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A Hard Harley Tale About a Hardtail Harley by Ghostsniper

I bought a Harley, of sorts, back in 1974 and I was 19 at the time.

Hanging around a marina waiting for them to finish up welding a lower unit for an Evinrude inboard/outboard engine my dad and I were rebuilding I spotted a cardboard box in a fenced in area in the back lot. Inspection showed it to contain Harley parts and a frame close by. I asked the owner about it and he said $500 and I could take it home. I went to the house and told my dad and he got all wobbly and handed me 5 crisp C-notes from his wallet. Back at the house we found the box, and 3 other boxes that went with it, contained parts from 3 old Harley’s with most of the parts going to a 49 Knucklehead. So that’s what we built. Took about 3 months from boxes to running but still had a ways to go.

With my dad next to me on his 69 Harley and me driving the 49 we headed down Gladiolus Blvd to the state inspection station to get it inspected, registered, and tagged. Going into the first curve just east of Harlem Heights the 49 locked tight at about 60 mph. If it had been the front wheel things would have gotten nasty quick but since it was the rear wheel a skid spontaneously started about the same time 20 mph were knocked off causing me to slide up onto the tank and losing my balance. The sides of the road curved down steeply and that’s where I ended up, at the bottom of the easement with both me and the bike tore up. Leaving the 49 there I rode home with my dad and got patched up then we took the truck back and picked it up and brought it home.

Under close inspection we found the engine had seized. We had spent I don’t know how many hours putting that engine together the right way. A machine shop was commissioned to blueprint the crankshaft, plane the block, barrels and heads, port and relieve the valves, etc. The barrels were bored .30 over and new pistons and wrist pins were installed. It ran really good.

As we tried to determine what went wrong, I discovered that in the bottom of the external oil tank was a small pipe leading to a pipe that fed the engine. In the bottom of that tank was a double edged razor blade that I presumed a previous owner had used to scrape off a gasket and it had fallen it. The slot in the razor blade was where the oil flowed through and in it’s limited quantity it had quickly caused the engine to heat up, swell, and seize. As this happened very quickly and was shut down very quickly the damage was minimal. No galling of the piston skirts or any of that stuff. All gaskets were removed with close attention spent on gasket removing tools and materials, and replaced and several trips around the block after assembly showed everything was alright. We got the thing registered.

After a few days of continuous rain my dad and I set out for a semi-long haul on his 69 and my 49 to see what we could see. Knowing that this thing was a beast of over 100 hp and because of it’s 2 alternating cylinders (thump, thump, thump, thump) and under the advice of a friend I installed “titty grips” that allowed the hands to sort of “hover” over the surface of the grips affording a little bit of comfort.

We headed to Fort Lauderdale by way of Alligator Alley, that gave a long expanse of flat and straight pavement for me to get intimate with the 49. From Fort Myers to Fort Lauderdale took about an hour and a half and an hour into it I was tired of it but we continued non-stop. In FL we stopped, parked at a greasy spoon and went inside for some grub.

My entire body was vibrating, a strange sensation. My hands belonged to someone else. I had biker legs when I first got off as usual but this time was diff. All of my hairs was standing on end and had lives of their own. All of this was unnerving and disappointing. My dad had some biker legs too and some slight vibration but not nearly as bad as I. With the 13 to 1 compression ratio, new Tillotson carb that gulped buckets, the extended cam and everything else, we had built a machine that was only good for short distances. This was not a long distance hauler.

We got back home and I considered what to do with this thing. I didn’t want it. I wasn’t a racer and didn’t want a bike I couldn’t just jump on and ride anytime I wanted to. I failed to mention, the frame that came with this thing was a custom hard tail (no suspension) and had a 30 degree raked springer fork system. The hardtail made for a very harsh ride and the springer was very difficult at slow speeds. This thing was dangerous, unnecessarily so. I decided to get rid of it, but to whom?

