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Motorhead Memo: Man-Made, Machine-Made

By Kip Woodring

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Now where were we? Oh, yeah, I was blathering on about the Industrial Revolution, The American System, interchangeable parts, simple tools and craftsmen, smart tools and semi-skilled labor, the four founders and how they got to be the biggest motorcycle manufacturer on earth within 20 years of humble beginnings. Call it the “four little founders and how they grew.” But there’s more… (As if you didn’t know).

Many know that by 1920 Harley-Davidson was building over 27,000 machines a year. How they did it is nowhere near as well documented as it should be, but it’s safe to presume, with the exception of the moving assembly line, they were using all the tricks in the mass-production book, but I find myself very curious indeed about the mindset of the four men most responsible. Particularly when, one year later, the bottom dropped out of the motorcycle market! You see, far less publicly spouted is the reality that in 1921 the factory made less than half as many machines as the banner year of 1920! It would stay that way until the last couple of years of the decade and worse. Just as the company clawed its way back, the Great Depression hits! (Nearby somewhere you’ll see depression-era production figures for H-D and its only competition. Pretty grim.)

So, if Ford’s moving assembly line and simple cheap car stuck it to The Motor Company in the 20’s and a total economic collapse got them in the 30’s, the backstory of how they survived has got to be good. The fact is, that mindset of the hard-headed Davidsons and Bill Harley led to the ballsiest decision in the history of the company. Can you imagine the nerve it took in those darkest days of 1932–1933 to go ahead with the creation of a radical new OHV model, knowing that if it turned out to be a flop it would sink the company? Mind you, the four founders were well off by then and could’ve folded the tent and walked away, or stayed with the tried and true and likely watch their company die a slow death, unless and until fate intervened. But no! History shows the crap shoot went right for them, and the Knucklehead was a roaring success. Why, you can understand, but how? OK, file this next bit under “Things I can’t prove as a fact, but know to be true.”

There was no way Harley-Davidson could compete with the massive, emerging American auto industry. Ford, GM and eventually Chrysler exemplified the American System (although they did not invent it)… right down to the moving assembly line, and more critically, a concept that came to be known as “economies of scale.” When motorcycle sales in the U.S. fell through the floor as a result, Harley must’ve fought back in certain ways that (ironically) the car guys couldn’t. Amongst the most intriguing of these is the notion of combining craft and workmanship with a sort of semi-mass production. You could almost stretch a point and call it production by the masses, in this case the “masses” actually being a handful of experienced experts. I mean, picture the tough choices the founders had to make regarding expenses and options in a downturn. Use only part of your new factory, streamline operations as much as possible, concentrate on models that sell, cut prices and, more importantly, dismiss excess staff. Ah! There’s the tricky part and probably the trick. Keep the people with skills and good work ethics to see you through… right? It seems to me that was exactly the course open to them at the time and if you accept the premise that a hand-picked crew would be the best way to get the job done under the circumstances, read on.

The idea of craft and workmanship

Because they were primitive mechanical devices, motorcycles of the era were demanding of considerable craft and workmanship for purely functional reasons. Without a certain attention to detail and ample skills, a flathead Harley simply would not work well, if it worked at all! If ever there were a time when your product had to be good and reliable, it was then! So, Harley had to have craftsmen of a high caliber to compete. Face it: tolerances and fitment weren’t what they are today, so a talented fitter building a flathead Harley would, often as not, resort to “selective fitment.” Fishing through the parts bin and finding the pieces that were most harmonious when slung together on a fresh engine and its chassis, “on the fly,” took quite a bit of skill, craft and workmanship. The pace wasn’t all that relentless, working for the founders (as opposed to Henry Ford), so it all worked out quite well. The point I’m trying to get to, however, is that nothing is ever totally machine-made or totally man-made. It’s the balance and blend that matters. Flexibility in the approach and the process is the key and in my honest opinion, the founders found it, and that’s why Harley-Davidson survived! That’s still not quite all there is to it, though. Since we’ve already moved beyond the stuff that all boys and girls have been taught about modern manufacturing, shall we grownups move on to the backside of that moon, the side no one sees?

