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1895-1946: The Prehistoric Biker
History is what the winners say happened. In this case, the winner was Harley-Davidson. The Milwaukee Marvel alone survived the Hundred Years' War, a century of innovation and most often extinction. Scattered across the scrapyard battlefields of the first few decades of the twentieth century, you could count the rusting steel bones of around three hundred different American motorcycle manufacturers. Well, let's call them motorcycle builders, since some built only a handful, literally. So where have they all gone? We gave these machines names — colorful, even memorable names like Apache, Argyle, Black Diamond, Buckeye, Comet, Crouch, Duck (put the latter two together and it described what pedestrians found themselves doing when the spindly things came blatting around the corner on a muddy dirt road) — and so personified them, glamorized them. Then there were the Dusenberg, Elk, Hemingway, Herring, Kokomo, Mack, Marvel, Flying Merkel, Nelk (an Elk relative?), Pansy (don't go there), Pirate, P-T (don't pity its passing), Ruggles, Schickel (not the gruber model), Thiem (remember them?), Thor, Torpedo (yep, it sank from sight), and you certainly can't forget (or pronounce) the Twombly. Built from the late 1890s to roughly 1915, these bikes were all brilliant glints in the eyes of their creators and if found today are regarded still as brilliant, and valuable, jewels. And they do occupy a special niche in a Bro's left ventricle, because they're part of the family, the lineage, the bloodline that holds it all together. Only a silver spoke driven through the carburetor of an old bike can kill it, but its memory can never be done away with.
It was the best of times and the worst of times, technologically speaking, these early spawning years when bicycles met the internal combustion machine and evolved seemingly overnight into motorcycles. The early motorcycle gene pool was afroth with great experimentation and mutation, during a time when blacksmiths and shade tree mechanics and teenage tinkerers conjured up chimeras of two-wheeled locomotion, as often as not H. G. Wells chitty chitty bang bangs that ran on a wild assortment of fuels: kerosene, steam, gasoline, moonshine, you name it. No multimillion-dollar R & D facilities required, no patents, no DMV rule books, no smog certificates, and no limits. It was a wild, open time, when inventors and dreamers harkened to the Gold Rush Fever of motorcycling.
A Brief but Somewhat Tweaked History of Davidson-Harley Time
Most people call them Harleys. But if you read the chrome strip on the tank it says, "Harley-Davidson." What if you had a twin brother named George and your name was Spivey, and people always called both of you George? Well, maybe that would be a good thing. But there's no mistaking a Harley-Davidson for anything else, unless you're one of those uninformed types that say, Hey, all those V-twins look alike to me. So maybe it's time to get the names straight relative to the guys that started the whole ball of wax rolling about a hundred years ago.
Their first prototype bike appeared in 1903, then further developed and eventually sold in 1904 as the "Silent Gray Fellow," a 475-cc, single-cylinder model that would set precedents echoing down to this day. But it was a couple years earlier, in 1901, when William "Bill" Harley and Arthur "Art" Davidson, aged only twenty and twenty-two respectively, started banging away, mixing together little motors and bicycles. While they kept their day jobs, they spent weekends and nights in the little old laboratory, or should we say shed. One of their early accomplishments was a rude form of a carburetor fashioned from a tomato can, something that almost turned Mrs. Davidson's kitchen into Chernobyl. Bill's dad built the ten-by-fifteen-foot shed in the backyard. So with the Davidsons building the "factory" and supplying the real estate, not to mention the tomato can, how come they didn't put their name first?
In any case, Bill Harley was handy with the pencil, a draftsman and the actual designer of the earliest bikes, so maybe he deserves first billing. His 1907 design for the springer front end was part of the package for many years, all the way to the first-year Panheads.
A few bikes got sold, and with sales came expansion, so the new H-D company nailed some more buildings together. Not exactly monolithic structures, one was literally picked up and moved by eight Bros when it was learned that the structure infringed on some railroad right-of-way.
Five years into their efforts, Bill Harley and the Davidsons were pumping out around 450 bikes. Yet another brother, Walt Davidson, was coaxed into joining up. In 1909 he garnered some good press when he squeezed 188 miles to the gallon from a single-cylinder Harley-Davidson during a Long Island Reliability Run.
