Twisting Wrenches

With an artist’s touch, a Sturgis craftsman brings back the old bikes

Story G. E. Light | Photographs Luisa Porter

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Craig “Vech” Vechorik has been a leading vintage and classic BMW motorcycle restorer in Sturgis, of all places, for more than 30 years. He’s not difficult to find in this village of 200 souls; just look for the black pole topped by a BMW motorcycle straddled by a dinosaur skeleton.

Vechorik, a ropy 60-something fellow with a salt-and-pepper handlebar mustache and a deep growl, met me in the driveway.

We entered the shop and were immediately joined by a beautiful tabby named Dipstick and a newly restored BMW R69S ready to be shipped back to Australia. Dipstick followed us through the first room, which overlooked the business office and parts warehouse, eventually losing interest, as cats will, as we headed into the back room where Craig’s museum of more than 25 restored BMW Motorrad plus assorted other memorabilia and trophies for restoration work abide.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Here Vechorik begins to narrate his winding career and its varying connections to the bike business. In 1970, he started “twisting wrenches” at Dave McLemore’s Lakehill Motors, a Honda/Kawasaki dealer. Today that shop in Clayton Village is Paula and Carl Ivey’s Village Cycle Center.

In the mid-’70s, while working the engine room of a Mississippi River towboat, Vechorik headed into Cape Giradeau, Missouri, straight to a BMW dealership and rode out of it on a brand new 1975 R90S, establishing his continuing love of the marque. He still owns this bike; it’s the next-to-last bike in his chronological museum.

A few years on, he followed a college friend to Austin, Texas, where he twisted wrenches in an independent BMW shop. There in 1977 he restored his first BMW, a 1964 R27, beginning an almost 40-year obsession.

In 1980, fate intervened as his buddy was offered a major computing position with the Magnetohydrodynamic (MHD) research project funded by the U.S. Department of Energy. He agreed to move back, if they could find a position for his roommate. Thus Vechorik began a 20-plus year career there, first as mechanical tech then as purchasing agent.

During the period, Vechorik describes his routine: “I’d work eight hours a day at my job and then spend eight hours in the evening and all day weekends pursuing my passion finding derelict antique BMW and precursor motorcycles and restoring them. At that point it was just a hobby.”

After two decades, Vechorik began to conceive of his hobby as a potential second post-retirement career. He spoke of his dream with his then-girlfriend, Elaine. They began scouting potential sites for the business. They stumbled upon the former Action Apparel garment factory, an 8,000-square-foot space with a full variety of voltage wiring (220/440/110) and heavy-duty transformers on a five-acre site, which had lain dormant for 20 years.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

Photographed by Luisa Porter.

They sought a bank loan, which was quickly offered with one proviso: The couple and partners should marry. Sixteen years later they remain partners in both senses of the word. He named their new business Bench Mark Works LLC, a double entendre, as the initials made clear what he worked on and the name in full suggested his goal, to produce the restorations by which all others are measured. While there were some trying times at first, today the firm is known the world over for the quality of his handiwork. His museum boasts a chronological history of BMWs from the 1920s to now, but his primary restoration business focuses on two eras of BMW designs, the “vintage” (1948-1969) and the “classic” (1969-1975).

After touring the museum, we entered the pleasantly air-conditioned shop, where the magic happens. Vech sprawled on a chair with his legs up on a worktable framed from behind by his current bike restoration project. I asked him to describe a generic restoration project: “Well, they’re all different really. It’s both science (the engineering and mechanical part) and art. But every job starts with me completely disassembling the bike. Then I slowly rebuild it, replacing parts as need be from my warehouse of more than 7,000 parts. I use stainless steel for an aesthetic look and glass bead every engine case so that they sparkle. Another vendor provides the standard BMW black paint jobs.”

After finishing a tour of the main building, there is one more surprise for me in an adjacent garage. His beloved white with red highlights faux 1939 Dover Ford pickup. A look inside the cab reveals a traditional gear shift on the floor with modern accelerator, clutch and brake pedals plus a window crank which only turns enough to operate electric windows. Under the hood is revealed the engine from a Nissan truck. Much labor went into resizing the chassis so the outer body would fit. Here’s yet another testament to the art of Vechorik’s engineering: Something old is new again.