S&S Cycle

By Robert Filla

Six decades of proven performance

It’s doubtful that George Smith ever envisioned the motorcycle aftermarket empire that S&S Cycle would eventually become. A powerhouse like none other, S&S has risen from the mere passion of racing the fastest Harley on the strip to being a leader in performance products used around the world.

Starting with a 1939 61” basket-case Knucklehead, in 1952 S&S founder George J. Smith scrounges parts from larger Flathead Harleys, increasing the bike’s displacement to 80”. He then heavily modifies the Knuckle’s head design. The “need for speed” is so intense, Smith also switches to a radical new fuel, nitromethane. He then begins to campaign the race bike, nicknamed “Tramp,” at a local Chicago dragstrip with great success. A refined version of Tramp would soon appear at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Flats would eventually serve as a future test site for developing new products.

After acquiring the company Flathead Power, S&S developed their own line of vintage engines and parts
After acquiring the company Flathead Power, S&S developed their own line of vintage engines and parts

S&S Cycle is established in 1958, and the first product offered is a lightweight aluminum solid lifter pushrod kit for Knuckleheads and Panheads. The production facility is in the basement of Smith’s home in Blue Island, Illinois. The shop is relocated to the rural town of Viola, Wisconsin, in 1969. Business continues to increase due to success at the Salt Flats by riders using S&S performance products. National wins on dragstrips across the country only further bolster the S&S reputation for quality.

And then in 1975, the Super series of carburetors with its distinctive teardrop air cleaner is released and takes the V-Twin world by storm. Easy to tune and jet, it soon becomes the most popular aftermarket carb ever produced, used by custom builders and backyard mechanics alike. Following on the heels of the Super carb, S&S develops their large-displacement Sidewinder cylinder and piston kits with cams and valves springs next on the list. Speed records at Bonneville continue to tumble due to the use of S&S performance parts.

The Grand National exhaust is derived from the company's flat track racing mufflers
The Grand National exhaust is derived from the company’s flat track racing mufflers

In the mid ’90s, S&S begins production of Evolution-style long blocks and eventually expands to include complete engines ready to install. During an interview with Dave Zemla, VP of marketing, Thunder Press asked how crucial the production of S&S Cycle engines was to the rapidly expanding establishment of OEM manufacturers such as American IronHorse and Big Dog Motorcycles. In modest fashion, Zemla responded, “We certainly cannot take credit for the rise of the production custom, but we were certainly proud to have worked with some great brands during that period.”

When asked about the process used by OEM production manufacturers to secure S&S engines, Zemla replied, “Early on, small volume OEMs were buying our off-the-shelf engines. As time wore on and the vehicle manufacturer requirements evolved (including the need for emissions compliance), the engine packages changed. Different manufacturers had different combinations to meet the requirements set forth by the CARB and EPA. In some cases engines were sold to our volume customers at a component level, to be assembled by their technicians. Predictably engine sales dropped after many of the production custom manufacturers left the market, but we’ve seen a fair rise in demand across the last few years as several generations of OEM powerplants near the end of their useful lives. In many cases it is less expensive to use our long blocks than to rebuild the original motor and we include a two-year warranty on top of that.” As for the company’s take on the future of motorcycling in America, Zemla comments, “We are still seeing strength in the market as our product line is just as relevant for a 10- or 20-year-old bike as it is for a new machine.”

The Mini-Teardrop Air Cleaner is one of the company's latest designs
The Mini-Teardrop Air Cleaner is one of the company’s latest designs

In 2000, the last major construction at the Viola complex was finished. In 2004 S&S opened an additional facility in La Crosse, Wisconsin. Together both locations employ 250 people. Along the way, they developed a Variable Fuel Injection module and debuted the X-Wedge, a proprietary 117” fuel injection engine. The same year S&S acquired Flathead Power, which became the basis for the company’s vintage line of engines and parts, and set nine more land speed records. While a number of the company’s parts in the field are in the six figures, the S&S Super E and Super G carbs are well on their way to one million units sold. And other than raw castings and chroming, all parts are manufactured and finished in-house at S&S’s two plants.

This year, in celebration of 60 years in business, S&S Cycle will present the Rumble at the Ranch on September 23. It will be a day of racing at the Viola compound featuring five different classes including the Hooligan Shootout, a women’s invitational, a pull-start mini-bike brawl, 100cc Pit Bike Pillage and, of course, a lawn tractor division—“a celebration of internal combustion happiness.”

In closing, Dave Zemla said, “As we enter an amazing six decades of building performance, we’d like to say thank you for each and every one of you that’s bolted on a part, asked your dealer for our stuff or built a bike around one of our engines. It’s your passion and your feedback that keeps us doing what we do best.”

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