The scene was the Indy Mile, the biggest event in vintage flat-track motorcycle racing — an oval dirt track where speeds reach 100 mph, and bikes come whipping around the curve spewing dust from the rider's boot heel. Charlie Southgate was whizzing by when he noticed gas leaking from his tank. It didn't faze him. In the pits, he went into the men's room and grabbed a bar of soap. He then scuffed the bar across his tank, and soon a chemical reaction between the hot fiberglass, the gas and the soap formed a seal. It held long after the race.
Maybe it's an old trick, but Charlie Southgate, in many people's estimation, is still a wizard. At 66, he's among the last of the mechanical savants who can fix most any kind of vintage motorized apparatus, using knowledge seemingly absorbed and transmitted through his grease-blackened fingertips. Most days, pedestrians and passing motorcyclists will see him holding court with customers, bikers and homeless people out in front of his East Nashville shop, Inglewood Machine and Cycle — a mad scientist's lair piled to the rafters with avalanche-ready towers of scrap metal and spare parts.
"I ain't got time to be neat," Southgate says, a grin creasing his deeply lined face.
Mechanical expertise runs in Southgate's blood. His father and uncle both were renowned gunsmiths, specializing in rifles and muzzle-loaded pistols: Today, an R. Southgate flintlock rifle fetches a pretty penny online. But his uncle suffered a massive stroke while hunting elk with the proud owner of his 1,000th rifle, the late character actor Slim Pickens. His father, meanwhile, was blinded in a gunpowder accident but continued to assemble guns for many years afterward.
In 1938, his father built the Breeko Block bunker that now houses Inglewood Machine, using it to construct midget racing cars not far from where Southgate grew up on Elvira Street. Southgate says guns never meant much to him, but cars, bikes — those got him going. Especially British bikes, like the prized BSA Gold Star he bought right out of high school 50 years ago and still races today.
"I used to race Hondas," he says, tugging the cylinder on a Triumph that's more duct tape than bike. "But British work better."
That judgment has made him a go-to guy for a sizable number of British bike enthusiasts, both in Nashville and abroad. Southgate honed his mechanical skills for many years at Rock City Machine, where his proudest accomplishment was a built-to-order machine that manufactured aluminum baseball bats. In 1977, he took over the Inglewood Machine building on Gallatin Road. It has a railroad overpass above and a creek-fed cavern below, where wary customers say they've spotted muskrats the size of collies.
Today, his office is a Rock City-like grotto carved into a ceiling-high mound of ancient papers, parts and phone books, from which six inches of a desk protrude. A smudged phone teeters on the desk's edge, but you'll never reach him on it.
His methods are no more conventional. Regular patrons have watched him repair crucial parts by hunkering down at his lathe, filing away curls of metal shavings, holding the piece up to the light, and repeating the process again and again until handing it over with an exultant, "Perfect!" He consults no manual, no price guide. "Thirty-seven dollars!" he announces to a customer, handing over a front-wheel-drive assembly bearing. The price is a steal, provided the customer knows what the hell to do with it.
When he's out of earshot, Southgate's friends and loyal customers testify to the ways he's helped them and the sometimes down-on-their-luck people who simply drop in. "He doesn't like to let anyone know, but he's done a lot of good for people," says a man named Timothy, once the proprietor ducks inside. But as he's about to elaborate, Southgate comes back out of the dark building, and Timothy all but whistles trying to look nonchalant.
Southgate insists all he's doing is fighting the bad habits of a spendthrift culture that no longer sees the value in putting old things back to use. "Our whole society is a throwaway society," he says, with undisguised contempt. But he admits, with some modesty, that not everybody is a born fixer.
"Some people are meant to be preachers, some are meant to be doctors," Southgate says. And if you own a 1927 Indian Scout that hasn't run since Eisenhower was campaigning, you might come away thinking Charlie Southgate is both. —JIM RIDLEY
Photographed by Eric England at Inglewood Machine and Cycle.
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