Irv Seaver BMW turns 100 this weekend
Irv Seaver BMW turns 100 this weekend
ORANGE – The joke around Irv Seaver's BMW motorcycles is that if somebody calls asking for Irv, it's likely a sales call.
Most customers – the regulars – know that Irv Seaver, who lived to age 92, died last year, decades after he'd been an active part of the shop.
The place still bears Irv's name because this is a shop about loyalty, tradition and sheer survival.
On Saturday and Sunday, Irv Seaver BMW will hold an open house. The two-day party will celebrate a lot of things – the shop's consistent status as one of the nation's Top 10 BMW motorcycle dealerships; a recent renovation that expanded the showroom and service department.
But, mostly, they'll be celebrating something rare – a business that has lasted 100 years.
Irv Seaver BMW motorcycles has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, two moves forced by eminent domain and even the economic downturn of the past few years.
At the center of the celebration is the shop's current owner Evan Bell – a man whose name has never appeared on the sign out front even though he's been there for more than half of the ride.
He started at Irv Seaver in the late 1950s, first as a mechanic. In those days, it was a part-time job for Bell. But over the years he worked his way up to general manager; then, in 1979, he took over as owner.
"I thought this would just be a summer job," he says. "But I liked it, so I stayed ... It's become a really long summer job."
A couple years ago, as Evan Bell considered expanding his shop, he and his son, Brian Bell, 48, the sales manager, started researching the roots of Irv Seaver BMW.
Initially they thought the shop was founded in 1911 in a storefront on the old Orange Plaza traffic circle.
But as they searched city and library archives, they learned that the original owner, Judd Carriker, founded the shop as a sporting goods and bicycle store. It wasn't until 1912 that Carriker, a member of the Orange County Motorcycle Club, brought motorcycles into the mix.
"That gave us an extra year to plan for the 100th anniversary," Brian Bell says.
At first, Carriker's shop carried only a few motorcycles, with no allegiance to a particular brand. But after a fire at a competing shop, Carriker became a dealer of Indian brand motorcycles. Soon, he was west coast competition manager for Indian racing bikes.
In search of a larger showroom, Carriker moved his business to Main Street and Palmyra Avenue, then to Main Street and Town and Country.
That's where Evan Bell first visited the shop as a teenager, in the early 1950s, with his older brother, Frank.
Not long after that, Irv Seaver, an Indian motorcycle enthusiast, moved from Massachusetts to the warmer-climate of Orange County, largely because it would allow him to ride all year.
In November 1953, with proceeds from the sale of his family farm, Seaver bought out Carriker and his stable of Indian bikes. But a month later, Indian went bankrupt and announced it would cease productions, so Seaver looked toward the sportier, European bikes.
In 1957, Seaver suffered another blow. The city, looking to build a shopping center on the site, bought his property through eminent domain.
But Seaver took advantage of the deal as an opportunity to build the region's most modern motorcycle store. And he located it at a more high-profile location – Main Street and the 5 freeway — with plenty of neon and a 40-foot-tall rotating sign that passersby couldn't miss.
That's the version of the store Evan Bell came to visit in the summer of 1959.
Bell, on a break after his third year of studying agricultural engineering at Cal Poly San Luis Obispo, needed a summer job.
He'd grown up on a citrus farm near what is today Tustin Avenue in Orange, tending to the orange groves, pigs and other farm animals. He also spent time riding his Czech-built CZ motorcycle through the farms and ranches of Orange County.
That bike needed plenty of maintenance. So he and his brother developed mechanical skills and a reputation for fixing up old motorbikes and cars – something that earned him a citation from the city of Orange for operating what appeared to be an unlicensed junk yard.
Seaver put Bell to work as a mechanic.
"Irv was a real gentleman," Bell recalls. "I liked the job. So I decided not to go back to school."
For nearly 20 years, he worked on a number of bikes: BMW was just one brand, along with American, English, Italian and Japanese bikes.
Actor Steve McQueen was a frequent visitor, routinely making the ride down to Santa Ana in the late 1960s to check out Seaver's latest stable of vintage bikes.
"To be honest, I wasn't all that impressed," Evan Bell remembered. "Irv would disappear on Fridays and, the way I saw it, (McQueen) was always stopping by to check out Irv's newest junk. ...It meant more work for me."
By 1969, Bell became general manager of the shop. And a decade later, Seaver was ready to retire up to Washington State. He turned to Bell one day and said, "I haven't had much fun the last two weeks. Are you interested in taking over the shop?"
Just like that, the torch was passed. Bell took over. His son, Brian, in high school, began working there. So did his wife and daughter, working in the office.
Bell flirted with changing the dealership name. But Irv Seaver was well-known in the motorcycle world. And Santa Ana officials said the only change they would consider to the tall, outdated sign out front was removal. So Bell, who's never had much of an ego, kept the name – and the sign.
On Christmas Eve 1991, Caltrans came calling with an eviction notice. The 5 freeway was getting a remodel and its widening meant no more room for the motorcycle dealership.
Bell asked for an extension to stay in the building and joked with an appraiser that it was an "old Indian burial ground." He was given 90 days to get out.
Evan Bell looked back to Orange and found the current location at 607 W. Katella Avenue. It was farther from any freeway and miles from the other shop.
Bell took that as an opportunity and decided to focus just on the BMW brand, the brand he'd come to love, the initials that enthusiasts say stand for the "Best Motorcycle in the World."
And loyal customers sought him out. Within a few years, sales quadrupled. And customers have continued seeking them out the last 20 years.
Evan Bell knows the dealership is in fine shape – and his son is a more-than-capable manager.
But, at 75, he has no plans to retire. He has a habit of making the 25-minute walk to work daily, to keep in shape.
And he still finds time to take his BMW on rides, including a ride of Mexico's Copper Canyon and a ride in Japan – both of those since turning 70.
"I talk to many of my friends my age and they've been retired 10 years or more," he says.
"Motorcycle enthusiasts are just a little different. I enjoy being around them and I enjoy the business. So I'm still here."
Brian Bell says he's happy to come to work with his dad every day. And while his dad doesn't like to talk about himself, Brian sees him as a kind of Orange County treasure.
"He can ride his bike through this area and he remembers where every ranch was, and who owned it," Brian Bell says.
"He is part of the old Orange County, buried under what's new."
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