Reliability became associated with the new company's machines, and H-D began sharing the limelight with Indian, which had been founded in 1901. As a result police motor patrolmen became customers and fostered more sales. By 1912 the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, employed almost five hundred workers, production having been spurred in 1909 by the introduction of their trademark forty-five-degree V-twin-powered bikes producing 7 horsepower and capable of 60 mph. Further glory, press, and sales were garnered when a factory rider clocked the then blazing 68 mph at a Bakersfield, California, road race.
Wins at the racetracks, then and today, translate to winning sales from the public. As a result H-D created its own R & D skunk works, designing and building purpose-built racers and prototypes to go against the likes of Indian, Excelsior, Cyclone, and the Flying Merkel. Spearheading the attack was the Model 17, usually referred to as the Eight Valve because it featured four valves per cylinder. That number of valves, a common enough configuration today, provided for better engine breathing (yes, they are alive!), enabling the fearsome Model 17 to grunt out close to fifty fire-breathing horses in 1916, the same year Henry Ford built 500,000 cars and dropped his price to $250. Keep in mind that a 1913 Pope (Hartford, Connecticut) V-twin had a price tag of $250.
Some twenty years later H-D would build one of its most beloved motorcycles, the 1936 Knucklehead. (We'll get to the nicknames in a minute.) The factory built a monster Knuck to race at Daytona Beach, Florida, a name now synonymous with March's Bike Week (and maybe with Biketoberfest in October). They fitted the works racer with full aluminum streamlining, stuffed in Lightning cams and gear wheels, bolted dual over-and-under carbs, and let 'er rip, to the tune of 65 hp, and it cleaned house. The racing glory mantle would later be passed on to the legendary KR 750 flathead (1952-1968), which battled the Brit and European bikes on the road race circuits.
Occasionally an oddity migrated out into the dealer's showroom; for example, the 1919 Sport Model W, with its BMW horizontally opposed engine layout at complete odds with the traditional H-D vertical and V-twin designs. The Model W had one cylinder facing the front wheel, the other pointing rearward. The sewing-machine-smooth-running 584-cc (37-cubic-inch) power plant combined with a weight of 257 pounds allowed this scooter to set some impressive long-distance records. In June 1919, a Model E blitzed from the Canadian border to the Mexican border in a tick shy of sixty-five hours, and that was on roads more aptly called dirt ruts in the summer, mud bogs in the winter.
But the competition in the form of the better-selling Indian Scout spelled the demise of the Harley Sport Model. Weird didn't sell, and the Suits at the Factory clamped the lid on nontraditional designs, although another boxer motor did appear during World War II, when the War Department wanted a motorcycle for courier work that resembled the vaunted BMW of the German Wehrmacht. But it barely saw the light of day even then. From that war, however, the new generation of bikers would emerge. Hardened by the global conflict, disenchanted, perhaps disenfranchised from mainstream America, they would be the pathfinders for the Bros to follow.
The Name Game
Let's get the Founding Fathers' names right for starters. They were William A. Davidson, Walter Davidson, Sr., Arthur Davidson, and William S. Harley. Like we said, heavy on the Davidsons, light on the Harleys, but who knew?
Can we all say Schebler? After 1909 that tomato-can-inspired carburetor was replaced with a more refined design, the Schebler. Of course, now we have carbs with more easily pronounceable names, like Weber, S & S, and Mikuni.
And Now for Motor Mnemonics
We like to give ships and planes names. Remember the Lusitania and the Enola Gay for example. So it's no wonder Bros conjured up monikers for the various engine configurations generated by the Factory. The intrinsic uniqueness of each evolutionary step lent itself to such personification. In the beginning there was the Flathead. Simple enough, the top of the cylinders were flat, like the world, right? The 45-inch motors were used in both the solo and the three-wheeled Harleys during the 1940s. (There was also a K model 45-inch Flathead that eventually begat the famous Sportster model.) The early 80-cubic-inches also were "flatheads."
The next evolution appeared in 1936 in the form of 61- and 74-cubic-inch power plants. Because the new overhead valve motor had the look of a clenched fist, with the rocker covers forming the knuckles, it took on the appellation of Knucklehead. Retaining the OHV form, the next generation of motor designs was the Panhead, so called because of their distinctive skillet-shaped valve mechanism covers. The Pan came in 61-cubic-inch displacement during the early 1950s as well as in 74-cubic-inch flavor from the time it was introduced in 1948 until it was discontinued at the end of the 1965 model year. That's when the new Shovelhead design took over, the name derived from the shovellike shape of its cylinder covers.
