Thursday, March 29, 2012

#116 February 2012 Perspective

I sometimes sit here and think about writing these editorials, and it reminds me that my life isn’t in any way special or interesting. I mean, I read George’s accounts of his struggles as a starving artist, and he’s out there living the life, and I don’t know if I could handle living like that. I see people at events, such as the Smoke Out and in Daytona and Sturgis, that seem to be there just to get attention. I have no idea if these people have real jobs or what, but they are all over the place and show up in every pictorial of events everywhere. They are probably good people and are either independently wealthy or just work real hard between events. Everyone’s lifestyle is different, there isn’t really one monolithic “biker” lifestyle that we all have to adhere to as if it’s the Pirate Code or something. Most of us are somewhere between a weekend warrior and the Sons of Anarchy, and most of us move up and down the scale as life happens.
For instance, in 1983 I was homeless in Austin, Texas. I had a wife, a seven month old baby daughter and a 1971 Ford Torino.. period. This was the beginning of December, and an unusually cold snap froze the “freeze” plugs out of the engine block. We were stranded. I got jobs as a day laborer so I could get a room at the Live Roach motel every night, and used the hand towels for diapers etc. At the time, nothing was farther from my mind than trying to find a bike to ride. The immediate emergency took precedence. That doesn’t mean that I didn’t look lustfully at some new Shovelhead riding by the job site. It just meant is was out of reach at the time. I’d say the lowest point of my life was that Christmas, having to share a motel room with three others because there wasn’t enough work over the holidays to pay for it ourselves.
It took a while to drag myself out of that one. We ended up back in Michigan, and I got the truck driving job that finally provided enough income to start thinking about picking up a bike. A friend of a friend had a 1969 TR6R Triumph Tiger for sale, and he wanted $400 for it. It was complete, but needed work. Sounded like a bargain to me, so I sent the money to the house (I was still on the road) and asked the wife to pay for it. Well, suffice to say the money never made it to the owner of the bike. Apparently a new dancing dress was more important, and since I don’t dance, maybe you can see where that was headed. Anyway, after the divorce, I picked up the 1971 Triumph Tiger, the engine from which drives my chopper to this day, and I started probating for the local M.C. These guys were far from the SOA mold, but we certainly met and partied with clubs that were a LOT more serious about the whole thing than we. I learned a lot about brotherhood and respect during those years, and despite the constant politics, had some really good times. We were never affiliated with any of the national clubs, although there was always the rumors abounding that we may be “persuaded” to pick sides one day. Myself, I could never see why they would want to bother.
Wife #2 occurred during that period, and wife #3 soon after. I found a local driving job that allowed me to have a life, be involved with my three daughters’ lives and get back into building bikes, including reading the old Iron Horse and sending in the occasional picture and a letter, hoping they would be published. I began building the Shovelhead that would eventually appear on the cover of #115, and in 1998, after a few disappointing issues of IH after Snow left, the May 1998 issue began the resurrection when Hammer took over as editor. This was cool stuff, and this was happening right here in Michigan! Scott “Genghis” Wong mentioned he had started an Internet message board, and after some effort (there was no “Google” then), I managed to find it. Here I became acquainted with Hammer and some of the other players from the magazine. They set up the “Back Talk” message board soon after, so I was prepared when Princeton Publishing (The IH parent) went into bankruptcy. The struggles to launch THBC dragged on for a while. Hammer seemed certain that it was going to happen, but others not so much. Through all of this, I was pretty much an observer. I had met Hammer and some of the others at a swap meet in Grand Rapids, but as usual, I had no marketable skills to offer. A couple of issues in, however, the guy doing the website went AWOL for quite a while. This was the opportunity I was waiting for. They posted on Back Talk that they needed someone who knew HTML to update the website, and I immediately volunteered! Let me tell you, I had no more HTML experience than the next person, but I saw it as a foothold in the magazine, to be a part of the thing that had been a part of me for so long. I did a bunch of research on website building and began to update the site as needed. It looked pretty crappy at times, but they put up with it, and I managed to worm my way into writing the occasional article as well as the online stuff.
My relationship with the magazine remained like this until the original Smoke Out in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee. The camaraderie present at that first “event” was outstanding (it still is), and I ended up riding back as far as Cincinnati with Hammer, me on my Shovel and him on the 113” ‘Major Threat.” After only seven or eight years of loyalty later, I was awarded the job of editor here at The Horse. I’m not trying to downplay how special this job is. I’ve been a pretty happy guy ever since I started here, I’m just saying that my day-to-day existence isn’t worthy of basing an editorial on, ten times a year. The job is special... I’m not. I’m just a regular guy who goes to work every day, worries about the bills, struggles to understand my 14 year old daughter who thinks the world is against her, is happy about my marriage to Nurse Nut and stresses about the finances to put the project bikes together. Life is alternately good, great and suckass, usually all in the same day, but it beats the hell out of being homeless. Hopefully, I will never find myself in that position again, but at least I know I can beat it.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Cover Story #115 My Shovelhead

