I had been a Triumph man for years, while I was still living in England they were sneered at by jap riders and proponents of "safe and quiet" motorcycles alike, which made them almost perfect! At the same time I would read Easyrider magazine, looking at the cool Harleys, and not believing the "lifestyle" content for one minute! From where I sat, there was no way people could live that!
Fast forward to the 90's EZ has degenerated to a yup rag, I am perfectly happy riding my '71 TR6 around, when my eye was caught by Iron Horse #100. I had never seen a magazine that so connected with real riding, and featured real every-day customs and riders. This was the issue that profiled a certain FX rider, Scott Wong! I remember looking at the article and thinking "why would anyone tattoo 'FX Super Glide' on their arm?", what if he decided to buy a different bike? Of course since then, I've learned how committed Genghis is to his motorcycle he named Mabel, and it is this commitment, the unswerving loyalty to the swing arm shovelhead, that finally swayed me toward his way of thinking and now, I am convinced that there is no better looking or sounding motor. It was with this new realization I determined that I must own one. Of course I ran right into the obstacle most regular guys do, MONEY! No way I could cough up several grand for a shovelhead, my credit was trashed from an earlier divorce and I was raising three kids at the time (four now). The only way to do it was one piece at a time, so when the last part was affixed, it would already be paid for.
A guy 2 blocks from here was selling a shovelhead bottom end and a couple of frames, so I went over and checked them out. There were no numbers on the cases, due to, I was told, mismatched crankcases from differing years being used. But for
$150, it seemed like a good starting point. There were two frames also, one, a ratty looking hardtail, the other was an FXR frame. I was impressed with how much the FXR frame looked like an oversized Norton Featherbed so I went for that one. He wanted $100 for each and I wish I had gone for the hardtail in retrospect. Nevertheless I carted my new possessions home and so it all began.
This was August 21 1993, I had no idea how many parts went to make up a Harley, no idea how any of it went together, just a desire to own one. As the project progressed I began reading more and more from Genghis and Snow about the aesthetic wonders of the Harley four-speed frame. This combined with harley owners telling me how ugly my project was , and the difficulty of obtaining the weird primary covers and 5 speed trannies etc. prompted me to increase the scope of parts hunting to include a four speed frame. This was settled when a four-speed transmission was offered to me for $250, almost complete.
I was advised to jump on it, so I did, this same guy also sold me a pair of heads for $275 and a narrowglide front end for $70. I picked up a four speed frame from a buddy for $250 so it seemed like the majority of the parts were coming together. I traded the FXR frame in on an S&S carb and took the cases in to be bead-blasted to get rid of that nasty wrinkle black stuff. The president of the club I was in at the time, worked on Harleys as a sideline, so I delivered the cases and crankshaft assembly to him and he said he would check it all out and assemble it for me. This was to be the only professional help I was going to get, I figured if I had the main bearings replaced and the crank set up properly, then I could probably handle the rest.
A week or so later I picked up the complete bottom end and continued my piecemeal collecting of useful parts, scouring the swap meets, bugging friends who had parts laying around until finally, three years after starting the project, I was ready to assemble the rest of the motor. A friend at work offered me space in his garage (thanks, Andy) to work on it, so I pulled all the parts out of my basement and transported them there, and we got to work on putting the rest of the motor together. The bottom end was put on the bench and we began looking at how the pistons would go on, I had already installed the oil pump and we poured some oil into the cases so everything would be nice and lubed in there, but as I turned the crankshaft around, looking at how the gears were turning the oil pump shaft, a little oil started to dribble from one of the exposed oilways, and guess what else? Yep, glass beads from the blasting process! I was not impressed! If I had not seen it and continued with the assembly, I would not have made it to the first street corner! We upended it and tried to wash it out, but it wasn't long before we realized that there was no way to get it all out without a total stripdown.
This time I took it to Skip's Cycle, a few miles out of town. Skip has a well-deserved reputation for being a very good Harley mechanic and bike builder, so I asked him to clean the cases out and re-check the bottom end. He told me that the flywheels had never been apart, the crankpin was junk etc. etc. Just goes to show that you are better off going to a reputable, trustworthy place the first time! I also had fun making a new tab for the chainguard that was missing from the swap-meet obtained swingarm, and reinforcing the left side frame tube, behind the primary.
There is something special about firing a motor up for the first time ever, the transformation of a collection of parts to a living, breathing motorcycle. There was a good deal of kicking (didn't have the starter installed at the time), sweating and swearing, fiddle with the timing, mess with the carb and every now and then, a little pop-de-pop to keep me at it
Then she fired! The OL was jumping up and down, more excited than I (I was tired, dammit), I stepped back to listen for sounds that the oil pump wasn't working or something.
Well, obviously it was because there was oil coming from several sources on the motor, the rocker shafts were all leaking (wrong seals) there was a nice puddle appearing under the bike (oil lines crossed on filter housing) and a nasty leak around the base of the front cylinder (gasket on upside down-DUH!). A week later (and another visit to Skip) I was ready to try again, this time she fired right up, and settled down to a nice idle.
Now the next step, I pulled the clutch in and put it in first, she lurched forward and tried to drag me forward slowly (misadjusted clutch), I let the clutch out and took off down the alley outside the house. Of course one of the risers came loose (needed heli-coiling), but I'll always remember the feeling of it moving uder it's own power for the first time! So after nearly five years and $6600, it is running, there are a few compromises I had to make along the way, the front end is not what I wanted, but was the right price. Fortunately, the four speed frame is truly the Mr. Potato Head of motorcycles, and at any time can be converted to wide-glide, FL style or FX! Thanks to some brothers who donated parts for the project, Falcon for the oil tank, Nick for the oil filter assembly, Skip for the rear fender. And thanks to Iron Horse for the inspiration that made it possible.