Tom Cates was an important motorcycle industry leader who worked with Honda to help establish that company in the United States in its formative years. He was also part of the U.S. management team for BSA and later K&N Engineering. He also served as an elected member of the Motorcycle Industry Council board for many years.
Cates was born in Providence, Kentucky, in 1928. His parents divorced when he was young and he grew up living with his father in Evansville, Indiana. His older brother began racing cars, and when a buddy gave Tom a ride on the back of his motorcycle, he was hooked and decided at age 18 to get into motorcycling. He was a huge fan of the British brand BSA from his earliest days.
Cates began racing locally in the 1940s and became known as a top-notch short track racer. By the mid 1950s, Cates had earned his expert pro license and began racing AMA Grand Nationals. In 1958, Cates, riding BSA motorcycles, scored his first notable national finishes when he scored in the top 10 at both the Du Quoin (Illinois) Mile and the St. Paul (Minnesota) Half-Mile.
Cates’ best season as a pro came in 1960 when he tallied three top-10 AMA Grand National results, including a career best fourth at the Schererville (Indiana) Half-Mile. In between the Nationals, Tom competed in numerous non-National events and he was for many years a regular competitor in the weekly Short Track races at Santa Fe Speedway in Chicago. His success at that track earned him the designation as the #1 Short Track racer in the United States in 1960.
When Honda motorcycles came to the United States in the early 1960s, the company needed sales representatives to help set up its dealer network. Tom was recruited to help set up dealerships for Honda in Indiana, Illinois and Wisconsin. He worked for Honda from 1961 to 1965 and quit racing during this period. In 1965, BSA’s American distributor hired Cates to be part of its management team at the Oakland, California headquarters.
Shortly after, Birmingham Smalls Arms in England decided to take over the sales and distribution of its BSA and Triumph brands in the United States and when a new facility was built in Duarte, California, the Cates family was again on the move as Tom took over the position of National Sales Manager for BSA.
In 1969, Tom was given the assignment to work with Don Brown (who was then the head of BSA’s eastern states operations) to try to set speed records at Daytona with the all-new 750cc Rocket III. With riders such as Dick Mann and Yvon Duhamel in the saddle and the trackside support of Brown, Cates and others, the team established a number of long-distance records with average speeds around Daytona’s 2.5-mile oval in excess of 131 miles per hour.
"Cates did everything from changing tires to filling up gas tanks during the endurance runs," Brown said. "He also participated in a crucial debate between our service guys with Mann and Duhamel to decide what gearing would be best. He and Dick Mann made the final decision and it was dead on!"
By 1970, the Japanese motorcycle manufacturers finally had filled out their model lines to include multi-cylinder models to compete with the British bikes and sales of BSA, Triumph and Norton motorcycles began to decline worldwide.
First to fall was the BSA brand and Cates and many others in the BSA organization were transferred to the Triumph side of the business. Things continued to go downhill, however, and eventually the Triumph and Norton brands were brought together in a company known as Norton-Villiers-Triumph (NVT). But even that consolidation was not enough, and in 1977 operations came to a halt. Cates, along with long-time friend and associate Bob Tryon, were let go as were the rest of the employees of the company. Tryon recalled recently that he and Tom lost their jobs the same day, about 20 minutes apart.
Cates and Tryon moved to MCM Manufacturing, a Los Angeles-area maker of motorcycle exhausts and other chrome accessories that was owned by one of their former associates at NVT. This lasted about a year for both of them. Tryon found a spot at American Honda that lasted until his retirement and Cates eventually took the position at K&N that he would fill the rest of his life.
Long past traditional retirement age, Tom maintained an old-fashioned work ethic and was so committed to K&N and his work there he never seriously considered stepping down. Financially he didn’t need to work, it was just his life.
But working to the age of 75 didn’t mean that Tom didn’t have time for things other than selling K&N products. He took the time to serve on the Board of Directors of both the Motorcycle Industry Council and the Trailblazers motorcycle club. Through K&N, he supported the sport with numerous sponsorships. He was particularly committed to the part of the sport that he started in, flat track racing.
In his spare time he was an avid private airplane pilot, but most importantly he treasured the companionship of his loving wife, Georgia, and his family.
Cates died on June 18, 2004.