In reality, there’s not much I can write about this bike that I haven’t already covered in these pages since I got the bike on the road in 1998. The original Iron Horse was my source of inspiration at the time, so I began looking for parts around 1993. I started off with a questionably numbered FXR frame and an un-numbered set of 1981 crankcases. How can a 1981 set of cases have no numbers you say? Well, as I learned to my cost, no matter the cock and bull story supplied, it’s unlikely to be true. I acquired an early 60’s four speed frame and abandoned the search for the not-so-easy to find FXR parts. I traded the frame for an S&S Super G and I used the money I earned in the evenings playing in a bar band to finance components one at a time, some from friends, such as the heads for $250 and a four speed transmission for $250. The cylinders I got from two different catalogs, probably Chinese crap but I knew no better at the time. Scouring the swap meets was half the fun, and eventually I had enough engine parts to put together. The cases came with a crankshaft and rods and oil pump, which I had disassembled (anyone can take shit apart) and had the cases blasted to get that nasty wrinkle black stuff off. I took my pile of pieces to a ‘pro’ (the fact he worked out of his shed should have gave me pause, in retrospect). I wanted him to set the bottom end up, I was fairly confident I could handle the cam, cam cover and top end by myself. A couple of weeks later, I picked it up, looked pretty good. Until, that is, I had the engine on the bench and was rotating the crank with the rods and noticed glass beads from the blasting process oozing out of an oilway! So I took it to a more successful engine builder and he put the cases in a sonic cleaner for a week, told me the crank pin and rods were shot and a few other things had to be done. These are the kind of setbacks that could make one abandon projects, but I soldiered on in the hopes of one day having a rideable Shovelhead. My buddy Andy has a nice sized pole barn set up as a workshop, so I took my bits over there and worked most weekends on trying to put together something resembling a bike. I finished the mock up and sent the frame out for powder coat and hauled the rest of the stuff home. After final assembly, I rolled it outside to the curb and kicked it for the first time. To my surprise, it started right up! It sounded like crap, and oil was squirting from every possible source but I managed to run it around the block once before shutting it down. Then I loaded it into the pickup and hauled it out to the guy that rebuilt the bottom end correctly and had him button it up and tune it. After I got it home, I took it to the courthouse grounds a couple of blocks away and did a photoshoot for the article that would eventually appear in Iron Horse #163, the November 1998 issue.
Ironically, the feature came out in the magazine at the same time the bike was sitting in an impound yard for having covered up numbers from a stolen bike. The hidden numbers were discovered when I was having the inspection done for the ‘assembled bike’ title, they poured acid on the case and there they were! Apparently the original bike was stolen in 1981 in Indiana. I got super lucky because the insurance company that paid off the bike, no longer had the records from that period, and they signed off on them and I was able to take the bike home and the State Police showed up and stamped new numbers on it.
I built it the way I did because I only had stock bikes nearby to go on, and I thought it would be a good place to start. It wasn’t long before the turn signals came off (they never worked anyway), I shitcanned the electric starter and front fender. I picked up a cast front wheel from a swap meet and pretty much rode it like that for a few years.
The first radical rework involved bolting the rear fender to the swing arm, installing the ‘king’ Sportster tank, switching to a dog-chain pull foot clutch and jockey shift, and a Chopper Enterprises springer front end. I also made a two into one exhaust with a Supertrapp can and split the rocker boxes. Additionally I added a Baker six-in-a-four overdrive transmission. I really liked the bike in this configuration, but the engine was getting a little low on compression. I figured I’d just do a top end job and call it good. I grabbed a pair of KB pistons, and had the jugs bored to their spec. Well, something was wrong, it ran fine, but as it got hot, the engine started to ‘drag’. A block from the house I slowed and pulled in the clutch and the engine stopped... suddenly. After a couple of minutes, I was able to slowly kick it through, but I pushed it home anyway and got hold of Dan Roedel to ask him to take a look at it for me. I ended up taking him the engine and he soon gave me some bad news, the pressed in race in the cases was loose and pretty much unfixable. I managed to grab a new set of cases from S&S, some through-the-pushrod oiling lifters and roller rockers from JIMS, a magneto from Joe Hunt and Dan put together the best running Shovel I have ever rode.
The last major refit was having Fabricator Kevin hardtail the frame. He made the stainless steel oil tank, fabbed the exhaust and rear fender. He reworked the gas tank so the filler was at the top and the petcock was at the lowest point. He also dreamed up the hydraulic clutch pedal. I can’t say enough about how great this man’s work is and what a nice guy he is to boot!
This bike will probably always be in a state of flux, since getting back from the 5000 mile trip to Death Valley and the Long Road, I replaced the tires and powdercoated the wheels. I’m thinking of replacing the bars next. I’d LOVE to put another Sugar Bear springer on this, but I also want to build a 25 over long bike, so I’ll have to figure out what I want.

