Picture Bill Eggers at age 10, joyfully barreling down Sunrise Highway in Queens, New York, in a little wooden car he built after borrowing the motor from his family’s lawnmower.
“I was speeding along at about 35 mph; it had three speeds to it,” Eggers recalls. “The police couldn’t believe it. They pulled me over and took me home to my mother to tell her about ‘this stupid little kid with the Mickey Mouse car he made.’ My mom said, ‘Thank you, officers. I’ll take care of this.’ After they left, she asked me, ‘You built this whole thing and it runs?’ She gave me a big hug and said, ‘I’m proud of you.’ ”
Now picture Eggers at 77, in the basement of the log house he built in Goshen, constructing a near-replica of the 1902 Studebaker electric car, which was the first electric car in America. “There are no originals left of this vehicle, so I have to build it from museum photographs,” Eggers notes. He stands between a 1902 “Studie” he already completed and another one of the same model he is now building.
Eggers’ basement is like none other in the world. He’s got about 10 vehicles there now, including a reproduction of an 1898 Daimler, the first truck made in the world that had an engine in the front; an 1886 Daimler, the first automobile in the world; and a 1941 four-cylinder motorcycle replete with maple and mahogany which Eggers says is the only known “woody” motorcycle in the U.S.
How does he do it? The man is a carpenter, a welder, a sculptor, a painter and an engineer. None of his vehicles can legally be driven, but they are so attractive and authentic that collectors are willing to pay tens of thousands of dollars to have one. “I build things that no one else in the United States builds,” he says. Can this be verified? Well, he notes, “I am told this all the time” as he speaks with collectors and museum officials.
Sometimes he might loan one of his vehicles to a museum, but after an exhibition period he takes it back. In 1998 he allowed the Guggenheim Museum in New York to showcase a few of his gems for a show titled The Art of the Motorcycle. “Museums want me to donate my work,” he says. “But I’ve got a year of my life and about $30,000 (in materials) in each vehicle. I’m not in a financial position where I can just give them away. I’m making about a buck seventy-five an hour!”
Eggers says that the general price a collector pays for one of his works is $35,000; he again notes he puts about $25,000 to $30,000 worth of materials into it. “But I love to do this. I tell people I live for this! Seven days a week I’m down here.”
Ever since Eggers retired from his woodworking business in New York City in 2002 and moved to the quiet surroundings of Goshen, “I’m doing all of this for fun.”
“Or therapy!” chimes in Roger Kane, a friend of Eggers who has joined our little tour. “I wouldn’t believe this if I hadn’t seen it.”
But what you see in that basement only begins to tell the story. Eggers opens a photo album to show me some of his other works over the past 17 years. He points to two Roman chariots based on those from the famous race scene in the movie Ben-Hur. Eggers notes, “I made a ‘good guy’ one” — think Charlton Heston — “and a ‘bad guy’ one, with a blade, a spoke cutter. I sold both of them to a guy in California who wanted to teach kids how to drive chariots!”
Eggers turns the page and shows me one of his three reproductions of the first stagecoach, made in 1865 by Wells Fargo, a horse-drawn moonshine still, and a Gokstad Viking ship he made based on studying a small-scale model he bought in a toy store.
His wife, Catharina, who died a year and a half ago, made the sails for the ship. She also created the Roman soldier, cowboy and other period outfits he wears when he exhibits his vehicles or drives one of them as he leads the Goshen Memorial Day parade.
Not even Eggers can do everything that measures up to his exacting standards, so he hires Amish farmers in Pennsylvania to do the exquisite black leather upholstery that adorns many of his vehicles. “They do beautiful work; you can’t get any better.”
Eggers, who hasn’t lost his Queens accent, tells me he came to Connecticut in the wake of national trauma: the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. “My woodworking shop was three blocks from the twin towers. My son, Kris, was working with me. I looked at him and said, ‘Let’s get the hell out of here!’ We just headed uptown.”
Having lost his place of business, Eggers accelerated his plan to “retire.” He moved to Goshen and built hig log house. He also built an adjacent garage where, he says, “I do my dirty work.” He means that’s where he does his welding, grinding, etc.
Eggers encourages anyone who wants to inquire about his creations or just look at photos of them to check out his website at williameggersmotorcycles.com.
“My neighbor made up my website,” Eggers says. “I do not have a computer and I don’t plan on getting one. That’s a little joke around here.” What does Eggers care? He’s always got more of his fun creations to attend to in that amazing basement.