Next on the scene was the really revolutionary Evolution motor, at first igniting a controversy because it seemed such a quantum change from the traditional look. But it too earned a nickname, Evo, when it made its first appearance in 1983. Continued R & D produced in the mid-1990s the new Twin Cam 88 A and B motors, which retained their Twin Cam nomenclature, while the biggest news as of the summer of 2001 was the introduction of the all new, totally blow-us-all-out-of-the-water V-Rod, a radical departure in all areas for H-D. Sporting a sixty-degree splay of cylinders and double overhead camshaft design, the newest from Harley boasts a 115 hp, is billed as a "performance cruiser," and features a wraparound frame and a water-cooled motor that makes you want to say "quantum leap" over and over again. Yes, H-D has gone metric. Reaction has been intense on both ends of the spectrum.
The 1936 61E is considered by most of the Old School to be the ultimate Harley-Davidson, the pivotal benchmark in a hundred-year saga of change and improvement. Better known as the Knucklehead, it earned its highest achievement award thanks to innovations like being the first of the big V-twins to incorporate overhead valves and a recirculating lubrication system. Plus it looked marvelous, a combination of style and performance (100 mph) that left the competition, like Indian, in the Daytona dust.
Many of the Early Rides forever carved their images into the Bro's memory banks, including the following classics, bravura bikes ridden by brave men, by Bros. Here's a taste of some of them, the few, the proud, the loud.
The Original X-Men: 1913 Excelsior Single Board-Track Racer
While many of the early bikes bore the names of their builders, such as Harley-Davidson, Curtis, Merkel, and Henderson, others have a less egocentric origin. The Excelsior got its name from the Latin excellus, roughly translating to "higher and superior." It also came to mean the curled wood shavings used in packing fragile items. The 1913 racer fits both meanings, exceptional quality in a delicate assemblage. During its heyday it battled its major competitors, Harley-Davidson and Indian, for board-track glory, as often as not garnering splinters for the rider, because the racecourses were fashioned from wooden planks.
Born in 1907 in Chicago, the American Excelsior (the Germans and English had their own Excelsiors) was a subsidiary of no less a legend than the Schwinn bicycles dynasty (and eventually the equally legendary Henderson four-cylinder machines). Ultimately, Ignatz Schwinn would shoehorn 30-cubic-inch singles and 45- and 61-cubic-inch V-twins into his beefed-up bicycle frames. The first models, 499-cc, two-stroke powered, when sent to Europe were labeled American-X, then Super-X, so as not to confuse them with the Continental manufacturers using the same name.
Weighing only 265 pounds? the bikes blasted around the twenty-five to thirty-eight-degree-bank third- and quarter-mile tracks, reaching almost a hundred miles an hour, all without benefit of brakes or a transmission. The resulting injuries and fatalities eventually ended board-track racing, but you could rightly call the Excelsior racers the first X-Men, superheroes of a bygone era.
In the Eye of the Storm: 1914 Cyclone Racer
The following words were in the October 5, 1914, edition of the Omaha World Herald: "The mile ridden by J. A. McNeal in 32.5 seconds shatters the previous world's record, made a year ago at Los Angeles by Lee Humiston, who covered the distance on an Excelsior at the remarkable time of 36 seconds flat. McNeal was riding a Cyclone yesterday."
The overhead cam Cyclone was conjured up by Joerns Manufacturing, the same Minnesota firm that had built the long-forgotten Thiem motorcycles. While the Cyclone's glory lasted only four years, it burned bright, a darling of the public's eye not only because of its screaming yellow paint job but because for its time it was high-tech. Introduced in 1913, the 1000-cc V-twin engine featured a roller-bearing crankshaft and connecting rods, a bevel-driven single overhead cam and valve arrangement, plus forged steel flywheels, good for producing 7 solid horses. Because it incorporated "ported" cylinders, basically direct exhaust vents, riders following in the wake of a Cyclone literally were buffeted by intense amounts of noise and a pall of oil smoke since the engine consumed a quart every five miles. At night an extra added attraction were the blue flames licking around the engine and the rider's legs.