I put an ad in the paper (remember them days?) and a couple low-ballers were disappointing as I had over $1200 in it. After a few weeks my brother told me about a friend of a friend that wanted to build a drag bike and he was thinking about using a Kawasaki 750 triple he had blow up earlier in the year. Turned out the guy was intrigued by Harley’s and he came over and bought it for the $1500 I was wanting. He made that dragbike and my brother even got a chance to take it down the street one time. It was now over 200 hp and he said it was the fastest thing he ever drove, scary fast. He twisted the grip and the first thing that happened, after the front end went straight up in the air (wheelie bar had not been installed yet), was his goggles flew off and when he looked down at the gauges through tear flooded eyes at the speedometer that said 73mph and he was still in 1st gear with 3 more to go. He immediately backed all the way off and the negative g’s slammed his mug into the tank knocking out 2 teefs. ouch

I rode my dad’s Harley a few times after that and the experience was pleasurable, I guess, but once you’ve seen the harsh part of something it’s hard to ignore after the fact. I couldn’t get over the notion that 2 cylinder engines will never be as comfortable to ride as 4 inline engines. It’s a mechanical fact. Even the opposed 2 cylinders (BMX) had a certain “waddle” about them. Aside from my 1970 Camaro my main ride was a 1972 Honda 750, stock, and it was a breeze to ride. I took it across the alley many times and didn’t suffer the handicapping that occurred on that 49. And I’ve harbored a distaste for Harley’s ever since. I can appreciate the long term engineering and history in the things but I also believe a lot of the fan fare is in the revving of the engine at the stoplights. As far as use-ability, comfort, endurance, and reliance, Harley’s lost that race to the rice burners way back in the late 60’s.

From Let’s Review 27: Batman Edition – American Digest

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Terry January 8, 2018, 8:23 AM

    ghost- was your Harley the black one or the red one?

  • Larry Geiger January 8, 2018, 8:32 AM

    I had an early CB750. Nice. Ended up on a 1992 GoldWing 1500. So nice. Rode all over the place on that thing. Mostly with my wife on the back. She loved her throne. Once bought a 1983 Goldwing Standard and a 1982 CX500. My son and I rebuilt them and rode them for years before I got the Wing. He eventually sold the Cx500 and went to college on a CB750 Nighthawk. Much better brakes. Ah, good times.

  • ghostsniper January 8, 2018, 9:14 AM

    @Terry, it wasn’t like either of the pix, it was a chopper. Just did a google and this one is similar though mine had metalflake blue fenders and tank and higher handlebars. http://www.housebeautiful.com/lifestyle/news/a9317/tiny-house-regret/
    Notice that rake on the forks, very difficult to keep a 600lb bike vertical when say, maneuvering at gas pumps or slow speed. Geometry works against the rider.

    @Larry, my dream would be to get a new Goldwing 3 wheeler fully outfitted and go to Maine and take 6 months or more to counterclockwise the entire US, westward across the top, down the left side, east back across the bottom, north along the east side, then back home. Live in a tent 3 nights in a row then 2 nights in motels, etc. Document everything, video, pix, text, then put it all together in a film. The trick would be to do all that documenting and not lose all the fun. Maybe take my mutt Shannon with me.

  • ghostsniper January 8, 2018, 9:20 AM

    That BMX should be BMW, my error.

  • Alan Potkin January 8, 2018, 9:30 AM

    Close but no cigar on the flat opposed twin, i.e., “boxer” engine layout: it’s BMW, not “BMX”. Been there done that. Harley’s never pushed my buttons…although there wee a couple nice, really plain black Sportsers that I took kinda a shine to years ago.

  • Old Surfer January 8, 2018, 10:07 AM

    Harleys can be entertaining in small doses. A friend back in the mid-sixties had a beater Sportster and you could get the front wheel off the ground with just a little twist. Another friend had an old BMW single and the inline engine and shaft drive gave the whole machine a strange torque getting on or off the throttle. I was riding a Ducati Monza at the time which had all the usual Italian quirks.

  • Bill Henry January 8, 2018, 10:12 AM


  • H January 8, 2018, 10:32 AM

    I dust off this one about road trips anytime I get to feeling homesick again:


  • james wilson January 8, 2018, 11:54 AM

    I never sat on a Harley or had a reason to. Loved my ’82 Goldwing and rode it everywhere everytime until the wipe out. Big bike but easy even in town. I see that they got absolutely enormous over time, looking like four wheelers missing two wheels. Making it into a trike makes sense.

  • ghostsniper January 8, 2018, 1:20 PM

    @James, a couple years ago a company developed a kit that turned a 3 wheel goldwing (1 wheel front and 2 wheels rear) into a 4 wheeler (2 front, 2 rear) but couldn’t release it to the public because the gov’t was saying it is no longer a motorcycle but rather a car and all kinds of other things would be required like seatbelts, airbags, etc. Don’t know what happened after that. Again, gov’t stifling progress.

    Since both front and rear axles on the 4 wheeler allowed the driver to “lean” into a curve I believe a case could be made that the vehicle was still a motorcycle because of the actions required of the driver. IOW, a motorcycle is not defined by the number of wheels.

