I have been a continuously licensed motorcycle operator since 1964 (not counting a couple of short periods of “suspension” in the early years) so I’m coming up hard and fast on my 51st year as a “biker.” Fact is, at the time, you could get a provisional motorcycle license in Colorado (5 hp limit) at the age of 14. I got my learner’s permit at 13 3/4… Nya-ah-Ha! Aboard my first 80cc machine I was a free man! That was the main thing for me at the time. Like quite a few of my peers, the notion was to use the ring-ding for a couple of years, until I could get both license and funds for a car. That was until one bright sunny spring day in 1966.
I don’t remember where I had been riding that day, or what day it was exactly. What I do recall, most vividly, is what was sitting in the driveway when I got home! Unbeknownst to me, my father had been paying more attention than I thought to just how much fun I was having on my little motorcycle. Dad was also a firm believer in the axiom that it’s never too late to have a happy childhood… and the corollary… if little is good, bigger must be better. Not exactly an impulse buyer, he had nonetheless gone to look at used Harleys at the dealer on East Colfax, a wonderful place with polished wood floors (used to be a bowling alley, the rumor went) and a musky smell of oil, hot metal and… yeah I’ll say it… sweat. As dark and inviting a shop as ever graced a boulevard, in my opinion, right down to the glass showcases and roped-off Vincent in the middle of that floor. Well… long story short… the old man made a purchase that day. A purchase that would alter both our lives forever.
His “purchase” was still making those great “tinking” sounds as the engine cooled when I rode up. My vast motorcycling experience, all couple years of it, had simply not prepared me for the impact of this black and red monster! His “new” 9-year-old Panhead dresser looked so gigantic sitting there next to my little scooter that I was overwhelmed. I just stood there, all 5’8″ and 130 pounds of me, running about 10,000 thoughts and questions through my mind at lightning speed. First among ’em, as I slowly circled the thing, half expecting it to roar at me then bite me hard… was, “Would he let me ride it?” (Yup!) Followed immediately by, “Can I even start the thing?” (not usually) and “Christ… if I fall, can I pick it up?” (No chance!) Crowded out of my mind by the prospects of all this and much more, I completely forgot I was still a few months away from being able to operate it legally, let alone literally.
Never before or since has a machine had such power over my psyche. It changed my thinking right then and there. No longer would I lust much for a car. From then on motorcycles (especially the ones from Milwaukee) would be a mainstay of my soul desires, setting me on a career path, an avocation and vocation, a passion and a purpose to my whole damn life… for better or worse. None of which could I imagine in my wildest dreams, even two seconds before I laid eyes on that 1957 Panhead cooling off in the driveway.
All this impact was adroitly sheathed in two-tone paint, a windshield with what my brother called a “purse” attached, a set of rorty pipes, a big fat kick-start pedal and challenges… lots of challenges… and promise. That 1957 Pan was anything but substitute for shoe leather! It was a university of passions, and I had a lot to learn. Sad to say, no decent pictures survive, only a “still” from a 15-second clip from an 8mm movie camera, taken when Dad took Mom for her first ride. The quality is abysmal, essentially useless and a major regret, but there’s nothing to be done. So, all I have are memories. Here are a random few:
Back then, when “big” was a 500 and none of my riding buddies had anything larger than a 305 Honda, Dad on that Pan during a group ride reminded me of nothing less than a big shark swimming along with a bunch of minnows.
Though I couldn’t (and wouldn’t) try to match Dad’s choice of machine, first priority for me was a bigger bike. By that winter I had saved paper-route money and talked him into cosigning for a 250cc X6 Suzuki… a small step towards the “big time” I aspired to.
Didn’t matter—could not hang with the Pan! See, it turned out, nothing would! That ’57 was fast! My buddy Chuck bought a brand-new, fastest-thing-they-made-at-the-time 1967 Triumph TT, which I rode from the dealer to his house, since he didn’t have a license. Didn’t matter… the Pan would leave the Triumph for dead.
Once, my friend Steve and I had to drive a car up in the mountains to Granby, then ride the Pan home because Mom had an attack of colitis and it cut their vacation short. On the way back, we were clocked and stopped by a cop who chased us at over 100 mph on the Boulder Turnpike! Two-up on the bike, he had a hard time catching us in his prowler… a good thing… since by the time we were alongside the road and “chatting” with the officer, Dad pulled up behind him. After he explained the circumstances and apologized for the “crazy kid stuff,” Steve was let off with a warning. To paraphrase: “Take it easy, kid—we know how fast they are!”
