Robyn Gray: biker and friend

March 3, 2014 - 140303 - Robyn (a.k.a. Robert) Gray is photographed on a motorcycle in his garage, Monday, March 3, 2014. Gray was cleared Monday of obstruction and assault charges on a police officer at the Winnipeg Convention Centre motorcycle show in 2012. He was the organizer of the Rolling Thunder portion of the World of Wheels show. John Woods / Winnipeg Free Press

On Thursday, May 24, at approximately 11:00 pm, officers from the Oakbank and Beausejour RCMP responded to a collision between a vehicle and a motorcycle that occurred on Provincial Road 213, near Lornehill Road, in the RM of Springfield.

Investigators believe that a motorcycle travelling westbound on PR213, being driven by a 71-year-old male from the RM of East St. Paul, was struck from behind by a vehicle, being driven by a 16-year-old male, also from the RM of East St. Paul. This collision resulted in the motorcyclist being thrown from his motorcycle.

He was subsequently struck by a second westbound vehicle, being driven by a 30-year-old female from Portage la Prairie.

It is believed that the motorcyclist was also struck by another vehicle heading eastbound on PR213. The driver of this vehicle did not stop at the scene and has not been identified. Police are asking anyone with information that may help identify this driver to contact the Oakbank RCMP at 204-444-3847.

The driver of the motorcycle was pronounced deceased at the scene. It is unknown if alcohol was a factor in the collision.

Officers from the Oakbank Detachment along with an RCMP Forensic Collision Reconstructionist continue to investigate.

Robyn Gray was the 71-year-old man killed in that motorcycle crash late last month. I first met him in 1982, when my great-aunty Isabelle lived in the Chateau Guay Apartments across the street from Harley-Davidson of Winnipeg, on Goulet Street in St. Boniface.

I was 15 and already motorcycle crazy with a dirt bike of my own back home in St. Norbert so, against my aunt’s wishes, I strolled across the street to the then-spiffy new dealership and met my very first real bikers.

Sure, my dad and his buddies knew some guys, but these were THE guys.

Robyn owned the place, and he and his band of bearded bohemians obviously made a lasting impression on me.  Throughout my teens, I visited the shop often and by 1985 I was riding a battered black Yamaha Virago on the street — and wearing a black Harley-Davidson T-shirt in the bar.

Robyn would never miss the opportunity to take a few good-natured jabs at me for riding a Japanese bike, whenever I’d stop in at the shop. I think he knew that crummy bike was all I could afford. I may not have owned a Harley ‘yet’, but it sure didn’t stop him from selling me tires and T-shirts.

There was 20 years between us, so back then I never dreamed of being anything more than an acquaintance of Robyn’s. I mean, what would a local biker legend want with a punk kid on a Virago? Time passed and that’s exactly what we remained. Casual acquantances.

All that changed in 2002, however, when I started writing the Willy’s Garage column in the Winnipeg Sun. Robyn was one of the first business owners to call me. He was shrewd and knew free advertising when he saw it. He’d invite me to his swap meets and show-and-shines and I’d write about and shoot photos of the events, and he’d keep inviting me back.

“Oh shit — here comes the paparazzi,” Robyn would bellow when I rolled in. Then he’d start gearing up for a photo shoot. “Don’t take my picture, I hate getting my picture taken,” he’d say, as he was checking his moustache in a nearby motorcycle mirror.

It may have taken nearly two decades for Robyn to finally learn my name, but for the next 18 years he was among my closest and dearest friends and he and his partner, Bonnie, treated me like family.

Robyn and his partner Bonnie Smith at their Winnipeg dealership in 2005.

On the morning my father died in the summer of 2006, I instinctively headed to Robyn’s place. He hugged me for a good long time on his driveway as I sobbed like a baby.

“This pain will ease as time passes,” he said to me, “but you’re going to miss your dad every single day for the rest of your life.”

That was the man Robyn Gray was to me. A soft shoulder to cry on offering hard words to live by.

Over the years I learned many things from Robyn and met many fascinating people through him. He truly knew folks in every corner of the earth and couldn’t walk five steps in Manitoba without bumping into someone he knew. After he’d introduced me to his friend and they’d chatted and parted ways, he would lean in and say, “he is a very successful man,” or “she is a very talented woman,” and explain that person’s accomplishments to me in great detail. Robyn had many good words to say about many good people.

He also shared countless stories with me, often multiple times. He was a fascinating storyteller and when he spoke I would always listen intently — something that is sometimes difficult for me to do. He was never boastful and frequently uproariously entertaining.

Robyn, on the bike, with Willy and legendary designer Arlen Ness.

