Woody Carson was one of America’s preeminent vintage motorcycle restorers from the 1940s until he passed away in 2006. Member #11 of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America(interestingly No. 11 was also his competition number), Carson was involved in the restoration of more than 50 vintage motorcycles. He lovingly restored numerous makes of machines, but his favorite was always Indian. A 1924 Indian Scout was the first motorcycle he owned when he was 15. An image of Woody methodically working with parts under lamplight in a small, quiet workshop, with a beautiful Indian 4 in the background, became an iconic image in antique motorcycling.
Carson was born in Minnesota in 1918 and later grew up in Loves Park, Illinois. As a boy, Woody showed early signs of becoming an ace mechanic. He took apart his mother’s washing machine and would mount the machine’s motor in an old wooden cart and drive it around his house. When he was done riding the cart, he’d reassemble the motor and put it back into the washing machine before his mother returned home. Woody first became interested in motorcycles when he’d hear his neighbor pull up his driveway at night on his Indian. At just 15, Woody bought the Indian from his neighbor and began riding himself. Motorcycling would become a lifelong passion.
Carson began riding cross-country and hillclimb races in the 1940s across Illinois and Wisconsin when he was 18. He continued to compete until suffering a broken wrist and bruised ribs in a hillclimbing accident in Waukesha, Wisconsin, when he was 30. By then, Woody was a father and decided it would be better if he simply worked on motorcycles.
During the 1940s, Carson began restoring old motorcycles. His first project was a 1913 Harley-Davidson single. In 1954, he became one of the earliest members of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. He later became a founding member of the Rocky Mountain Chapter of the AMCA. In 1957, his employer, Woodward Governor Company, moved him and his family to Holland for five years. While there, he bought an original 1923 Indian Scout, very similar to his first motorcycle. He paid the equivalent of about $10 U.S. for the machine. In Holland, he also purchased and restored a 1902 Belgium-made F.N.
The formation of the AMCA gave Woody the vehicle for promoting his passion throughout the country and around the world. Over the years, he has served as a regional director, international representative and as a member of the National Board of Directors. Along the way, he has promoted hundreds of antique shows, swap meets, and road runs. He was instrumental in raising support for the National Motorcycle Museum, which later merged with the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
A professional photographer took a photo of Woody working in his workshop in the late 1980s when he lived in Placerville, California. The beautiful image became an award winner and it was later used in magazines and books related to antique motorcycle restoration.
Long before antique motorcycles became so valuable, Carson restored the bikes simply as a hobby. “It was something he dearly loved,” said his daughter, Penny. “I think his dream would have been to own a motorcycle shop.”
Carson’s expertise became invaluable in the burgeoning antique restoration community. He personally restored more than 50 motorcycles in his five decades of work and he helped dozens of others with their restoration projects. His wife once bought him an old bike that came in three bushel baskets for his birthday. Woody’s kids got involved, too. His son, Art, and daughters, Penny and Kristi, all pitched in at one time or another. Late in life, Woody gave each of his children one of the bikes that he’d lovingly restored.
Some of Woody’s machines were among the rarest motorcycles in the world. A 1902 F.N, a 1925 Indian Prince prototype, a 1932 Rudge Speedway racer and a 1909 Yale were just a few of the extraordinary machines Carson found and brought back to life.
In addition to being a member of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame, Carson was also inducted into the Indian Motorcycle Museum Hall of Fame in 1999. He was also a member of the Sturgis Motorcycle Hall of Fame.
Carson passed away on October 15, 2006 in Ft. Collins, Colorado. His influence in the world of motorcycle restoration was his unique contribution to motorcycling.