Love of vintage motorcycles and father-son rivalry fuels this family’s passion to go faster, build better

Love of vintage motorcycles and father-son rivalry fuels this family’s passion to go faster, build better
  • PublishedMay 25, 2024

The smell of petrol and sounds of motors turning over are nothing out of the ordinary at the Birthisel family’s property in Bundalong in north-east Victoria.

Motorbikes, namely vintage Indian motorcycles, have always been part of the furniture and always in the background over the 20 years that Peter Birthisel and his wife Toni ran an electrical company.

Peter has been riding and building bikes for as long as he can remember. 

“A lot of my friends were farmers and they were building vehicles and motorcycles and chasing sheep on motorcycles,” he says.

“Then at 17 you got your ticket to freedom, you could get your licence in Victoria.

“I had a little RD350 bike that we put 250 stickers on because it was illegal to ride a 350cc motorcycle … and then I was never home.

“Growing up around here they were good times, fast times.”

In 2020, Peter and the family sold the electrical business and turned working on the bikes into a full-time business, selling refurbished or new Indian parts to enthusiasts building bikes around the world.

“It just evolved from a hobby to a business that’s grown out of control,” Peter says.

“If you can’t find the parts, you’ve got to make the parts and that’s sort of flourished into a pretty successful business — we’re two years behind our orders.

“We build barrels and race cylinders and stuff for those things due to the fact that a lot of this stuff was out of production 80 years ago.”

Peter says his business is a lot more than just building bikes. It’s also a lot of networking and visiting club meets to build connections.

“When you complete the bike and you start it up for the first time you think, wow, you’ve created something that hasn’t run for 50 years. It’s a good feeling,” he says.

The obsession also saw Peter break a land speed record in 2018.

On a salt lake in South Australia, Peter set a new speed record for a modified vintage fuel 1350cc bike at a blistering 251 kilometres per hour.

Mason and Peter stand holding trophy's behind their two motorcycles.
Winton will be one of the first times Mason and his father will race in the same class.(Supplied)

The master’s apprentice

Growing up around his father’s obsession with motorcycles and learning to weld at age nine, Mason Birthisel says it’s little surprise he caught the bug.

“Bikes have just been a passion from day dot,” he says.

“There’s even a photo of me about six months old sitting in the side of a sidecar I’ve just been surrounded by them.

“The motorcycle community growing up has been like having another family, we’re all there to go fast and have drinks at the end of the day.”

Mason says his competitive streak with his father comes to the fore on race days.

“Competition has always been a thing between us, but I’m still the apprentice in some ways,” he says.

“It’s only in recent years that I really started to overtake him in terms of knowledge.

“It would be nice [to beat him], but yeah, I do build him some good engines though, so that’s my problem.”

A group of motorcycle riders at a race day sit atop their vintage indian motorcycles.
Indian motorcycle club members routinely race against their rivals, the Harley Davidson motorcycle club.(Supplied)

Family ties will once again be put on the backburner this weekend, as father and son go head-to-head in a race at the historic Winton weekend near Benalla, where more than 400 classic cars and motorcycles will turn back the clock on motorsport.

Peter says he’s impressed with Mason’s interest and skill in mechanics.

“This is my retirement job, which I enjoy, and Mason, I think he’s, like, the youngest one in Australia rebuilding motorbikes,” he says.

“The apple hasn’t fallen far from the tree — but, yeah, there’s a bit of father-son competition in the shed already. 

“He’ll come and have a look at some of the stuff that I’ve been doing and he’ll want to redo it because it isn’t up to his standard!”

Peter says he aims to cement his status as the fastest Birthisel on two wheels after losing to his son at their last race, allegedly due to mechanical issues.

“It’s only because my bike wasn’t running to what it should have that he flogged me,” he says.

“I love putting him in his place, that’s great.”

Toni and Peter sit in vintage arm chairs in their museum which is decked out  to look like a 1920s store
Peter and Toni Birthisel ran an electrical company for 20 years before focusing on restoring and building parts for Indian motorcycles.(ABC Goulburn Murray: Jason Katsaras)

The pit-master

At every race meet or Indian club event, Toni can be seen helping her son and husband prepare their bikes — a role she said she relishes.

Toni says she quickly realised bikes would be a big part of her life after marrying Peter.

“What I love about them is it brings people together with the same passion,” she says.

“I do worry about them all out there on the track, but my favourite part is when they all come back off the track safe, and the banter begins.

“You’ve got 20 people there all bantering together about who overtook who etc, all that sort of stuff, I love it, could listen to it for hours.”

She says the Indian Motorcycle Club of Australia, of which Peter is president, has given them endless opportunities to travel.

“It’s families, its not just men going for a ride, all our families have grown up together,” she says.

“All our kids have grown up together and you can see future generations of children whose parents joined the club and these friendships carry through for life.”


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