Looking at the original picture from IH #163, the only parts surviving from that version are the cylinders, heads, pushrod tubes and covers, crankshaft and flywheels and the front frame loop.

This is the one bike I will never sell.. well, this and my 1971 Triumph chop.
Big thanks to all who have helped me get it this far.

Tech sheet

Fabrication: Fabricator Kevin
Year and Make: 1998 Shovel
Assembly by: Owner/Fab Kevin
Time: 13 years

Year: 1981/1974/2005
Model: Shovel
Rebuilder: Dan Roedel
Ignition: Hunt Magneto
Displacement: 80 inches
Lower end: Stock
Balancing: Dan R
Pistons: S&S
Cases: S&S
Heads: HD 1974
Cams: Andrews A
Lifters: JIMS
Carb: S&S Super E
Air cleaner: Goodson
Pipes: Fabricator Kevin

Model: Baker six in a four
Year: 2005
Shifting: Jockey
Clutch: Hydraulic
Primary Drive: Evil Engineering

Painter: Bodies by Bob
Color: Black
Type: Shiny

Year: 196?
Builder: HD
Type: Four speed FL
Rake: Stock
Stretch: Stock
Other: Fab Kevin Hardtail

Bars: Drag
Risers: 10”
Headlight: Dented Paughco
Taillight: Fab Kevin
Front Pegs: Swap meet billet/Fab Kevin Hydro Clutch
Mid Pegs: Fabricator Kevin
Electrics: Extremely minimal
Gas Tank: Reworked aftermarket XL
Oil Tank: Fab Kevin Stainless
Oil System: S&S
Seat: Fab Kevin/Hard Luck Designs

Type: Wide Glide

Size: 19” 1974 HD cast
Size: 16” HD cast
Tires: Avon Venom
Brakes: Fabricator Kevin

