Thursday, December 1, 2016

The beginning of the next big chapter of my motorcycling life. The Harley Davidson years. It isn't that I owned so many different Harleys, I ended up owning these motorcycles for longer periods of time. one for over twenty years!

Looking back, I wish my bike had looked like this.
Harley Davidson motorcycles had always been a Holy Grail for me. I had lusted after one since the time that motor cop pulled me over when I was riding my Honda 50. First of all, the name was magic. Harley Davidson, a delicious name to have roll off your tongue. You can enjoy each syllable. The only other name that I relish as much now, is "Aston Martin". I had gone through high school reading several different chopper magazines; Big Bike, Choppers Magazine, and Street Chopper. The first two were aimed towards the "Biker" rider and lifestyle, while Street Chopper was aimed towards the more mainstream enthusiast. I knew all about Knuckleheads, Panheads, and Shovelheads. Even the rarely seen Flathead models, the big UL or the meter maid trike style W series. I really, really, wanted a Big Twin. I wanted to build a chopper out of it. Back when I was a freshman I had convinced my Father to take me to an auction put on by the City of Oakland. I knew that there would be some retired OPD bikes available. They weren't just retired, they were just plain "tired". I remember that one of the three was even missing the top end, just a couple of connecting rods sticking up out of the crankcases. My Dad looked at those things and said that they couldn't go for more then a couple of hundred bucks. Boy was he wrong. The bidding pushed all the complete bikes to well over one thousand dollars apiece. No way could I get my Dad to front me that kind of money! Still hope springs eternal. 

While I was a high school Senior, riding my Mach III, which by all measures was a much better bike that an old thrashed Harley, I learned that one of my classmates had a line on an old Knucklehead. It seems that one of his uncles had been an honest to God, almost outlaw type, Biker back in the day. I guess when he finally got out of jail, his bride to be, told him that he would have to quit riding bikes, or find another girl. Like many before him have done, he chose the girl. He couldn't just sell the bike though, it was a part of him. So he somehow got it down the stairs to his mother's  basement. (Why is it that bikers are always living at home with their Mom? Back when I was calling around answering classified ads, my Mom told me that the phone would be answered by a woman, who would tell me, "Oh my son's not home now, I'll give him the message!" She was right ! That happened lots of times!)

Anyhow this bike had laid dormant for quite a few years. I asked my friend if the bike was for sale, how much would his uncle want, did it run, etc. and he told me that he would ask his uncle about it. Of course this third party questioning was going to take a long time. Finally he told me that his uncle was considering selling it. That's the only part that I needed to hear, The price of 650.00 was almost attainable. I just had to sell my Kawasaki and borrow a few hundred from my Mom. (Good old Mom, that's why those Bikers lived at home!). I got my friend to convey the message back to his uncle and find out when I could go see it. It took quite a while to hear back from him. His uncle had a change of heart and wouldn't be selling it. His uncle had told him, "That bike is my heart, and you can't sell your heart." So much for that Knucklehead. Well it was probably for the best. I really didn't have the money to buy the bike and fix it up. The reality would have been that I would have had a non running Harley in my parents garage and I would be passing my weekends looking at it and dreaming of a more financially secure future. Besides, I was used to riding a high powered motorcycle, and old Hog would probably be disappointing in performance. Maybe a Sportster, (another collection of tasty syllables!) would better suit my needs. Besides people were "Chopping" those all the time! 

My first H-D was a 1970 Harley Davidson Sportster XLCH. 900cc. At the time their were two models of Sportster offered, one was the light weight performance model, the XLCH. XL Competition Hot! Boy was that name magic in the late 1950s and early 60s! This was the original Superbike. While a Vincent Black Shadow was definitely faster, there wasn't much of a chance of running into one of those British Unicorns by the late 1960s. The Sportster had it all; great looks, thunderous performance, and that Magic name. Sportsters were not only faster than the Big FLH models, they were also faster than pretty much any other standard motorcycle. They were advertised as "the World's Fastest Motorcycle". These were equipped with the small tank, smaller headlight, shorter fenders, and smaller seat. The motor was in a hotter tune, with 
wilder cams, lower gearing and a magneto ignition. The Tillotson carb was huge,( maybe too big as it was prone to flooding the motor) and it could provide all the fuel it needed to let the engine wind to 7,000 rpm! It's no wonder that these motors didn't hold up that long to enthusiastic riding! My own Sporty revealed some flattened rod bearing rollers, and a scarred and worn pinion shaft, upon teardown. These were also always kick start models. Kick starting a Sportster to life was viewed as a rite of Manhood. Sometimes under the right conditions you could get to fire on the fist kick, or at least the first three of four. These motors were temperamental, early models even had a manual spark timing retard control to eliminate the dreaded "kickback." It was very easy to flood the motor with overzealous use of the choke, or the throttle. This could lead to an exhausting round of kick start attempts. It could easy lead to ten to fifteen minutes of open throttle kicking in an attempt to clear it out. Sometimes you just had to pull the plugs and burn them dry with a lit match, or you were never going to get that thing started.

