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How did a guy who was restoring classic cars in Indiana wind up with Elvis’ last motorcycle?

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Dave Bangert

LAFAYETTE – Tony Rakowski keeps a photo of himself, nearly 40 years old, sitting astride a 1976 Harley Davidson FLH 1200 Electra Glide as the screensaver on his phone.

Actually, it’s a photo of a newspaper clipping from the Frankfort Times, sepia-toned with age, he pulls out from time to time for proof that a motorcycle that in 2019 sold at auction for $800,000, just shy of a record, once for a short time passed through his hands.

“You tell people you owned Elvis’ motorcycle,” Rakowski, a retired car dealer living in Lafayette, says, “and they look at you like you’re a nut job. So, I show them the picture.”

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In a month when Elvis Presley would have turned 85, Rakowski found himself digging out his phone and laughing about his small connection with the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer. Not to mention being the guy shrugging off the thought of what he might have done with $800,000 someone paid to be the current owner of that blue-on-blue, custom-painted Harley, what has been billed as Presley’s last motorcycle.

“‘How do you feel, not having that $800,000?’ I get that sometimes,” Rakowski said. “I tell them I did OK for myself. It’s kind of a crazy story.”

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Elvis Presley sold the Harley-Davidson bike 90 days before he died

GWS Auctions, the California auction house that handled the sale of the bike in August, starts this story, listing the purchase date as Aug. 11, 1976. According to GWS’ listing, Presley picked it up after purchasing a Harley Davidson Sportster 1000 as a gift. He had his Electra-Glide shipped to his Graceland home in Memphis, Tennessee. He sold it 90 days before he died. It wound up with a local Harley dealership there, according to the auction house.

Scotty Moore, who was guitarist for Elvis, before he died in 2016 at age 84 detailed Presley’s love for motorcycles, tracing the histories of more than a dozen of them, including the ’76 Harley-Davidson Electra-Glide.

According to Moore’s account, he couldn’t find photos of Presley on the bike, which had 126 miles on it – according to a story about the auction in Forbes – by the time the singer died in 1977 at age 42.

After Presley died, according to Moore’s account, the Harley belonged to a hotel owner in Atlantic City, New Jersey, where it was displayed as a showpiece for tourists, even as the title remained in Presley’s name.

Rakowski entered the story in 1983.

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Rakowski owned a car lot in Frankfort, Rakowski Classics – “across from Scheid Cadillac, a long time ago.” He specialized in restoring vintage Ford Thunderbirds, selling them and other restored vehicles on his lot out of an office he made out of a red caboose or at auctions across the United States.

Lafayette car salesman traded a ’57 Thunderbird for the bike

He was at an auction in Atlantic City in 1983 when Elvis’ last motorcycle was on the block.

“People always want to know, ‘How could you get that thing?’” Rakowski said. “Well …”

The year before, he said, a yellow Cadillac convertible that was advertised as one of Presley’s was up for auction there. Weeks after the auction, when the winner got home and started inspecting the car, serial numbers on the frame and other parts didn’t match up. (“The guy paid big money for it,” Rakowski said. “It wound up being owned by some guy in Tijuana.”)

“So, when they ran the motorcycle through when I was up there in ’83, nobody would bid on it,” Rakowski said.

After the auction, he said the owner knew he was interested and offered to trade it for a ’57 Thunderbird that Rakowski had just put $25,000 into. He said he was looking to get $30,000 for the restored car, so he could make “an even five grand.”

“He said, ‘Well, I’ll trade you that motorcycle even for it,” Rakowski said. “I said, ‘I’ll do that, but here’s how we’re going to do it.’”

They rounded up a fistful of change and adjourned to a phone booth. They called the California Department of Motor Vehicles in Sacramento and asked a clerk whether, if they gave her a serial number off of a title, she could tell them who owned a vehicle.

“I read the serial number, and she said, ‘Oh my God, do you know who used to own that?’” Rakowski said. “I said, ‘I hope it was Elvis Presley.’ She said, ‘It was!’ That’s how I got it. I never would have if that guy had paid a lot of money for a car that really was Elvis’.”

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The bike came with a display case and a set of curtains, strewn with pictures of Elvis and used as a backdrop to tell the story of the Harley.

Rakowski kept the motorcycle at his dealership – “People came in more to look at that bike in Frankfort than people came in to buy the kind of cars I had,” he said – and took it to auctions, arranging with auction houses to waive fees for his vehicles if he put Elvis’ Harley on display.

He sold the bike for $54K

He said it wasn’t long before he took a call from Dave Geisler, who had the 500-car Pioneer Auto Museum in Murdo, South Dakota. He wanted that bike. Rakowski said the museum didn’t want to pay cash, instead offering any car he wanted in the museum – “straight up.” Rakowski said he spent two days in South Dakota picking through the inventory before settling on an unrestored, 1932 Packard four-door sport phaeton convertible with dual windshields.

Rakowski sold it for $54,000. He said he was happy to come away with a margin of $29,000, once all the trades were done.

The Frankfort Times took a picture of Rakowski and two other men pushing the motorcycle up a ramp and into the bed of a pickup truck as he shipped it off. Rakowski keeps that photo of that laminated newspaper clip close at hand, too.

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Elvis’ ’76 Harley Electra-Glide remained on display in South Dakota until 2019, when it went up for auction, along with two other vehicles owned by Presley – a white-on-white 1973 Lincoln Continental and a GMC pickup he used at his Circle G. Ranch in Mississippi, according to an Associated Press account. There were predictions that the Harley might bring up to $2 million and top the record of $929,000 paid at auction for a motorcycle, a Vincent Black Lightning sold in 2018 at a Bonham’s auction in Las Vegas, according to a Forbes account.

Missing out on a bigger deal doesn’t bother him

Rakowski said people have been asking him since if he was grousing over that price and maybe wishing he’d hung on for another four decades for a payday that dwarfed his own. He said he wasn’t bothered by that. (He once sold a ’55 Mercedes Gullwing for $60,000 – “and one like it, I saw, went for $1.7 million a little while back.”)

“I did OK for myself,” Rakowski said. “That was a lot of money in the ‘80s. Besides, how many times in your life are you going to get to say you owned a motorcycle Elvis bought and rode, himself?”

He hangs on to the picture, now lodged on the front of his phone, as a reminder.

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