#115 January 2012 Burning the Midnight Rice

I’ve never been opposed to chopping up Japanese bikes, but I’ve never actively done it before. I’ve said in the past that I’ve never really subscribed to the school of thought that “It doesn’t matter what you ride” because... well I just haven’t. I’ve always thought that a cool Brit chop or one utilizing an American power plant was just a superior motorcycle.
On the face of it, it’s a little strange, since my first few motorcycles were all Japanese. I started off with a 1968 Suzuki T200 two stroke twin and then ‘graduated’ to a Honda CB250K4. Of course a lot of my bike choices were limited by the motorcycle laws in the UK at the time. New riders were limited to 250cc or below, so the choices were few as far as non-Japanese bikes went. At the time, the affordable British bike was the BSA Bantam, it was a two stroke single knocking around in 125cc and 175cc form. These bikes were known to be pretty damn slow, but there was a decent cool factor with them. The other viable Brit bike was the BSA C15 250cc, but these were rare.
Once you passed the dreaded Ministry of Transport test, you were allowed to ride any size bike, so before I even passed my test (on the third attempt) I had bought a brand new Honda CB900F that I would sneak around the block every now and then. After the near death experience of locking up the brakes at 125 mph, I traded it for a BMW R90/6 and took off on a European tour that I wrote about in issue #11. I found the BMW to be a boring motorcycle and traded it for a Triumph T160 750 Trident. I loved this bike, it did everything I asked of it well, and it looked good and sounded good... I was hooked. I had to trade it when I first came to the USA, I got a 1975 Bonneville and £400, enough for a round trip ticket to Michigan at the time. After I got back to the UK in December 1981, I started making my first changes to my bike. I painted the tank and sidecovers, added a pair of 6” slugs to the forks and bolted on a pair of air horns to the front fender, the compressor was mounted on the frame downtubes and worked great until the first time it rained and they became anemic water-pistols.
The point is, here, that after this, I never owned another Japanese bike. I always had a lot of distaste toward the Yamaha XS650, as its styling was obviously aimed at the Triumph market, similarly the Japanese V-twin bikes were obviously trying to capitalize on the HD market even though the early Shadows and Viragos were styled as generic street bikes, when the Intruder came out, all bets were off.
Many people liked these bikes and that’s just fine, I never really understood it, but I don’t have to.
Fast forward to now, although the price of a running Harley has come down a lot (Shovelheads abound for 5K), the reason for all that is nobody has any money, so people are chopping whatever they can find in their price range. The aforementioned XS650 Yamaha is probably one of the most chopped bikes around these days, simply because if you look, you can find great deals on these bikes. The most popular choice for Japanese bike chopping, was always the SOHC Honda CB750. Back in the ‘day’, it seemed these were everywhere with wild front ends and molded tanks etc. These days, you can pick one up for a great price, people like Ken over at Cycle-X make some kickass parts for these bikes and there owners seem super happy with them.
So, with that in mind, I decided to look for a CB750A for Nurse Nut to ride. These have an automatic transmission (using the same torque converter as the Honda Civic), but otherwise are quite similar for the regular 750. I spotted one on eBay for $90 with a couple of days left to bid, I expected it to run up a little at the end, but I ended up picking it up for $205. My initial thought was to run a two part series showing how one of these el cheapo bikes can be chopped and on the road for under a grand. I grabbed a universal hardtail kit from TC Bros, and took the bike over to Chop Docs in Waterford, Michigan to have the back end hacked off and the tubes welded on. I don’t know what I was expecting, but during the process, the bike started looking pretty good. I’m now inclined to try and make this into a really good looking chop instead of the cheap and dirty one I originally envisioned.
I’ll still run the build here in the magazine, but the concept appears to be changing on me. Usually I have a clear-cut vision or where I want my bike builds to end up, so it’s a little weird for me to have the goal posts moving on me like this. Stay tuned to see where it goes, I, for one, have no idea.