An odd feature, and vexing to riders, was the lack of a throttle. You were always on "fast"; the fuel-air mixture was beyond control thanks to the "open port" design that required a rich fuel load, whose correct proportion was reached only at the top of the powerband. The pilot had to manipulate a push-button kill switch to interrupt ignition to control the bike. As a result, the 250-pound bike lurched and leapt back and forth as its supply of spark interrupted, supplied, and interrupted over and over again. And all this with a spindly machine that hit 111 miles an hour.
The bike seen here was restored by the L.A. area master restorer Mike Parti and belongs to the vintage bike fan Jeff Gilbert, who when asked why he wanted a Cyclone responded, "I made a list of the most important racing bikes. Topping the list for American racers was the Cyclone because it had the most drama, the most stories behind it, an overhead cam engine, and the fact that it's a very early built machine. Also, quite a legend had grown up around these screaming yellow bikes."
The bike sits in Jeff's dining room, where else if you're a Bro looking for just the right furniture?
Reliving the Glory: 1936 Harley UX3 and the Great Race
The Bro's world is, above all else, a rich tapestry of history, and there was something about the 1930s that mixed magic and madness and motorcycles to new extremes. In February 1930, New York City decided to install the first red traffic lights; previously they'd used amber. Drivers were complaining that pedestrians were stepping in front of their vehicles. It also seems the guy who invented traffic lights, Garrett Morgan, invented the gas mask. A guy named Hitler was making waves in Germany, Gandhi was making passive resistance in India, the Empire State Building reached for the clouds (and King Kong climbed it), the Zippo lighter was created, and the guy who invented Vaseline, and ate a spoonful every day, died at age ninety-six. Vaseline was used on many a bike in those days for rustproofing and lubrication, maybe some was even globbed on the Factory's prototype racer the UX3.
Old bikes sometimes get a chance to relive their youth, often in the hands of men who, though born decades later, find some inner calling to return to yesteryear and the glory of yester-bikes. Such is the story of the UX3. No, not a submarine, but a very rare Harley racer, part of the Wheels Through Time museum collection in Maggie Valley, NC, and under the direction of Dale Walksler, one of the leading "conservators" of classic motorcycles, who enthusiastically believes in putting old bikes through new paces.
You can call Dale one of the leading ambassadors of vintage bikes in particular, and of the Bro's world in general. A highly successful Harley-Davidson dealer for many years, he now concentrates his talents on his museum, which is open free to the public.
In the spirit of an Indiana Jones-type character, Dale and Wayne Stanfield of Tustin, California, decided to go motorcycle racing with a decidedly historical flavor. They entered Dale's fully restored, extremely rare and valuable 1936 prototype factory racer into the famous Great American Races, the competition limited to vehicles built before 1942. The brainchild of Tom McRae and Norman Miller, chairman of Interstate Batteries Systems of America, the timed event in 1995 had grown into the Great North American Race because its route meandered through Canada, the United States, and Mexico.
For that year Wayne and UX3 were the only motorcycle entry, competing against 111 specially prepared vintage cars. The sixty-year-old bike and forty-seven-year-old rider faced the challenge of 4,400 miles with stops in more than fifty cities along the way. The prize...$250,000.
Wayne had won the event in 1994 and thus earned the right to carry the #1 plate on the UX3, which was equipped with a variety of rally-related equipment, including an 8-inch analog quartz clock necessary for precise calculation...and a pair of custom-made titanium trifocal glasses that fit under Wayne's goggles. "I must be able to see the instruments, charts, and road very clearly. I also plan to get a close look at the finish line," said Wayne.
He did see the finish line, and was at the head of the pack for a while, but eventually he lost ground to the four-wheelers. However, he did succeed in placing second in their class on the list of finishers, bringing a victory for the UX3 that was savored by both Wayne and Dale.
Harleys as Hero Bikes
Harley-Davidson enlisted for World War II along with hundreds of thousands of Americans, some of them riding the bikes into battle. While Harleys had been popular for several decades at home, the crucible of war forged new bonds between man and machine, that kind you brought home with you along with the searing memories and maybe a Purple Heart.
