Part 1 / Part 2
In Part 1, I told the story of Marion Diederiks and his rise to regional fame as an expert motorcycle hill-climber. This week the story continues with the introduction of Ira Ordwing, Marion’s business partner, and the Capitol Hill Harley Davidson dealership they started with their fellow riders.
Ira Ordwing: Ira “Shorty” Ordwing was a free-spirit and a showman who had built his career as a motorcycle salesman and events organizer without any long-term loyalty to city or brand. He had been selling Harley and Indian Motorcycles for dealers across the country since 1920 and developed a skill for entertaining people along the way.
While in San Francisco in 1923, he organized motorcycle stunt shows that included polo, chariot races, and even mobile pie-eating contests. When he and Marion Diederiks met around 1938, Ira was selling Harleys for Hirsch Cycle Company on Capitol Hill and organizing regional races as chairman of the Seattle chapter of the American Motorcycling Association (AMA). He’d also taken his showmanship to a new level when he and many of his fellow stunt riders formed their own club devoted exclusively to stunt performance called the Seattle Cossacks in early 1938.
The Proposition: While it isn’t clear who proposed that they purchase the local Harley Davidson franchise, the discussion most likely occurred by late-1938 or early-1939. Marion would run the dealership and Ira would be his sales manager. It made little sense at first glance though. Ira had been successfully selling Harleys for his then employer, Hirsch Cycle Company, for years and the company had recently moved to a larger facility due to increased business.
So what made Ira think he could do better with Marion and ultimately convinced Harley Davidson to shift gears and sell them the franchise? Consider the following.
Historians and descendants understand that hill climbs were very popular and lucrative during the 1930s. Also, hill climbs weren’t just entertaining, they were the perfect venue to rigorously test and publicly showcase new bikes. With that in mind consider Ira’s 20 years of sales experience, institutional connections through the AMA, and a talent for creating a spectacle. Then pair him with Marion, a skilled mechanic with a 10-year reputation as a top-performing hill climber who had amassed enough wealth to purchase a franchise.
The two were a winning combo for Harley Davidson to get their hand on the throttle of the booming motorcycle culture here. They would be directly involved in every step of the process from turning a spectator into a rider (i.e. a customer) or of encouraging a veteran to switch to a Harley or trade theirs in for an upgrade. Ernie Hirsch on the other hand, while a great businessman, was no longer as active in the local motorcycle culture as he once was and thus must have lacked this edge in the business.
Setting up shop: The new Harley Davidson dealership opened on July 3, 1939 and its first location was actually (briefly) at 1621 12th Ave (currently home to Octo Sushi and Velocity Dance). Marion and Ira hired Andy Skeel, a hot-headed and high-ranking speed racer to be their mechanic. In 1937 he and a few others took to riding laps in the Seattle AMA club house and smashing plaster off the walls to express their opposition to recently enacted policies. Otherwise, in a much more even-keeled capacity, Marion’s wife Mollie was the shop’s bookkeeper and her kid brother Hank Brethauer was the parts manager making it largely a family business. The Diederiks-Brethauer clan also lived just up the street on 12th.
Meanwhile, they all continued putting on a show. Marion set new records at every hill climb he competed in that year and thousands saw him do it. And as for Ira, he was organizing shows and competitions left and right. Obstacle courses, speed races, hill climbs, bike polo, and bike acrobatics. He even had Andy smash through a burning building on his bike. If this would not get business rolling, nothing else would. The following year though, they brought the show closer to home.
First, it became a full-on family affair. Mollie became treasurer of the Queen City Motorcycle club and helped organize the club’s first hill climb at Brown Derby Hill just two miles south of Seattle on April 14, 1940 and it appears this was also her brother Hank’s first race. He placed third in two competitions while the club took in $90 (worth $1,575 today) after paying the riders.
Marion, though, curiously didn’t compete at Brown Derby. As revealed in the dealership’s very own monthly newsletter, called Motorcycle Digest, the location was a secret. Anyone who wanted to climb the secret hill would have to meet Marion in front of his shop on 12th Ave at 11:00 AM on May 5th and follow him there. He offered any who could climb “160 feet up the side of a mountain with the last 70 feet almost a sheer wall” an assortment of merchandise and trophies.
Unfortunately, the results remain unknown. These couple events more or less set the bar for what turned out to be a another successful year. Too bad the coming war would gradually put an end to the good times.
Prepare for War: Between January and March of 1941, the dealership moved to a much smaller space at 1827 Broadway. They were probably anticipating reduced sales and inventory as Harley Davidson HQ had already started transitioning to military production that year. To keep the local dealers going though, Harley-Davidson HQ pushed their three-wheeled servi-car for municipal and commercial use. On March 17, 1941, Marion demonstrated the servi-car at Volunteer Park for the SPD traffic division.
Since the U.S. wouldn’t enter the war until December of 1941, that year’s stunt and racing season continued unabated. Queen City held another race at Brown Derby Hill and the Seattle Cossacks performed for the 1941 Potlatch celebration. Marion and Hank continued to compete in several hill climbs. When the ’41 season ended though, Ira’s career and life as he knew it ended with it.
In October, Ira became embroiled in divorce proceedings from his estranged wife Gertrude whom he hadn’t seen in over a year. In November, he and his fellow Cossacks abandoned their stunts to serve as an auxiliary patrol unit for the Seattle Police Department in anticipation of the war.
