Motorcycling provides many interesting and varied experiences as any enthusiast surely recognizes. Along the way as the years pass at sometime it may be appropriate for each of us to consider our development in this interest and the most important influences affecting us over the period of time. If it was necessary to name only one aspect of motorcycling which is significant to you above all others, what would you select? That may be a difficult question with no one single answer, but my response would be people. Motorcycling has given me the opportunity to know many outstanding people who also enjoy that interest. This developed into some very close and longtime friendships, some of which in time superseded my interest in motorcycling. Fortunately, after so many years, I still have one left and I feel privileged to share his story with you as I have known it to be.
Before I met Buster Ihlenfeldt more than 30 years ago, I had heard about him as the best motorcycle specialist ever to be found anywhere. At that time he worked for a Moto Guzzi dealership. It did not take long before I thought of him as, "Mr. Guzzi". His ability and dedication had resulted in his name becoming almost synonymous with that of Moto Guzzi. In time as I learned more about him, it became evident he was truly a guru of that marque, perhaps much more than he realized. It required years for my discovery of his abilities and accomplishments which extended far more than a master of that brand, but I will attempt to illustrate that before completing this profile.
For a beginning I will start with my earliest period of when I first met him and my impressions at that time. I quickly learned his good reputation was more than justified. Mechanical problems or any other kind which would be beyond the ability of most people, presented only a challenge to him, something he seem to enjoy solving. With his perfectionist trait he would find a way even if he had to improve and redesign a part or system superior to the original. Some of his ideas were later learned by the factory engineers and adopted into production without credit given to him. Along with his other qualities he possessed an appearance and manner of self confidence, the image of a leader, he was a natural who commanded respect without trying and others would listen and follow. He obtained such an expert image that he received long distance calls for advice from people in other nations. I could not imagine much of a chance of the two of us developing a friendship in the beginning. Anyone who wears a uniform and badge soon learns not many consider someone such as that as a potential friend. I did not find that with Buster, he did not make that judgement and we developed a good friendship and rode together.
That friendship continues. Through him I met other motorcyclists. He had a large following. In turn he met my motorcycle friends. All of this developed into an interesting group of riders with different brands of motorcycles sharing the common interest of motorcycling, and together we represented varied occupations and backgrounds. With this mix we learned that was no barrier in our enjoyment of riding together and our association through the interest of motorcycles.
Even in riding Buster was always in the lead, no matter what the number of riders, one other with him or a large group. It was not because he insisted it must be that way, but it was recognition by the others he was the leader not only in riding, but in anything related to motorcycling. His choice of a motorcycle influenced others; that must be the best type to own which influenced some to buy a model like he owned.
At this point of this story the question could be asked how did all of this happen? With that being an interesting question I will proceed with what I have learned over a long period of time which contributed to his image and reputation.
Buster grew up on a farm, but as a teenager he soon discovered his interest in motor vehicles, cars and motorcycles. His first one was a '34 Harley which needed some work to make it usable and to keep it going. He learned some from his dad who did repairs and maintenance on his car and farming equipment on his farm, but had no experience or interest in motorcycles to teach Buster. Much of what Buster learned about that was self taught and seeking information which was difficult and rare in that rural area. In time he developed his knowledge and skills for mechanical work on motor vehicles and was learning how to get better performance, a special interest to him. He became good enough at that to get the attention of men with badges.
Then the Korean War started and he was in the Army, stationed at Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas. His assignment as an Army M.P. gave him the experience of being an Army cop, but he still wanted to work on motor vehicles. It was at this time he met a man who became Buster's mentor and friend as if it was meant to be.
Harry West had a motorcycle shop and Buster approached him, seeking part time work as a motorcycle mechanic for his off duty hours with the Army. I am not sure Buster knew much about old Harry at the time, but this meeting would be something that would be the biggest break and the greatest influence on him and change his life forever.
Harry had been a professional car racing driver and was on his way to great success which was ended by an unfortunate accident during a race. This resulted in an arm injury leaving his arm useless. Even so, Harry did not give up his other interest, Indian motorcycles, and his tremendous knowledge of how to build a motor for the best performance. With the use of only one arm Harry continued with his competitive spirit. While his dealership sold and serviced other brands he had several Indians built for performance.
With the use of one arm, Harry riding one of his Indians could and would out run any other motorcyclist that was foolish enough to accept his challenge. Old Harry was like most Indian riders from his era, the 1920s, he hated Harleys and those who rode them. If you will, just picture this scene: A group of young G.I.s on their hot running Harleys stopped at a traffic light waiting for a green light and this little old man wearing an old cloth motorcycle cap pulls up among them on an old 101 Indian Scout and blips the throttle in a challenge. What they did not know that this rider was still a serious contender and he had a big performance Indian Chief motor in that little 101 Scout. When the light would change they all would take off with full power and very quickly that old man on his antique Indian would disappear far ahead of them and they would be wondering how that happened, who was he and where did he go? This happened so often, riders began to refer to him as the "PHANTOM".
Harry was not known to be fond of people and kept to himself, but if someone wanted a motorcycle to out run all others he was the man to make it happen. The El Paso Police Department contracted with him to make their police Harleys hot runners. He fixed them up, but the contract was cancelled after a brief time. Too many officers could not resist using the power and performance and were crashing and getting hurt. A book could be written about old Harry and still not capture all of his knowledge of performance. For some reason he recognized Buster's potential and departed from his practice of not sharing his knowledge. He accepted Buster and taught him what he had learned. When Buster was discharged from the Army he rode home on an Indian Chief. He had been converted and accepted Harry's beliefs and was now prepared to put it into practice.
Once Buster was back in Austin, Texas, he learned things had changed on the motorcycle scene. His old buddies were no longer riding and not much was going on with motorcycling. He sold his Chief and concentrated on cars, working in dealerships during the day and building race cars at his home. It was not so very long before he was recognized as one of the best. Eventually he was offered a job to work with a company sponsoring a racing team which he declined. When Honda motorcycles became popular, a dealership wanted his services and he accepted. Again he became known as the best in building motorcycles for competition. More time passed and he was hearing about Moto Guzzi motorcycles and this was interesting to him.
The predictable happened. The Guzzi dealership wanted him which he welcomed. He not only worked there, but he also became a Guzzi owner and rider. At last he had found a motorcycle which he liked very much. He mastered that machine and improved on it. Without intent Buster once again was recognized as the very best. Because Guzzi was his choice many others bought Guzzis. His expertise was widely known and this continued beyond his retirement. This is the story of the man I call "Mr. Guzzi". What a great success story!
Buster has never forgotten his friend Harry, and always will be grateful for what he learned from him. As to old Harry, I believe he must have been proud of Buster. Harry's name is on a marker in the military cemetery at Fort Bliss. He was a WWII veteran.