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Motorhead Memo: Knuckle sandwich

By Kip Woodring

Motorhead-web

There’s still a few folks around here that remember it well, even though it was 75 years ago. I, myself, wasn’t more than about 10 or 11 years old, but it was like yesterday… and it was all Hub’s doin’. Hub was all anyone ever called him. Might be his relatives knew his real name, but they kept mum. The whole town just knew him as the plumber and as a hell of a mechanic. ’Course all that was after the first war. He come back a little shot up by the Hun, some five rounds from a machine gun in his leg… but Doc Gentry fixed him good and he could still ride. He and his brother John started the plumbing business right after and Hub married a nice gal named Mary a few years later. Never had kids, them two, which was a mite strange. But the strangest thing was him knowin’ all he did about motorsickles! You gotta think… this was ’long about 1939, and if any poor soul back then had a hankerin’ fer two-wheelers… well… it was Indian or Harley and that was that! ’Cept for Hub. He got magazines from England and back east and read ’em cover to cover every month for near 10 years afore he actually got his own spankin’ new motorbike. It’s kinda weird lookin’ back at it. John, his brother y’see, got him a Scout years before, and he and Hub got that damned ol’ Scout running crazy fast! Seems they put a Chief top on the engine and weren’t nuthin’ twixt here and Denver could run with it… even officer Dan’s Ford police car and that had a V8!

Indian racer

Indian racer

Anyways, it happened like this: Ol’ Hub was a thinkin’ man if ever there was one and he’d heard and read some about these two Limey bikes that was s’posed to be faster’n greased lightning. One of ’em, called a Brough Superior, was even guaranteed to go 100 mile an hour, right outta the factory! Then there was the one called a Vincent HRD, but not the one everybody knows about from that picture of the guy in the bathing suit all strung out and goin’ a hunnerd ’n’ fifty. Nope… this was before the war and it was the company’s first V-twin… kinda complicated lookin’ with a lot of pipes and stuff runnin’ all over the engine right out where ya could see it. Hub laughed his ass off when he heard tell the Brits called it “the plumber’s nightmare” bein’ as he was a plumber and it was a machine he dreamed about. There was this other motorbike some fella was custom makin’ in Los Angeles too… think by the name of Al Crocker. Story was, he’d build you a machine faster than any other… although it was costly.

Anyways, ol’ Hub, he’d once been clear to Dodge City to watch the championships race there… seen a feller named Jim Davis win it as I recall. They got to talkin’ ’bout motorbikes and engines and such and Hub came back from there just a-glowin’ from inside like he’d been somewhere sacred and learned some big secret or somethin’. Guess it turned out he’d actually met up with a couple Englishmen on “holiday,” as they called it. Guess they was pretty well-off fellers too, since they had money to ship their sickles over here to ride. Well, Hub got ’em each to let him take a spin… one had the very Brufsup Hub was all curious about and danged if the t’other didn’t have one o’ them HRD V-twins… Rapides they was called. Now, for some reason, after he’d rode ’em both and come back from the races, he just had to go to Los Angeles. Doc Gentry gave him a ride to Denver… had to go on some doctorin’ bizness anyway… and from there he caught a train west. Musta been a month he was out there and on accounta Mary bein’ so frugal and sweet and him bein’ so hard-workin’ and purposeful, nobody minded much. John was pretty damn tired doin’ the work of both, but he never complained.

Anyways, once’t he got back home, he was awful quiet for days after, like he was lost in thought. I just happened to be hangin’ around the plumbing shop the day the dam finally broke. Hub and John was cuttin’ pipe or some such and all of a sudden-like, Hub starts tellin John his thinkin’ on the matter of these machines he’d been so enamored of. Quite a palaver, I can tell ya! Didn’t really follow all of it, bein’ just a boy and all, but the passion in his voice and the horse sense in his talkin’ gave me the drift all right! To hear Hub tell it, the handmade Brough, an SS100 they called it, sure enough had been the fastest thing you buy back in the Twenties, but there’d been some kinda fallin’ out twixt Mr. Brough and the engine outfit he was buyin’ from, JAP they called it, but it don’t mean what it sounds like… they was English engines all the way. Thing is, it amounted to Mr. Brough buying engines from another outfit over there called “Matchless.” Those motors was all quiet and civilized, Hub said, and made the ’sickles a real “Rolls-Royce of motorcycles,” as they said about themselves. But a new 1939 machine had to run all the way up the banked walls of some cement track called Brooklands they tested ’em on… then swoop back down to get that 100 mph! They just weren’t the fastest no more, Hub allowed. He figured fair certain that the HRD was a good five or 10 miles an hour faster… they just never made a big thing of it. Still, the HRD — a good one from before the second war — was nowhere near as fast as the ones they built after. That, and by gum, the early ones were usin’ single-cylinder Norton gearboxes and clutches, which broke and slipped if ya rode hard enough. Plus, Hub had money OK, but he reckoned they both was way too much money for what ya got. That left the Crocker ’sickles he went to see in California. Now he thought pretty highly of those machines, what with the special parts and all that made ’em the fastest of the bunch, in his view. When he come home after seein’ and ridin ’em, that was what he’d mostly been so quiet about. He thought about those special parts and figured if he ever broke one, it’d be hell to fix it. That was strike one. The next thing crossed his mind, was as good as that Crocker was, he could just maybe do as well… if he was careful. That was strike two. Ya see, all of the machines Hub was thinkin’ of buyin’ had things — good and bad — in common. All expensive as all get out for anyone, even Hub, from the Dust Bowl depression days. All so thin on the ground and hard to come by, you had to think twice about just how long you could keep one goin’ in the middle of the plains. All of ’em plenty speedy too, each bein’ a 61 c.i. overhead valve V-twin, but flawed all the same in one way or another. Plus, they was just machines back then, good un’s fer sure, but not revered and costin’ the price of a house like they are now.

