IN A time when it seems the biggest growth areas in motorcycling are big multi-brand supermarket-style bike shops and small on-line micro-shops scattered across the planet, it seems improbable to find a business like Thunderbikes.
The man behind the counter owns the shop. He’s interested in just one brand — and a minor brand at that. Official figures show Moto Guzzi sold just 255 bikes in Australia in 2015. Ducati and Triumph sold almost ten times as many. Honda, near on 100 times.
And yet, if you walk into the shop and ask Mario Poggioli for a pair of throttle cables to fit a 28-year-old Guzzi LeMans, there’s a very good chance he will turn around and pull a set from the rack on the wall behind him. Try that at your local Honda dealer.
Indeed, the big parts inventory is an integral part of the Thunderbikes story and dovetails neatly to its business model which is, deliberately and historically, workshop-heavy.
“If I’m rebuilding an engine, I don’t want to wait three months for parts to arrive from Italy,” Mario says.
“It’s also less risky to carry plenty of parts for Guzzis than it would be for say, a Japanese brand. Most Guzzis stay on the road for a very long time so you can be confident the parts will sell eventually. And many parts are interchangeable. I carry just five different oil filters in stock, and they cover every Guzzi ever made. And lots of parts also fit other Italian brands — Ducati, Laverda and so on run Brembo brakes and Dellorto carbs, for example.”
Mario greets me by name when I call in. I’ve been wandering into Thunderbikes, spasmodically rather than frequently, since buying my first second-hand Guzzi a decade or so ago. Mario has known and worked on my two Guzzis longer than he’s known me and, quite possibly, since they sat side-by-side shiny and new in the showroom of (long-gone) Stolarski’s Motorcycles way back in 1988.
The Thunderbikes showroom floor feels more like a museum than a sales venue. Old bikes overwhelmingly outnumber new ones. There are multiple LeManses of various ages, as you’d expect, plus a bunch more. A 750 S3. A V7 Sport — that’s the original, not the modern recreation. Two 1000S’s. A V10 Centauro. An 850 Eldorado. An 1100 Sport. A four-valve OHC Daytona 1000. A pair of race bikes from the 1980s. And more. Most are near enough to concourse condition. And not for sale.
“It’s the first rule of investment,” Mario says with a grin. “Never sell anything.”
Mario says the bike collection has quite literally rolled in through the door. “I’ve never chased a bike,” he says. “They’ve come to me over the years as trade-ins or as direct sales. Some needed work, some didn’t.”
Thunderbikes is an interesting place to visit, just to admire the bikes.
But dig deeper and you’ll find a fascinating history.
There are two names that loom large in the back story of Moto Guzzi in Western Australia. Mario is the Guzzi guru these days, but those with long memories will tell you that long before Mario and Thunderbike Motorcycles there was Ted Stolarski and his bike shop, Stolarski’s. Ted was a larger-than-life character; Australian Moto Guzzi distributor, retailer and racer from his shop in the middle of the Perth CBD.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the creation and early history of Thunderbikes is intertwined with the heyday and final days of Stolarski’s.
But first, some Poggioli family history.
Mario was born in Zimbabwe, or Rhodesia as it was known back in 1961, to Italian parents. His father Brando had bikes in his blood, running his first motorbike shop in Italy at the tender age of 16. At 21, Brando accepted his father’s advice to leave Italy and head for Africa to make a new life for himself.
“Dad was a mechanical fitter, and a natural mechanic,” Mario says.
“He could fix anything; a broken watch or a stationary engine, it didn’t matter. He was just one of those sorts of people. When he moved to Africa he worked as a truck driver on the Kariba Dam construction project in Zambia, then as a mechanic on various mines in Rhodesia. But his dream was to plant a vineyard and develop a winery. And he did it. By the late 1970s he had an extensive winery in Umtali (now known as Mutare).”
By this stage young Mario was following his father’s lead into mechanics.