It's hard to believe that the riding public tolerated these problems. Heck, we even used to boast about them. Are you a Man, or Not?  The big British twins and singles weren't any better, but that was the price we paid for being Motorcyclists. Boy, would that change with the coming of the Japanese Superbikes.  Many of the little tiddlers from Japan were sporting an electric starter by the mid 1960s. Fer Christsakes! Who couldn't kick over 160cc? 

You can easily see the difference between the two models. By '68 the XLH had the electric starter.

The other Sportster model was the touring XLH. XL Highway. It had the shrouded headlight, fuller fenders, big "turtle tank" higher gearing and battery and coil ignition. At first the XLH was also a kick starter, but by 1968 the electric start was standard. The Big Twins had gone to electric start in 1965. As time went on, the differences between the models disappeared. When the XLCH lost the magneto there wasn't much of a difference in the tuning. After 1972 the motors were enlarged to 1,000 cc. (61 cid) the styling was almost identical, the XLH being the one with the electric starter. After 1979 there were no more kick start Sportsters available. It was (thankfully) the end of an Era.

It was also pretty much the end of the era of the Sportster's performance dominance. The Sportster would never again be competitive from a purely performance standard. Cycle magazine had conducted a comprehensive Superbike comparison test in 1970. Check out the entire article here:

The 900cc Sportster XLCH was pitted against the new Triumph 750 Trident, the BSA Rocket 750, the Norton Commando S 750, the Kawasaki Mach III 500cc, the Suzuki Titan twin 500 cc. (these last two were two strokes) and the soon to be Legendary, Honda CB750. The poor Sportster was out classed by almost all the other bikes but still competitive enough to turn in a fair showing. Though it's days as a performance icon were fading fast, still the Harley was a desirable machine. The look, the sound and the feel still carried a lot of weight and the bike was still desirable and prestigious to a large part of the motorcycling community.  This comparison test still had  a lot of diversity in this group. The next test in 1973 would be different. This time there was no way to avoid the truth. The King was dead. You can read the whole article here:

These photos were taken right after I bought it.

My XLCH was already around five years old and it had been thoroughly chopped by  a previous owner. It had a raked and molded frame with a custom girder front fork. 21'' spool hub front wheel, that means that it didn't have a front brake. Great looking, very poor stopping! A "Frisco" high mounted Sportster tank. A cobra seat and staggered dual pipes. A velocity stack instead of an air cleaner. I guess I thought that this was a good buy since it was already customized, though a more standard model would have been a better idea. This example was pretty used up, but of course I had to have it. I'll never forget the first time I tried to make a emergency stop because I misjudged a signal light. I stomped on the rear brake, locked it up and slid into the middle of the intersection before coming to a stop. I couldn't believe it, but I should have known. I used to ride a Honda 750 with a front disc brake, this bike had no front brake at all! How could I expect it to stop at all?

The motor was pretty much thrashed which I discovered when I tore it down. I discovered the damage to the lower end and the pinion shaft. The crankcase boss that supported the kicker cover was cracked also. All in all just a used up, abused, old Sportster. Luckily I had a good job working at General Motors at the time, so money was not quite a problem. So why didn't I just buy a brand new bike? I really don't know. I guess I was just used to buying used stuff and I couldn't imagine chopping up a new stock bike. But I ended up doing it anyway with my next Harley. So I did a complete rebuild, well maybe 98%.  

Yeah, We were both looking pretty good.

I repainted the bike black. I was still running the girder up front. I decided to christen the bike with my usual pilgrimage, a trip up the coast to Mendocino. I had made the trip starting in my Senior year riding my Kawasaki. Later I made it on my Honda 750, so it was logical for me to make it on my newly rebuilt Sporty. There weren't any problems to report. The bike made the one day round trip with no issues. The bike did generate a lot of positive interest from the people I encountered. Nonetheless this trip confirmed that there was no way I could continue to ride a bike without a working front brake. So my plan was to switch to an extended telescopic glide front end with a disc brake from a '73 Sportster. I had a 21'' inch rim laced to the front hub and the infamous "banana caliper" was modified for clearance. I also added a fork brace and fiberglass Cafe racer style front fender.

This front end swap was part of the preparation that I was doing to get the bike in shape for my first really long road trip. My old buddy Rick and I were planning on riding up into British Columbia, maybe all the way to Alaska. This trip was to be my second epic trip after the California 1000. It did not disappoint. It was quite the adventure.

Photos taken the day before Rick and I left on our trip.

To be continued in a future post as an Epic Ride.

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