There was usually a moral to Robyn’s stories, and the lessons learned will serve me for the rest of my life. I learned from him to stand up for myself no matter the cost, apologize when I’m wrong, cry when something is sad and laugh when something is funny.

The funny thing is though, despite how close we were, Robyn rarely spoke of how he became the legend I grew to know and love. The occasional nugget would emerge here and there, like the time last summer when he casually mentioned he crossed the border illegally in the middle of the night in the early 1970s and lived in America for a year. He was having the time of his life, “shacked up with some nurse,” until the Minnesota State Troopers pulled him over one day, realized he was Canadian and not paying taxes, and sent him home with nothing but his motorcycle and the clothes on his back. That was Robyn.

Earlier in the week, while I was still in the thinking stages of writing this, sitting at my desk, staring off into space, hoping for inspiration in a time of sorrow, I received an email that told me of a story written in the Winnipeg Free Press about Robyn, back in 1982. I found it in the archives, and here’s an excerpt. And who knew that my friend’s name was actually Robert?

Robyn at the Winnipeg store, circa 1989.


Robert (Indian) Gray, 35, the guy with the moustache and the disarmingly unpretentious sensibilities, is the sole owner of the franchise (Harley-Davidson of Winnipeg). He’s a source of odd, contradictory social signals. Not quite defiantly longish hair, a bumptious tone qualified by quick laughter, an expression that suggests either mild aggression or furious concentration. He has a chipped front tooth and rabid eyes. If it were 1970, he would pass for a civil libertarian lawyer. Or his client.

He’s also one of the seven founding members and a past president of the Spartans, a local biker club of ambiguous repute and vigorous bonhomie. Gray, who maintains his Spartans’ colours and is a lifetime member, is retired from active service. Still, he’s the first hugely successful local example of an unlikely hybrid: the corporate biker.

And, the word on corporate bikers is money is in, breaking up beer parlors is out.

“I was planning a trip to South America by motorcycle about 1977,” Gray says, “when I met a friend at a motorcycle show here at the Convention Centre. He asked if I’d heard that Harley-Davidson was considering a franchise in Winnipeg. “I figured, what the hell, I’ll check it out. So, I phoned Fred Deeley Imports in Toronto, the exclusive distributor for Harleys in Canada. I asked if they were considering franchising Winnipeg. When they stopped laughing, they said no they were not. So, I went home and wrote them a letter. I told them who I was, what my background in Harleys had been, how I felt about them, what my friends felt about them, what my qualifications were. That kind of stuff.” They phoned back and said ‘You got it if you can put it together.’ All I needed was $100,000 and an acceptable building. I had the financing, but not the building. That was March of ’78. By April, I had my first building at Corydon and Osborne and was in business. And, we were making money from the start.”

Within three years, Gray incorporated, then designed and built his splendid new quarters on Goulet.

He studied management and investment courses sponsored by the Federal Business Development Bank. Last year, he sold 100 cycles. The shop is custom-building another 120. His T-shirt line tops $20,000 annually. His mail order service is Canada wide. He has one of the largest Harley inventories in western Canada and he’ll sell every bike he touches.

Gray grew up middle-class and suburban in East St. Paul, the son of an Air Canada pilot. His passion was mechanics and he was riding a trail bike by 10, driving a car at 11. He went to Miles MacDonnell Collegiate and then opened a motorcycle customizing shop on Portage Avenue in 1972. He took aircraft mechanics at Red River College, and went to work for Perimeter Aviation. He intended to be a helicopter pilot-mechanic and he earned his pilot’s license. But the hog market always intervened.

“The Spartans came from where we came from, the east side of the river. Those were some of the best times of my life. Those runs down to Sturgis, South Dakota, where more than 50,000 bikers used to get together from all over the continent. Whoo. I went down there seven times. I wish I could do it all again and get away with it,” he says, a bit wanly.

Leaning forward over his desk, he says, “I work on my image now. I’m going to be a millionaire someday. I enjoy making money, the edge, the challenge, the people. Of course, my association with the club has helped business. They can relate to me. You can’t put yourself above the customer, the average street biker. It’s necessary to have been there. So, my image is important.”

He brings himself up short, as though a part of him catches a whiff of crass artifice and is appalled. “Still,” he adds, “there are a lot of times I’d like to just go for a ride and get loaded. But, you know, I have too much at stake.”

There it was, locked away for safekeeping in the archives of the newspaper, in the Tempo section, just above an ad for an $1,849 Sony Betamax.

Robyn Gray teaching me one final lesson.

I know this pain will ease with time, and I know I’m going to miss him every day for the rest of my life — and I’d like to just go for a ride and get loaded… but, you know, I have too much at stake.


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