HRD Series A

HRD Series A

Crocker 61ci

Crocker 61ci

Harley JDH

Harley JDH

Brough SS100 1939 Matchless engine

Brough SS100 1939 Matchless engine

Anyways, turns out he’d heard of Harley’s new OHV 61 and at first he hadn’t thought of that machine as particularly sportin’ and knew the first couple years they’d made ’em they had their fair shares of troubles too. He allowed as how the new models had pert near all the bugs worked out though… Harleys was like that… always came right in the end. Indian’s big four-banger was a fast one too, but nothin’ like light or agile and Hub always said the cranks was jump ropes and wouldn’t hold up if ya rode hard.

Well, sir, he thought about all that again and again, over and over, then one day, in late spring of ’39, he went off for two days and—lo and behold—come back with a spankin’ new Harley in the back of his old Dodge pickup! Hub claimed at the end of the day it was the best of the bunch and once cut down and bob-jobbed (that was a sore spot with him, that word “bobber.” Hub said a bobber was somethin’ you went fishin’ with) it’d be a runner to be right proud of. One of them magazines he was always a’readin’ made mention of the Harley OHV that had set a speed record a couple years back and he was determined to see if he could get his to run somethin’ close to that. Took him a couple weeks to get it broke in all good and proper, but after that he rode it pretty gingerly till one hot summer day he decided to run it up and down one of the bluffs close to town as fast as he could. Did all right, he said; nuthin’ broke or fell off and even if it weren’t quite as fast as it would be shortly, ran as good or better than his brother’s Indian “Chout.”

Anyways, some time later I happened to stop by the plumbing shop and damned if he didn’t have that ’sickle tore all apart! There was the engine bits strung out up on a long wood bench, and Hub a fiddlin’ and gawkin’ and touchin’ the pieces like they was jewels fresh outta the box. He had the rest of the ’sickle right near on the floor, but you darn near couldn’t tell it was the same machine! Only the bare necessities left… and the gas tanks had been narrowed up some as well. When I asked, all Hub would say was that he was makin’ sure the machine was gonna do the job.

WLD Special

WLD Special

OHV61 EL racers

OHV61 EL racers

Was about a week after that, he had it all back in one piece and was out alla time runnin’ on roads near the bluffs… you could hear it! Sounded sharp and strong and Hub wound ’er up pretty tight now and again, to make sure she could be run hard… real hard! He come back at dusk after his fourth or fifth trip up there, and the look on his face said all you needed t’know; that ’sickle was ready!

Musta been last week in September or first of October when this here travlin’ carnival showed up in town. That first night, most folks went to the midway to try their luck, or in the big tent to see the acrobats and elephants and such, but Hub was there because Jim Davis and a couple other professionals were there to set up a match race for motorbikes out at the horse track near the fairgrounds. Shore ‘nuff, Hub signed up, along with three others, two from Denver and one all the way from San Francisco. Nobody was expectin’ that! Y’see that meant that there was gonna be seven machines goin’ at it for the purse… winner take all. Amongst the professionals was an “open class” 80-inch side-valve Indian, a fresh Harley WLD “Special,” which was a 45 c.i. racing machine, and would you believe it?… an old 74” JDH! Now, you oughta know that those JD hogs could out run the newer stuff, so they was banned a few years back, but here it was all the same! The fact that made the fantasy though, was that both those Englishmen had signed up… Hub was against a SS100 and a Rapide… and he’s the one talked ’em into it! Same story with the Crocker that came from Frisco, but the fella who rode it weren’t the fella that owned it, which was suspicious somehow.

Anyways, the two English machines had rear suspension and brakes, and to be honest that figured to be a handicap on a horse track. The rest was rigid frames and had back brakes, but no front ones. Every machine was stripped for action, but Hub’s was near to the bone already, so almost as light as the real racin’ ’sickles. Didn’t matter all that much, cause nobody figured to beat the pros anyway.

The track was ’pert near a full mile around and hard packed from a dry summer—near baked clay, fer fact. You can believe it or not, but that small Harley was the favored machine, and sure enough when they got goin’ it was first to the corner by 50 or 60 feet! Watchin’ the big bikes flop and wiggle in that first turn was a sight to recall… I can say for certain! But comin’ out on the back side they poured on the coals and the rigid Crocker was the one to catch! The dust come up a bit, but you could see the ’sickles plain enough and about four laps in, that 80 Indian blew a big cloud of its own and was out. Wasn’t lookin’ to catch the leader anyways. Meanwhile Hub was kinda hangin’ back and I knew from the sound he hadn’t opened ’er up all the way yet. The race was closer than you’d figure though, and the sprung rear ends on those English machines weren’t holdin’ ’em back much!

 

Hub's reading material page 1

Hub’s reading material page 1

Hub's reading material page 3

Hub’s reading material page 3

Well, come the last lap and Hub was layin’ third behind the Crocker, in front of the English stuff and neck to neck with the JDH! I’ll never forget when they roared onto the front straight, all in a bunch and I finally heard Hub’s engine come full on! Damned if he didn’t pull to the flag at least three bike lengths ahead of the rest! Nippin’ that Crocker didn’t set none too well with that “ringer” who was ridin’ it, but it was too late. The whole town was in the grandstands, and when he crossed the line first, they went plumb crazy! Three days later, the carnival was gone, the professionals went away all quiet and sheepish, and they was still at it! Hub spent most days red in the face from all the attention. Yup… Hub’s choice to get him a overhead valve Sixty-One, they call ’em Knuckleheads these days, was a good one. He knew the value of good machine ain’t always the same as the price of one!

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