Our friend Marty once spent an afternoon on the Pan spinning “doughnuts” (with bright sparks off the floorboards) and leaving long black stripes the entire 100-yard length of the Ranum High School parking lot. By the summer of ’69 I had a pin-sharp 1967 BSA Spitfire (since I couldn’t afford a decent Sportster) and Dad wanted a “prettier” bike. Enter the (older but considerably prettier) 1952 FL he bought from some old boy up in the mountains for $500. It was only then that we discovered just how exceptional the ’57’s performance was. After it was too late, we found that it had been stroked, ported and was blessed with a Sifton cam! The bone-stock (but considerably prettier) ’52 was a slug by comparison!
A veritable parade of motorcycles had already passed in and out of my hands when I finally went to work at Harbor City Harley-Davidson not quite 10 years later. Mere weeks after that, some fool Englishman gave up a 1957 Sportster, which I got to buy for what we gave for it in trade on a new one. I’ll keep this story short… by 1983 that bike and I had become dear friends and it had collected a factory “100,000 mile” pin, back when The Motor Company did that kind of thing… and it mattered. I packed it in the back of my old Dodge van and “we” went on a six-month vagabond session, ending up in North Carolina. Some well-heeled gent from the land of the rising sun offered me more money than it was ever worth, by a lot, and I was Harley-less.
Not long after, I wound up working in San Diego at South Coast Harley, and built a Sporty! These days, they would probably call it a cafe racer. To me, it was always just the “Mutt” what with its “massaged” and cammed 1973 engine, XR750 clutch and tranny innards, 1982 frame (which “couldn’t be done”… Ha!), trick shocks and quite a host of tweaks and mods. Ran great… if you could start it. Sold it to a customer who had followed the project, was totally enamored of it… and could start it!
That shop was also an extreme rarity in that they were a Buell dealer before Harley had anything to do with it. Notable in my memory and experience was the use of a new 1989 RR1200 as my dealer “demo.” Very much a “kit” bike in those days, the Buell was as trick as hell and plenty fast all the same! The day I got stopped six times in 20 miles, just so folks (and cops) who had never seen one could, stands out in my mind. About a year later I finally hit the H-D bullseye… once and for all. My kid brother (at my behest) had bid on a retired 1985 FXRP at a police auction… and won! When he lost his job shortly afterwards, he freaked out and sold it to me for what he paid (cheap!) and I’ve had it ever since! I’ve “bought it” about four times over with all the mods and iterations it’s been through over the last quarter-century, but I don’t give a damn; it’s the only one of its kind and it ain’t goin’ nowhere. The ol’ hoss is my perfect bike, my “Holy Grail” and as I’m prone to say at the drop of a hat, I may own other bikes in addition, but never instead of my FXR! It is faster than Dad’s ’57 Pan too. A lot faster! Finally!
Then there’s Buell number two, a standard 1995 S2 Thunderbolt as I acquired it… again as a “demo” and “lab rat” for a Buell magazine I was tech editor for, called BATTLE 2 WIN. You can look around and somewhere close by see both before and after pics of it… an endeavor that turned out nicely. It also reminded me (frequently) that a dialed-in Buell has limits in handling and power, which were rapidly exceeding my riding capabilities… nice when it wasn’t scary! After a couple of years of fun and games, that bike went to the good home of a nice fella I worked with at Custom Chrome.
Mind you, it’s not like I didn’t have “flings” with other brands… damn near every one of ’em! So many bikes I’ve lost count! But Harley-wise it was me and the “FiXeR” for most years since the 1990’s. Then outta the blue came the Benson Buell, in the worst way ever to get one. As I’ve written some time ago in my last self-indulgent (but hopefully entertaining) column, I got my 2004 XB12 as a result of the death of my best friend. Somehow I suspect he knew I should have it, would like it and he was OK with it. Now, there are two (of my nine) machines that will be with me until I join Benson for the big ride. All I can add to that is that this XB is a treat. How could it not be to an old Sportster fan? It’s light, the size of a 250, has a massive and friendly powerband, more of it than any Sportster, handles like a weasel in a drain pipe, and stops harder than anything I’ve ever ridden. Mine has been a picture of reliability too… for over 50,000 miles. No… really! (It doesn’t hurt that it has benefited from an oil pump upgrade (2007 version) and a bronze gear to match… to go with the full-on factory race kit it has.)
The point—sort of—is that after almost half a century of riding and writing tech for a quarter of a century, the message is clear. Harleys are better than ever, never were anything short of awesome, and are more than able to change people’s lives in a flash. Just like that ol’ Pan changed mine… a long time ago… in a lifetime far, far away!