  • Rob De Witt January 8, 2018, 2:02 PM

    ghost –

    Your “chopper” looked astonishingly like a wooden cabin on a trailer.

    What’ll they think of next?

  • Craig January 8, 2018, 3:10 PM

    Are you really trying to compare a 49 knock to 60s metric bikes? That’s like comparing shit and shinola.

  • jwm January 8, 2018, 3:45 PM

    Oh holy cow, could I roll on this thread. First bike in ’71 was a Honda 305 Super Hawk. Several months later I had a brand new CB750. Nine months, and many speeding tickets later I traded the Honda for a 1967 BMW R69S. That was the sport model with the hot cam. It would roar up to 85mph fast as any passenger car. I rode the wheels off that Beemer, and did my first long distance touring. Surfing interrupted my motorcycling career, and I sold the BMW to by a VW beetle. In 1990 I bought a brand new Harley Softail Springer. In the summer of ’91 I rode from LA to Virginia Beach, back through Appalachia, up through Michigan, and went on to join the “Run to the Fun” tour from Milwaukee to Sturgis. I did this again in ’92, 93, and ’94. ‘1995 was the last trip, and after that summer I sold the Hog. I had put a lot of miles on, and never so much as skinned a knee for all my foolish risks. I figured my guardian angels needed a break. I’m finally retired, and I mean to bring out the very detailed journal I kept from the trip in ’91. I have not looked at it since that fall. I’ve thought about checking it out before, but I’ve always felt a strange reluctance to do so. Like something that doesn’t want to be disturbed.


  • bgarrett January 8, 2018, 5:46 PM

    The picture of the red Harley shows 1946 tanks. I have had my 46 for 42 years., It started out as a chopper but as I found the right parts, I restored it to factory appearance. I also have a 1942 Harley that I’ve had for 32 years.

  • bgarrett January 8, 2018, 5:51 PM

    and I have never raced my engine at red lights, nor do I wear a costume when I ride

  • Greg January 8, 2018, 6:41 PM

    Yes. The 70’s.
    You can usually catch T.C at Brit Bike rally’s in the summertime around the mid west.

  • wmprof January 8, 2018, 9:40 PM

    52 panhead bought in 78 for $1800, changed my whole perspective on motorcycling. Been riding Hogs ever since. Commute every day weather allows on my 2014 Limited. When I can’t ride two wheels anymore, I’ll get an early mustang fastback. No three wheelers, would be sacrilege.

  • Anonymous January 9, 2018, 1:26 AM

    This whole story is BS!

  • Anonymous January 9, 2018, 1:30 AM

    This whole story is BS!
    As are most of the comments.
    You people puzzle me with your BS stories.

  • ghostsniper January 9, 2018, 4:17 AM

    It’s a conspiracy.
    We like to keep “you” puzzled and we also did 9-11.

  • Anonymous January 9, 2018, 6:08 AM

    They didn’t make knuckleheads in 49, 47 was the last year

  • Larry Geiger January 9, 2018, 9:02 AM

    GS. Trikes are ok. I’ve been on two wheels since I was 7. Just can’t see turning a perfectly good two wheeler into a three wheeler. That’s just me. Thought that I might get a Miata but when I started looking, they looked like go karts. Top of the door came up to my knee. My son couldn’t even get in the passenger side. Not taking that thing out on the road. Scarier than the Wing. So I bought a 95 Jeep Wrangler with no top, no sides, no doors, no back seat (two seater), etc. Put a big aluminum box in the back for the wife’s stuff like she had on the Wing. Doc and wife are happy as long as I wear my seatbelt 🙂

  • ghostsniper January 9, 2018, 1:07 PM

    @Larry, and that teeny car.
    This morning I sat on the couch putting my boots on and turned on the TV, it was on ME TV and Perry Mason was on. Here comes Paul Drake in a white 2 door Lincoln convertible, late 50’s. Wow. Even though it was just a 2 door it was still bigger’n anything on the road today. The top was down and it was easy to see that you could pack a whole family of people in that thing and have plenty of room for their accessories. That Lincoln didn’t have seats, it had couches. BIG white couches that went the whole way across. And as Remus recently said, the steel in them giant fenders could be drilled and tapped. Drake came down the street toward the camera and casually with one hand (cause the other was totin’ a smoke) maneuvered that ocean liner into a residential driveway, just as pretty as you please. 3 tons of steel controlled with 1 hand. American engineering at it’s height.