Supporting America's fight for freedom and democracy, the factory ad campaigns of World War II, made in cooperation with the War Department, captured grandiloquently the fervor of the times, as in the following 1942 print advertisement:
Off the assembly line they roll — by the hundreds and thousands — sleek, streamlined Harley-Davidson motorcycles for Uncle Sam's forces and the armies of our allies. Day and night, whirring wheels, clicking automatics, pounding presses roar ceaselessly as raw materials are fashioned into still more Harley-Davidsons.
Today's Harley-Davidson motorcycles are duplicating the splendid record made by their predecessors back in World War I. The hard-riding scouts who lead the advance of the armored divisions to reconnoiter, spot mines, traps and ambushes, report on road conditions, and enemy movements know that the staunch and sturdy construction of their mounts will not let them down. They know that in Harley-Davidsons, reliability and dependability are in-built qualities that make them equal to any task that may be assigned to them. All the exacting care and skill of determined loyal workers — all the resources and experience of the Harley-Davidson organization are enlisted to give freedom's fighters the best in motorcycles. That we pledge until complete victory has been won.
— Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Milwaukee, Wis., U.S.A.
In the dark, shrapnel-filled days of March 1940, World War II was already six months old. German panzers had blitzkrieged their way through Poland and beyond, oftimes their tanks attended by small herds of snarling BMW and Zundapp motorcycles, as tough as the Wehrmacht armored divisions themselves. The Nazi motorcycles could negotiate the harsh terrain and serve as speedy courier vehicles. And with their sidecar-mounted M-42 machine guns they were literally hell on wheels. While the United States was holding on to its neutrality, the Army saw the storm clouds gathering as far back as 1937, when they visited the Harley Factory to check out its readiness status and soon went looking for the right motorcycle themselves. Anticipating America going to war on Harleys, the dean of the Factory's service school, John Norvak, traveled to every Army camp east of the Mississippi to monitor the school mechanics, logging 200,000 miles on his sidehack EL.
By 1939 the Army had tested various Harleys and Indians as well as a BMW clone made by the Delco Corporation. The Harley model was based on the popular 750 Flathead of the time, but the Army ordered up some tough requirements; the bike had to be able to reach 65 mph, had to ford streams 16 inches deep, and could not overheat when slogging around muddy fields at slow, stump-pulling speeds.
Competition for the government contract was almost as fierce as the fighting overseas, but Harley edged out the others, and it was in March 1940 that Milwaukee received its first order for 745 WLAs, the 45-cubic-inch flathead taking on the new tubular front, which provided an increased travel length of about 2.5 inches, needed to clamber over shell holes and such. Outfitted in the U.S. Army's traditional drab olive green, the bikes wouldn't win any custom paint awards today, but the camouflage helped keep them and their riders out of harm's way. The WLA eventually pumped out 23.5 hp and benefited from several upgrades, including an oil-bath air filter mounted high out of water's way, and improved engine lubrication, clutch, and tranny. Milwaukee met the Army's ruggedness and dependability requirements thanks to their new aluminum heads and their list of modifications, including D-shaped floorboards, blackout lights, crash bars, crankcase-mounted skidplates, and cargo racks. For carrying all those secret communiqués, they were slung with the now famous leather saddlebags and often a scabbard for toting a Thompson .45-cal submachine gun.
The WLA was a success, and orders blossomed, every U.S. armored division listing 540 WLAs in its motor pool. Meanwhile 2,000 were ordered by South Africa, 5,000 by Great Britain, 20,000 by Canada (called WLCs), and later large numbers were shipped to both the Russian and Chinese armies. Such was the importance of these wartime battle bikes that in 1942 H-D's Civilian Training Facility became the Quartermaster School for teaching military mechanics. Beginning in 1941, 88,000 WLAs (plus spare parts for 30,000 more!) were built by the time the last bullets were being fired. When new each cost about $380, but for a few years after the war you could buy surplus WLAs still crated and wrapped in Cosmoline for about a dollar a cubic inch. Not anymore.
Meanwhile, back in the States, the film star and heartthrob Clark Gable was cruising around Tinsel Town on his 1942 EL. Clark, nattily dressed in sportcoat, tie, and two-tone loafers, was often spotted at L.A. bike events.
Another American-built bike, one that seriously challenged every other bike at the time with its performance and quality, was the Crocker. Many a Bro salivated over this machine, though few were able to throw a leg over one. Unfortunately, only a handful were built, and because of wartime restrictions on materials, it went out of production in 1942. But for a few short years it made its mark, and today the Crocker is one of the most venerated footnotes in American motorcycling history.
The First V-Twin Crocker
Some fifty years ago a Crocker, supposedly the victim of a kamikaze attack, was sent to Davy Jones's locker while aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier sunk during the ferocious Battle of the Coral Sea. Now that same Crocker may have surfaced. A Crocker was reportedly spotted years later in New Guinea, its serial numbers said to be those of the missing bike. Only the continuing squabbling between the indigenous people and their government has prevented an expedition to retrieve it. Such is the attraction of the legendary Crocker, perhaps the ultimate American classic.
The Crocker, built in a shop on Pico Boulevard, in Los Angeles from 1936 to 1942, was, and is, considered by many the Dusenberg of American Motorcycles. Featuring an advanced engine design, agile handling, and enduring styling, the Crocker V-twin provided unsurpassed performance; each limited production machine was handmade to customer specifications.
The late Chuck Vernon, who owned what is thought to be the 1-X, or the very first Crocker ever built, was a recognized expert on the subject. "For more than twenty years, we've compared records of the serial numbers we received from the fellow who originally stamped those numbers, Gene Rhyne," recounts Chuck. "Our current tally tells us that only sixty-four V-twin Crockers were built, and we believe thirty complete bikes are still around today. Of those, perhaps only twenty are running."
What set the Crocker apart from all others? Chuck says, "There's nothing new about a rigid frame or sprung front girder forks. But Crocker did incorporate more aluminum for lightness, including the front and rear backing plates. The gas tanks were cast aluminum, and of course they wouldn't bend. If Al Crocker had a secret, it was his wonderful combination of cam action and breathing. With the same bore and stroke of the Harley 671, the Crocker produced at least 30 percent more horsepower."
The small shop took on the likes of Harley-Davidson and Indian. Contributing to the Crocker's high desirability today is its ridability. Says Chuck, "You wouldn't want to ride a Pierce-4 or a Cyclone any distance, but with a Crocker you could. Properly set up, they could run all day at 80 to 90 mph, with a top speeding exceeding 110. They also had better breaker since they employed Indian Chief brake shoes."
With Crocker, customers had a choice of engine sizes, from 61 to 90 cubic inches. While most were 61 inches, the strokers were usually 80 inches. The largest motor Al built was 86 inches, featuring his hemi-head design, and it went into the 1-X prototype. Al tested the motor in an Indian Chief frame, then refitted it into a Crocker frame, stamped with "1-X."
The first Crocker, built in 1936, evolved from successful 500-cc, single-cylinder speedway machines. Al had worked at the Thor Motorcycle Co. and was an Indian dealer on Venice Boulevard in L.A. from 1928 to 1934. While he was a visionary engineer, his foreman, Paul A. Bigsby, possessed the practical talent. At age fifty-three, Al had a dream, to build the fastest street machine in America, in the world. In his 1200-square-foot shop he built his own foundry and machine shop and began constructing his dream. Its most dramatic feature was its hemispherical combustion chambers with domed pistons.
In a 1948 interview Al explained why he'd ended production on such an incredible machine: "The war. We had the last eighty-five machines three-quarters completed but could not get the government authorization for the critical materials to finish them. We broke them up, got seventy-five dollars for the junk and an adjustment from the government to make up for the losses."
The real loss was to motorcycling history. Crocker enthusiasts still search for bits and pieces and lost New Guinea Crockers in their dedicated efforts to keep the Crocker up and running.
World War II ended in 1945, and the GIs came home. Some managed to bring their trusty Harleys, or parts of them, back. When the WLC War Department bikes were converted for civilian use, a popular modification was a switch to what became a "standard chopper" feature, the 16-inch rear wheel.
But the venerable flathead was about to be replaced, not only on the battlefield but on the highways of America. Farewell to the flathead, hail to the new Panhead and a new America. Not to mention a new kind of American fresh from winning a war overseas, where the simple values of apple pie and Mom were not high on the menu. Things had changed, both externally and internally.
Copyright © 2003 by Paisano Publications, Inc.
Posted December 4, 2010
No text was provided for this review.