
I’ve got all of the original purchase books and, if you have a look, one of the pictures said ‘over three thousand machines wrecked.’
So they broke down a lot of bikes.
My father bought the business in 1955.
At the time, the business was at 342 Elizabeth St, which was diagonally over the road. Where Melbourne Central is now. He continued wrecking bikes and selling the parts, but to a small extent.
It wasn’t his preferred method of operation.
What put him on the map was buying new parts from England. Accessories like crash helmets and goggles in the late 50s and early 60s. He supplemented this by selling new bikes and taking over certain agencies.
He took over the Norton agency which came with AJS and Matchless. He also imported Parillas (Italian bikes), MAICO scramblers (German bikes) and Greeves scramblers (English bikes).
These things – along with the new accessories – were the popular lines that he sold.
My dad rode motorcycles pretty much his entire life.
And my grandfather also rode motorcycles. In fact, my grandfather used to make parts for the motorcycle trade using a treadle lathe, which operated like an old sewing machine.
My uncle also had a business called All Parts, which was very big in its day. It had branches in Melbourne, Sydney and Adelaide. He made a lot of things; gears, pistons, valves and imported chains from Germany which he engraved with his name.
Parts weren’t readily available in those days, so he’d look at a part that would be in demand and get it made.
My father initially worked with his brother at All Parts – which was at 423 Elizabeth St – but he went on his own when he bought Modak.
He ended up being in opposition to his brother, but he decided it was the only way to make progress.
My dad’s main interest was English bike parts, but he also sold Harley and Indian bike parts.
After the war – when the army got rid of their stocks – he bought a lot of parts in conjunction with his brother. When they split up, they divvied a lot of it up.
And I started working at Modak as a kid. I might have been five or six when I started helping out. I came on Saturday mornings before I could see over the counter, and I’d be going upstairs and downstairs helping with different things.
Later on I was allowed to serve the customers.
I used to hate answering the telephone because I never knew what was what.
My mother, father and I worked here.
After my father died in 2001 it was my mum and I. We worked together for about 40 years, until she died last year.
My mum was very well known amongst the motorcycle fraternity. She’d been in it since she met my father in the 40’s. She used to ride scooters to work until she moved into town. She was passionate about Modak all the way through.
She worked until the age of 92, and received a Lord Mayor’s platinum award for 50 years of service in the City of Melbourne
I received the gold award for 25 years of service, but I don’t think I’ll receive the Platinum award.
The culture has changed to the extent that these bike parts aren’t used seriously anymore.
There are still bikies, but they are riding Harley’s rather than the older British bikes.
But, in the 60s and 70s it was a sight to behold on a Saturday morning. Elizabeth St would be lined with motorcyclists up and down. There was a lot happening.
But they started drinking at the hotel on the corner, and they yahooed a bit, so the police started to crack down on them.
The bikies who rode the old British bikes faded around the late 1970s.
And Elizabeth St has changed out of sight.
Not for the better as far as I am concerned.
In these two blocks, Elizabeth St. used to be lined with motorcycle shops. And they weren’t only the shops in the main street.
There were service shops in the back streets. A place that did reboring and a place that did electrical work. There was also a chrome plater in Lt Latrobe St.
It was a hive of activity, all centred around the motorcycle trade. But the entire block was acquired by the underground loop authority in 1975 or so.
All those shops went, and we had to find another home. We were lucky to get this place, which was a hardware shop.
We have longstanding customers who bought bikes from my father in the 60s.
They’d come in every now and then and some have maintained their interest. But that was about 50 years ago.
A lot of our original customers are no longer riding, and some have passed away. And this has virtually been my only job.
I used to ride on the tank of my father’s bike when I was a kid. These days, I don’t think you’d get away with that, but that was how I came to work. Later on I rode my own bikes.
And, other than a fitting machine course I did at Swinburne, I learned it all here. For instance, if you need repairs to a magneto or a generator – which the old bikes had – I can do them.
So my heart was always in retailing and motorcycles have always been in my blood.
It’s in my blood because my father and grandfather were motorcyclists.
And we’ve stayed with the older British parts but – by and large – customers are pickier now.
They will surf the internet to see if they can get it $2 cheaper from England or whatever. A business like this is also at a disadvantage because we have to charge GST on everything we sell.
And the customers you are dealing with are typically restorers. Unless it’s the exact nut or bolt, they don’t want it. It’s not the same customers who are riding a bike and want to keep it mobile.
So there are certain aspects of the business that I really enjoy, but it has become more challenging.
It has taken a bit of the joy out of it.
Technology has also changed the business.
In the last 5-8 years everything has gone online. That is what is going to be the end of this business.
The simple fact is that customers don’t come in anymore. It’s expensive to have a shop in the City of Melbourne and, unless you have people coming in, it just doesn’t pay.
So we might be closing at the end of the year. That’s the harsh reality of it. There’s a total revolution in retailing, and almost every shop that’s closed on this block has become a restaurant.
It has affected the diversity of the shops on the street.
I’m of an age where I can probably retire.
I have a lot of stock that won’t disappear by itself, so I’ll have to figure out a way to sell it online.
This shop is a glimpse of the past really.
What you’re seeing is the end of the era, but I think we’ve done pretty well to last for as long as we have.
Written by Aron Lewin and all photos by Tatiana C C Scott
Hello Aron, I was not expecting your story on me to have had such an impact. Various bike clubs have links to the story and I have had a number of people regretting that I am closing. Would you mind putting a post script on the article to say that we are not closing but hoping to move to an on-line trading format. David
UPDATE #2 (21/3/2018)
Modak Motorcycles has closed its shopfront. It will continue to trade online and over the phone