The backside of the motorcycle moon

In our modern world of readily available, throw-away possessions, it is difficult to grasp that the earliest motorcycles were considered expensive, impractical rarities that imparted great (somewhat mystical) social power to their owners. To own a motorcycle, then more than now put one in a position of bucking social stature and influencing the behavior of those who did not have access to the machines or the experience. Thus it was appropriate—for social reasons, as well as the best possible mechanical function that craft-for-craft’s-sake be lavished upon these early machines. Not just by the manufacturers, but by professional mechanics and, yes, owners. Discrete crafts that could be seen added value, beauty and prestige to the mechanical craft within. But good, honest workmanship has always required that the craft and skill within be equal to or better than anything similar exhibited on the outside.

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Sure, in the 1920’s H-D motorcycles may have been crude, but they were complex. As in full of shims and spacers and bushings, all of which needed to be set to certain clearances and dimensions. Shimming the gears in a transmission so the various cogs would engage properly can be an art form. Just ask anyone who has rebuilt an old Big Twin four-speed (dating from 1936, by the way) how tricky it is to get smooth engagement, no grinding, and no popping out of gear. And that’s to say nothing of adjusting the setup on shift forks as well! Assembling flywheels, setting rod clearance, truing the shafts and endplay adjustment were likewise not for the faint-hearted. Bushings had to be reamed; piston clearance and ring end-gap were checked by experience and hand tools. The list goes on. In other words, these Harleys were as much man-made as machine-made. The men got very good too, but never perfect. A prospective buyer, back when, always secretly hoped his bike was “built on a Wednesday” because everyone knew that if it was built on a Friday the assembler’s mind might be on plans that night after work, or on a Monday the same fella might be shaking off a hangover, either, if true, affecting the reliability and durability of the new owner’s machine. Selective fitment indeed! Could that be a reason Harleys of the era had no warranty to speak of (like a 90-days maximum, if at all) for decades?

Today, there’s a certain pretentious aura surrounding “hand-built” engines, partly because it is such a rarity and partly because the notion lingers that such engines are somehow better than those assembly-line jobs. A crackerjack worker on H-D’s “between the wars” production would likely laugh that off, once he saw just how precise and simplified assembly line engines are in the 21st century. In his day, as we have seen, it was necessary, but not anymore. The simple reality is manufacturing technology has moved inexorably towards complex tooling and simple tasks to get the job done. Our ancient craftsman would be relieved to find most of the fiddly jobs he was tasked with daily are no longer required. On the other hand, he would lament that fact that bit by bit the notion of building has outmoded the notion of rebuilding.

Dumbing down designs

In those dark old days of slide rules and blueprints, all those shims and bushings were mandatory, just like the men who knew how to make up for production variations. As machine tools got smarter, men got dumber and engines used far fewer of increasingly precise interchangeable parts. Just the reduction in usage of those kinds of bits and pieces accounts for something like a 30-percent reduction in the number of components required to build the machines. That’s a third less stuff to go wrong! It also saves precious dollars which can be allocated to other areas like research and development, parts and accessories and marketing. Oh, and updating and upgrading to state-of-art machinery to make motorcycles even more efficiently and effectively, not to mention hiring key people to keep things humming along! Frankly, it has become a hallmark of clever design to get the fewest parts to do the most work. That’s fine. But, make no mistake, it also tends to remove the owner, as well as the dealership technicians, from the equation. Machines that were “built to be rebuilt” had to be, because slop and slack in the manufacture and assembly could not be eliminated with the technology (and metallurgy) of the day, no matter how skilled and crafty the workmanship. Consequently, the dealer and the owner got far more involved in maintaining and repairing the Harleys of yesteryear. Since, as we have seen, there weren’t that many Harleys, or dealers, or owners back then it was OK. The system worked because the dealer knew every customer he had, and their motorcycle’s particular quirks and strengths and owners kept the motorcycle so long they usually named it. Things were familiar, quaint, friendly, intimate and enduring, laying the foundations for an American motorcycle culture with echoes of that ethos that linger on today.

But, on the other hand, owners don’t do rebuilds these days, most dealers can’t really overhaul an engine or transmission because the factory has a remanufacture program and mechanics don’t often have access to full machine shops. But perhaps most of all because those skills, crafts and workmanship are becoming as obsolete as the machines that needed them. There’s a reason the folks that work in service departments these days are called technicians instead of mechanics. They can swap out parts but not make them. They can tune an EFI bike with a computer but are losing touch with carburetors and their foibles and strengths. Owners are even further removed from the routine tasks that used to be part of ownership. That’s nobody’s fault; it’s the way of the world. A world where “built to be rebuilt” has become “built to never need rebuilding,” a fairly crafty concept in its own right.

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