In December, Japan bombed Pearl Harbor. In the ensuing march to war, Ira gradually distanced himself from the motorcycling community and eventually quit his sales job at the dealership.
The War Years: For the first half of 1942, the dealership exclusively advertised “immediate cash for your motorcycle.” Presumably they were either gathering spare parts for the war effort or else trying to keep their shelves stocked during the war. Otherwise, civilian models did not return to the sales floor until June of ’44 and only for “essential users” until 1945. The usual round of races resumed in April of ’42 for one more short season before being banned on July 8, 1942 for the duration of the war. Otherwise, the biggest news in the local motorcycle community until after the allies defeated Japan, was mostly personal.
Hank had been married to Andy’s sister Dorothy since 1941 and they moved to the north suburbs in 1942. Ira remarried to a woman named Aline Olson in August of 1942 and passed his role as captain of the Seattle Cossacks to Andy. Finally, Marion and Mollie reared a son named Thomas and moved into a mansion on Lake Washington in 1943.
Postwar: Two weeks after Japan surrendered on August 15 1945, the hill climbs quietly resumed, but that magic and exuberance captured by the prewar generation just wasn’t quite there. For starters, Ira had since traded in his motorcycle for a fishing pole and some real estate. He and his new wife Aline bought a waterfront resort called Indian Beach on Camano Island. They spent the rest of their days selling real-estate and fishing competitively. Lastly, sometime between ’45 and ’48, Andy quit the shop and racing to become a racing referee and a deliveryman. With that, the original fabric they had woven had finally unraveled, but the business resumed in a new form.
Harley Davidson motorcycle academy:
Marion and his generation had passed their prime having at best a few more years of competitive riding left in them. So he and others started mentoring the young hotshot riders returning from the war whether by hiring them as mechanics or sponsoring them for races. He even gathered some of the best talent at his shop to back him up including legendary mechanic Sam Oppie known for his custom-built engines and his eponymous “Sam Oppie Cutdown” bike frame.
Two riders who frequented Marion’s shop and absorbed his wisdom stood out in particular. The first was Donna Walters. Donna had been fascinated with motorcycles since she was five. After moving to Capitol Hill in the late 40s she became a regular customer at Marion’s shop and recalls that Marion always made sure to visit with her and other regulars when they came in. On one such occasion, having been impressed by Donna’s skills as a rider, Marion offered to sponsor her for the Queen City Mud Run of 1953 held in Shoreline, WA. She accepted on condition her best friend and touring partner LaRae be allowed to join as well. It was the first year women competed in the Mud Run. Donna placed second, ahead of Andy Skeel who placed forth, and just behind nationally ranked racer Red Farwell.
Another outstanding rider was Cliff Stering. He got his start around age 13 when he purchased his first motorcycle in secret against his father’s wishes and stored it at a friend’s house. After serving in the Navy, he started working for Marion as a mechanic between ’50 and ‘51. Throughout the late 40s and early 50s he engaged in hill climbs, speed races, and stunt routines. He was a Seattle Cossack and all-around daredevil known for riding his bike backward. He even knew how to fly planes. So perhaps Marion passed his prior vision of becoming pilot onto Cliff.
Diederiks gets Hirsched: In 1950 Harley-Davidson HQ curiously gave veteran racer and hill-climber Otto Drager his own Harley-Davidson dealership on Dexter Ave. No one quite understood the decision back then, but perhaps Harley-Davidson HQ had simply decided that Seattle was now big enough for two shops since they continued to supply them both with new models each year. In any case, according to regular customer and Seattle Cossack Terry Saxlund, this event may have been the catalyst that sparked Marion to gradually take up interests outside the dealership.
Closing up shop: Perhaps sensing that his days as a dealer were numbered, Marion started moving his wealth into real-estate. On April 20, 1951 he purchased the St. Florence Apartments at 504 E Denny Way from the Boyd family. Two months later, Marion competed in his last known hill climb at “Old Homestead” off Cornell road outside of Portland. The results are unknown.
With professional hill climbing behind him, Marion shifted more of his attention to expanding his existing collection of antique motorcycles and automobiles. According to Terry Saxlund Marion went around in the brand new Cadillac he bought every year shoving whole antique motorcycles and parts into the backseat and brought them back to the warehouse pictured below. By 1959, he’d collected over 100 American-made motorcycles mostly of different brands dating back to 1900. Some of these are rumored to still be stored somewhere on Capitol Hill along with some antique cars.
Otherwise, he routinely invited fellow riders, customers, and employees to summer cookouts at his home where they watched Marion’s teenage son Thomas (Tommy) compete in hydroplane races on Lake Washington. 1957 though would prove to be the watershed year. On Saturday June 22, 1957, while on vacation near Long Beach, WA — where Marion made his debut as a racer — the Diederiks family suffered a devastating loss. While swimming in the surf, a massive wave struck Tommy and knocked him out cold. Seeing that Tommy was unconscious, his cousin Jack quickly swam to his aid, but it was too late. The force of the wave was so powerful, Tommy had suffered a fatal stroke.
A few months later, Marion converted the shop into a dealership for Renault automobiles, but only until February of 1959. He then passed the 1827 Broadway torch to fellow antique car enthusiast and auto parts distributor Phil Gardner. Hereafter, Marion became a full-time antique motorcycle and automobile collector until his death from Cancer in August of 1969 at the age of 62.