    Later on I climbed into my Blazer and though it’s the biggest vehicle I have owned since the early 80’s it seemed downright miniscule compared to Drakes ride. I twisted the key and the dash lit up like the Starship Enterprise, grabbed the seatbelt and snapped it where it goes. Drakes dash had minimal lightage and what seat belts? Couches don’t need no steenkin’ seatbelts.

    My Blazer has every safety precaution in the world but the sheet metal is paper thin and Drakes Lincoln had no safety precautions but the sheet metal was structural. My Blazer will fold like a Dixie cup when hit head on and that Lincoln will just laugh, knowing the passengers 20′ to the rear will be safe. My Blazer has crumple zones, or danger detours and that Lincoln just had….more steel. My Blazer has to have a prop stick to hold it open and Drakes Lincoln had giant 3 lb springs that did that for him. Many will argue that vehicles today are far superior to those of yesteryear but there is something missing. Personality. I rode in cars like Drakes and I drove cars like mine, and I see the difference. And that difference is somewhat like the differences in the entire world today.

  • Ron Robertson January 9, 2018, 11:05 PM

    Thank you, wonderful, evocative , beautiful writing.
    I could smell the rubber.

  • ghostsniper January 10, 2018, 7:37 AM

    @wmprof, 1st gen Mustangs, YES! I had a ’66 convertible in metallic dark green with the bigger 289 with the 4 bbl. Bought it for $1000 in 1972 and it was my high school graduation ride. Wish I still had it. Saw one at a car show last year that was similar and frame off restored and they were asking $45k. Yeah, I really wish I’d kept it.

  • Vanderleun January 10, 2018, 10:17 AM

    This Just In from Never Yet Melted:

    Never Yet Melted » ghostsniper He Once Owned a Harley Knucklehead

    I had a mad mathematical genius friend at Yale. He was the wealthy scion of a Southern family, but he lived by choice a life of Thoreauvian simplicity. He owned nothing beyond two shirts, two pair of jeans, and one of those unadmired little Italian cycles mendaciously labelled Harley Davidson. (I just looked it up. It was an really made by Aermacchi.)

    He roomed with some druggie friends of mine in a beach house in Milford and commuted (with difficulty) into Yale every day on that unreliable bike. We used to draw considerable amusement watching him start it. Kick (the routine would go), sputter, silence, kick, sputter, silence, kick, sputter, LOUD CURSING. Yet somehow, mysteriously, he would finally get that sucker running.

  • ghostsniper January 11, 2018, 11:38 AM

    WOW, I iz famous! heh

    A little addendum to the above tale.
    That Harley was the kick type, no electric starter like my dad’s 69 had.
    The kicker was sort or primitive.
    It had what looked like a bicycle pedal on the top end of the arm and the bottom end had 1/3 of a gear that engaged a smaller gear attached to a shaft that had another gear inside the case that engaged the flywheel. shwew The method was like this. I was a little dood in them days, about 160 lbs so I had to stand up tall to work this thing. With my right foot I’d repeatedly push down on the pedal until such time the piston was on the upstroke – ready to fire. Then, I’d concentrate all my weight on my right leg and slam that pedal down as hard as I could. It never started on the first kick so the process started all over again but the 2nd time I’d open the choke and twist the throttle quickly one time, injecting some fresh juice into the combustion chamber. Then, summoning all the will a person can muster I’d slam down again on that pedal. Sometimes it’d start on the 2nd kick but usually not. And sometimes I’d kick it so hard that not only did the first piston not start it but the 2nd one came back around and acted like it was going to start. This happened when the pedal was all the way at the bottom and when the momentum of that 2nd piston kicked in it amounted to a reverse upward pressure from that pedal. Usually when this happened the swivel nature of the pedal caused it to just roll off the backside of my foot and then slam into the back of my calf, no big deal. But once my foot was not on the pedal properly and the pedal didn’t swivel like it should and when the pedal came back up I was still on it and all my weight was working against me. This resulted in my knee being bent backwards and I was thrown up over the gas tank and in between the handlebars. This was when I learned to keep the kickstand down when starting it cause the 600 lb thing fell over on it’s side with my invalid ass underneath it. My dad was there and with him pulling and me pushing we got it off of me, but my knee was murdered. Bad. Real bad. Knees ain’t supposed to go backwards, if they were we’d be chickens. We didn’t do doctors much back in them days so I had to just “walk it off”, as they say, but I never got over it. Later that same year that knee came back to haunt me at Fort Benning, GA.

  • ghostsniper January 11, 2018, 11:43 AM

    Well wuddya know? I just looked up that Aermacchi bike and it is indeed a Harley, since 1960.
    Have a look: