It’s amazing what you can assemble from boxes of bits. Odgie accidentally bought a sidevalve Harley. So after deriding them for years, is he won over by the archetypal American V-twin?
It’s amazing what you can assemble from boxes of bits. Odgie accidentally bought a sidevalve Harley. So after deriding them for years, is he won over by the archetypal American V-twin?
I’m not a Harley fan. I was once. At age 14 I promised myself I’d own a Harley one day. It was 1968, the Sunday Times ran a colour supplement on the California Hells Angels. I pasted it on the wall next to my bed, Sonny Barger and Freewheelin’ Frank, all hair and sunshine and huge chrome V-twin engines. One day, I told myself...
It took 21 years. I was in my mid-30s before I had chance to buy a Sportster. But hey, I finally had my Harley. And my first ever, brand-new, zero miles motorcycle. The novelty soon wore off. It was slow, it didn’t handle, the brakes were appalling. Within 1500 miles I had to strip and rebuild the gearbox after discovering that lots of the early Evo Sportsters suffered from gearbox failures (I was told H-D UK were quietly fixing one a month under warranty). They developed a bad habit of selecting two gears at once and firing various components out the back of the cases. Er, crikey. Sure enough, the tolerances were rubbish. I machined and reshimmed it, but such things stay with you.
In the end I made a half-decent machine out of the bike. I bored it to 1200cc, reshaped the combustion chambers and flowed the heads, fitted a performance carb, performance ignition system, Supertrapp exhaust system, changed the wheels and tyres, better brakes, new rear shocks and fork springs. I picked up an old XLCR tank and seat unit for it, and did it out flat-track style (yes, some of us were playing that tune 30 years before the hipsters). But it was worth a fortune, and I could never quite reconcile owning so much motorcycle alongside my usually frugal existence. In the end I sold it, bought a brand new Cossack, a well decent trials bike, and still had kazillions of quids left over. Lesson learned.
Fast forward 25 years. Harley can produce motorcycles that don’t fall apart so easily, and they’ve actually changed the way people buy motorcycles. By offering 627 different styling options around one base design, they do the customising for you. Born again bikers, tired of extracting their Fireblades out of hedges, now relax in the steady throb of a Milwaukee (well, China and India) made V-twin.
And theyth dod it iin droves,d spawningi a steady influx of look-a-likes, not just the marketingsavvy Japanese factories, but you’d be hardpressed to find any company now that doesn’t produce at least one cruiser in its range, even Chinese 125s. The world moves on.
I don’t move on quite so quickly. I still view £30,695 for a Road Glide® Ultra with ‘new for 2016 colour-matched Tour-PakTM lighting bezel and an attractive new seat cover design’ as, well, faintly ludicrous. Admittedly now they’re built in India the basic starter models are comparatively cheaper, but still for that price you could have a properly customised motorcycle, or perhaps more relevantly to the RC reader, a GenuineTM Brit bike. But anyway, I now own a Harley 45.
It came my way by chance, a friend of a friend of a friend needed help after his brother died suddenly and left several containers of motorcycles and parts to be sorted out up in Scotland. We went to give decent prices for the BSAs to help out the widow, but buried in one container was a Harley sidevalve engine. As we progressed deeper, I uncovered a frame, forks, what looked like the right wheels, then even a tank. No gearbox, but then the next time we visited, in another container, I found a large plastic bucket and lots of rusty gears. The gearbox shell looked too big to be anything British, so we added that to the pile. Then I bought the lot.
After filling the little van with two A10s, an M20, and stashing a dismantled heavyweight Harley around them, we trundled back home on the suspension bump stops. As soon as we had the van on the drive, out came all the Harley parts to try and put it together and see what was what. A couple of hours later, it turned out we had 90% of a motorcycle. Crikey.
I ordered up the parts needed to fit it together properly – head bearings and spacers, special nuts and various sundry items. I was impressed with the availability of parts: you can buy just about anything. I chose
to deal with 45parts.eu in the Netherlands, simply because their prices were good and their website easy to navigate. The initial plan was to just get a V5 for it and sell it on – that van full of bikes had cost me every penny of my life savings and also my girlfriend’s – but I couldn’t get a dating certificate without the Harley looking complete, so I needed a gearbox, seat and exhaust.
I spent a day studying rusty gearbox parts, comparing them with exploded diagrams on the internet (how often do I bless Google these days?), then ordering the necessary replacement new parts from Holland. A knowledgeable friend rebuilt the gearbox for me (cheers Nige), which saved me investigating the complexities of assembly and shimming. No bushes here: every single gear and shaft sits on its own loose rollers, these things were clearly made to last. A suitable seat came cheap off eBay, I knocked up some exhausts (from bits of an old BSA A10 siamese system, also from the same shipping container), made or sorted a few other parts needed, took some photos and sent off for the date-cert.
Ah, and then you know how it is. The bike sat in the shed looking at me, me looking at it, and then you start wondering whether it will run...? The engine turned over freely for about 355 degrees then stopped, ditto in the other direction. This had to be piston or crank related – so then you take the heads off, don’t you? Bear in mind that sidevalves have very little piston-to-head clearance, they’re more like a diesel, so it turned out that a combination of loose carbon and rust was simply refusing to be squished at TDC. The valves and seats were rusty and one exhaust valve was stuck open – not surprising since the engine had sat for at least 30 years in a shipping container by the sea – but the bores looked good and the crank felt okay. Mmm.
The barrels were lightly honed, I recut the seats, refaced the valves, and left the crankcases filled to the brim with oil while all this was going on, figuring it would seep into every bearing and moving surface. Old age also makes you cautious, so in deference to good practice, I also stripped, cleaned and checked both oil pumps. Then I drained the crankcases (Harley thoughtfully provide a plug), fitted new rings, and put it all back together.
I had the original Linkert carb, but parts to refurbish them are beyond extortionate and they’re a rubbish carb anyway. I had an old A65 carb to hand. I’d replaced both because one was blocked in the idle circuit, but the other was half decent. I don’t do cfm calculations when swapping carbs, I’m just a simple soul. I just think to myself, A65 – 46bhp with two carbs, versus Harley 45 – 23bhp with one carb. In my world that means the air- fuel requirements can’t be that much different. So I made a manifold and stuck the old 30mm Concentric on the side.
Of course, nothing is ever that simple. For reasons best known to God and Willie G, the 45 runs an internal throttle cable through the handlebars… except it isn’t a cable, it’s a wire. When you twist the throttle it pushes the carb open rather than pulling it. I couldn’t quite fathom how to make that operate the Amal without horrendous complications, so in the end I just dismantled and removed the internal system and used a normal one-inch external twistgrip assembly and with a new cable I made up to suit. Then I hot-wired a battery to an old twin-post coil, poured some petrol from my trusty jug down the fuel pipe, and let’s give her a kick.
Cough, splutter, slight roar, die. Hmm, this thing’s got legs.
Having gone completely soft in my old age, I pushed it off the bike bench and took it outside, not wishing to repeat in the volatile confines of the shed the small fire me and our kid had just caused in his unit while trying to start one of the A10s in similar circumstances. I could get the Harley to run, but it was eightstroking like crazy and I couldn’t pour petrol down the fuel pipe fast enough. A simple mistake, under the tight confines of the tank as I’d fitted the slide, the needle had pushed up the clip. Drop it back down to the middle
‘As any good petrol-head knows, it is torque that makes acceleration, and power that makes speed’
groove, add a bit of retard, kick, and... go!
Mmm, runs pretty nicely in fact, all things considered this counted as A Good Result. I couldn’t actually ride it because there were no brakes, which is particularly less than ideal with a hand change and foot clutch, but I stuck a big block of wood in front of it and tried to find a gear. I found one too, but the clutch was dragging heavily, so we lurched forward over the wood and (luckily) stalled. Time to stop playing now before I launch myself and several grand’s worth of vintage motorcycle into the wall.
As you keep getting sucked in, so the plot keeps thickening. Now I wanted to ride it. I relined the brakes, fitted new clutch plates and a primary chain, made a gate for the side of the tank so I could see where the gears were meant to be, hooked up the left hand twistgrip to the distributor (again when you twist it, it pushes and pulls the distributor to provide advance/retard – the original fly-by-wire?). Then I set off again.
A Harley 45 isn’t the easiest bike to ride at low speed. The clutch is left foot, but counterintuitive. So you press your heel onto the rear of the rocking pedal, select first, then roll your foot forwards slowly, eventually pressing down with your toe to engage drive. Of course, during all this you can’t put your left foot down for balance. After ending up in the neighbour’s garden, I soon learned to do my U-turns at the end of the drive to the right instead of the left.
The brakes were dire too, so stopping was still an issue. With a few more new parts and a good coat of looking at, I got the rear brake to be acceptable, but three rebuilds later the front was still pretty useless. Even with everything optimised and the adjustment set to slight drag, the lever still came back to the bars with all the minimal braking which that entails. The front linings are tiny, only covering half the shoes and not a lot bigger than a Bantam, but I did hear the Americans deliberately reduced front braking so inexperienced riders didn’t keep bringing themselves off. Mmm.
Then I remembered the small hole halfway down the front brake arm. Well… no harm in fitting the cable end to that as an experiment. And that was a revelation. Suddenly the front brake actually did something. Which begs the question, did Harley put two holes deliberately, a spongy one for inexperienced riders, and an ‘expert’ setting once you actually knew how to ride properly?
Anyway, that was it. I was rapidly running out of excuses for not taking it out on the road... Now bikes don’t normally intimidate me. I’ve ridden everything from Brough Superiors to Raleigh Runabouts, I’ve raced nitro drag bikes and methanol scrambles TriBSAs, I’ve built and ridden the most oddball choppers and I love the quirky eccentricity of the Zenster. I jump on most things with gay abandon and nary a care. But I was wary of the 45. Which was an interesting and unusual place to find myself. I’d mastered most of the various single aspects of its controls on other motorcycles, but something about the combination of left-foot, counterintuitive clutch, left hand shift and fairly minimal brakes was bothering me. I really must be getting old.
Our lass pointed out that I could van it to an industrial estate, instead of pulling out from the shed directly onto the busy dual-carriageway, which made sense but felt a bit too sissy even at my advancing years. ‘Do one thing every day that scares you’ as the old mantra goes, and away we went into the traffic.
In truth, you do soon get used to the clutch, you just retrain your mind to do what you want rather than what it wants. And then you get to enjoy the motorcycle. First off I was initially surprised by the turn of acceleration. It’s a heavy bike to propel, with not much power. But of course it has huge dollops of torque, and as any good petrolhead knows,
‘More fun than an amusement park’ claimed the 1930 advert which featured the recently introduced 45. In its original form, the 45 cubic inch (or 746cc) side-valve V-twin was denoted the Model D but most folk will recognise its ‘Liberator’ WLA and WLC incarnations. Around 90,000 military editions were built for WW2 and the 45 remained in production until 1951.
The 1929 Model D crammed its new engine into an existing frame borrowed from the smaller, single cylinder Model B. It featured removable Ricardo heads, battery and coil ignition, a dry clutch and three-speed gearbox – and a generator which stuck out sideways, due to the lack of space! The 45-degree Vee output 18.5bhp, good enough to propel the 45’s 390lb to 70mph.
A new frame for 1930 meant that by 1932 the generator had been repositioned to somewhere more sensible. Dry sump lubrication arrived in 1937, and by 1938 the dirt-track competition WLDR has been boosted to 27bhp which gave 85mph and more. However, you don’t need a hot-rod for slow speed military manoeuvres, so the WLA was detuned back to 23bhp. It gained a new clutch and transmission but, fully equipped, weighed a whopping 540lb. That kept top speed to a sensible 60mph.
These days, a WLA or similar 45 in ‘needs completely rebuilding’ condition will sell for a sniff under £10k. Ready to ride examples starts at around £12,000 but prices rapidly escalate to north of £20k. All of which is a little bit different to 1930, when ‘the cost is so low – a Harley-Davidson is easy to buy and its upkeep is only a penny or two per mile…’ it is torque that makes acceleration, and power that makes speed. The torque shouldn’t surprise anybody. A full 750cc, two cylinders arranged in a V and low-compression side-valve tick all the right boxes.
The left-hand shift takes a bit of getting used to and, with a newly rebuilt gearbox with lots of new parts in, it was still a little notchy on the first to second shift. But the three gears are well spaced, allied with grunt from tickover which means once you’re in top you hardly need anything else, and if you do need to drop into second it changes pretty easily. For some strange reason my gear lever has more travel than other 45s I’ve seen, and the action is the wrong way round for the model – you come back for first rather than forward. Doesn’t bother me at all. It seems the logical way to change gear anyway; pushing forward to change up and pulling back to change down. So although I’ve no idea why it’s ended up reversed, I was quite happy with it.
Despite its meagre shoe area, the front brake isn’t all that bad. I don’t mean it’s good, but it is on a par with Brit bikes of the era. Ditto the back, which needs a firm foot (all right, a fairly hefty one), but using both in conjunction means you can travel pretty quickly without too much fear. Handling? Well, it goes round corners OK. But on 40 year-old tyres, on a bike with no ground clearance and a value higher than all my other bikes put together, I wasn’t going to play at Barry Sheene. But it tracks true enough and feels competent beneath you, which is always a good sign, so I threw it around reasonably confidently. The front forks work well, that same easy-going absorption of undulations you get with good
girders, while the seat springs were a little hard for my racing weight of ten stone, but would no doubt suit a rider of more ample proportions.
Other than pulling away from left-hand junctions, when the availability of a steadying left foot is, er, unavailable, the clutch isn’t really a problem. In fact, the whole gear change process becomes one of those rewarding things to master that you find on all unconventional motorcycles.
So all in all, it’s quite a nice bike to ride. And if that sounds like a hint of damning with faint praise, maybe it is. It’s a groovy old motorcycle, don’t get me wrong, yet I can’t bring myself to rave about it. It has class and character and presence and a price tag to match. But it just never engaged me somehow. All the way through rebuilding it and working on it I could never get emotionally involved with it. We never made any sort of connection somehow. At the same time I was also fixing up a humble Villiers 8E powered Francis-Barnett. At a tenth the value of the Harley, I got far more pleasure and involvement from fannying about with the Fanny B than I did from the Harley.
So I never really finished the 45. I rode it a few times and did quite enjoy taking it for a blast, but I never got round to sorting out a charging system. I just kept it hotwired to a 12V battery, never fitted a speedo cable (most of my bikes don’t have speedos fitted anyway), and simply put it up for sale. Don’t ask me to explain why, I can’t explain it to my mates who think of it as a dream bike and can’t understand my lack of interest. And of course it will be somebody’s dream bike: I have one friend who bought his own Harley 45 when aged 22 and has been riding it and loving it for the last 35 years. It just wasn’t my dream bike. But then, it wasn’t meant to be when I bought it. It was simply a way to buy and sell and add some extra cash to the racing fund. Maybe that makes all the difference: it was only ever a means to an end.
Or maybe Harleys just really aren’t my thing, man.
Power – and torque – from the engine pass through a conventional primary drive and a beefy clutch to the gearbox. There’s lots for the rider’s left-side limbs to handle … like the foot clutch and hand shift
this,The T youthfulwith lots rebelof Harleys market prominentwas somehow among inspiredthe awfulby moviesacting and like dire dialogue
The gate for the gears – Odgie made his own, so no surprises there
The 3-speed gearbox needs to be robust, and indeed it is. Nothing on the 45 is exactly delicate
The original carb was a Linkert, but Odgie walked his own path an fitted an Amal intended for a BSA. Works well…
The centre of attention must be this, the 45 cubic inch engine – near-enough 750cc of sidevalve grunt
Left: That foot clutch. Press down with your heel to disengage the drive; engage a gear and push down with your toe to get going. This leaves you just one foot to balance with. Easy…
Right: View from above. If it was still using the original ignition and throttle controls, there would be no visible cables. However…
Below: Heavy metal: Harley’s seriously rugged 750 sidevalve twin
Left: All you need to know is here
Above and below: Harley’s girder forks work well, despite appearing a little unusual to most British eyes (although some Brough Superior types might find them familiar). The front brake eventually provided sufficient stopping power for Odgie to feel a little comfortable – observe the two holes to mount the cable in the operating lever