“My parents sent me back to Italy from 1977 to 1979 to attend a Don Bosco mechanical school. It was like a high school run by lay priests to prepare kids for a mechanical work life. It had a great reputation. The things I learned there helped me complete my apprenticeship as a bike mechanic six months faster than usual.”
Along the way, Brando found some time to travel. On a trip to Perth in the ’70s he developed a friendship with a man who had emigrated to Australia from Poland in 1955. His name: Tadeusz (‘Ted’) Stolarski. It was a friendship that would last a lifetime and would play a pivotal role in the future of Brando, Mario and, ultimately, in the creation and direction of Thunderbike Motorcycles.
“By 1979, with apartheid being dismantled in South Africa, Dad could see there was trouble ahead,” says Mario.
“So he just walked away from the winery, and from Africa. With formal sponsorship from Ted, we moved to Australia.”
Brando opened a small motorbike shop in Bassendean and, a little later, in Guildford. It was called Rhotalia Motorcycles, a play on the words Rhodesia and Italia. Mario completed his motorcycle mechanic apprenticeship under the guidance of his father.
After a break from the bike trade, Mario joined Stolarski’s as a mechanic in 1983 and his relationship with Moto Guzzi motorcycles began. He stayed a decade before going out on his own; initially in a small workshop in the Perth suburb of Bayswater, then a slightly bigger one, and then in 1997 to the premises in Bassendean that he and Thunderbikes have occupied ever since.
“I remember walking in here with a box of tools and wondering how the hell I was ever going to use all the space,” he says. In the early years his business was servicing and repairing bikes. Selling new Moto Guzzis and becoming a one-brand-man came unexpectedly and, in some ways, unpleasantly in 1997.
“Ted died in 1995 and Mrs S (Ted’s wife) continued as Australian distributor for a year or so. But then Moto Guzzi decided on a change of direction and appointed a Melbourne-based company to take over the distributorship.
“Retailers followed the factory’s lead, as you’d expect, so Mrs S was left high and dry. She had 36 bikes and something like a quarter of a million dollars worth of spare parts, and no one to sell them.”
With the historic family connection, Mario’s knowledge of Moto Guzzis and his competence with his tools, it’s no surprise that a deal was done.
And so it was that Thunderbikes, primarily a workshop rather than a dealership — and with no official links to the factory (“and no one to tell me what to do”, Mario stresses) — became a substantial but unofficial Moto Guzzi sales outlet specialising in Guzzi repairs and service.
Mario makes no secret that his relationship with Moto Guzzi’s Australian distributor was frosty in the aftermath of Ted’s passing. Things have changed over the years, including Moto Guzzi company ownership and the national distributorship, and nowadays you will find Thunderbikes listed as a dealer on the Moto Guzzi Australia website. “But I still make my own decisions,” he says.
Mario’s clientele clearly bring him a lot of enjoyment.
“My customers are mostly long-term,” he says. “After a while they become friends; actually more like family really. Lots of Guzzi riders remain Guzzi riders. You don’t find many people who buy one and don’t like it. In all the years I’ve been here, I’m not aware of a single item being stolen off my shelves. I have good customers; blue-collar mostly, family people.
“And I like the product, obviously. Guzzis might not pop wheelies in every gear or top 300kmh, but they are good bikes. Dependable, simple, unique. The engines are accessible and fun to work on. Our service work is almost all preventative, rather than repairs.”
In many ways, the Thunderbikes of 2016 is the same as the Thunderbikes of 1997. Mario is still the man behind the counter. It’s a two-man show these days — Mario has a full-time mechanic to handle the bulk of the workshop load — but Mario still spends time on the tools as well. There are new bikes on the floor, as well as those wonderful old ones. And all those spare parts and accessories are a magnet for Guzzi enthusiasts, just as it was when unwelcome circumstances delivered the Stolarski-era ‘leftovers’ back in the day.