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by Genghis


TIMELESS CLASS AND LONGEVITY: The venerable four speed transmission.


There is something uniquely patriotic about riding a Harley 74 on the Fourth of July weekend. Riding a Harley during the Independence Day holiday engenders great reflection and respect for what it means to be American, and what it means to enjoy the freedoms that we Americans have inherited. These freedoms were gained through the blood and sacrifice of our forefathers who declared independence from England in 1776. When I was on my bike "Mabel" today doin' the dawn patrol thing, I gave deep thought and silent thanks for being in a country so magnificent, that I'm able to ride my American motorcycle on the American highways and byways that are as open as our society. There's nothing as patriotic sounding as the cacophany of straight pipes as you're blasting along in fourth gear at 80 miles per hour, with the wind howling its protests in your defiant ears---as if you and your Harley were violating its turf. Invade the wind's territory and conquer, that's the name of the game. Riding a motorcycle is cathartic. Many bikers will tell you that they have their most profound thoughts while winding their machines out approaching redline. I'm sure I'm not alone in this. I can tell you one thought I did not have while on my 74, and it is this:

"Gee, I wish that I had a five or six speed tranny..."

As a reminder of our biker forefathers, Patty and I saw a girl in her twenties on Houston Street two days ago, who was wearing a black t-shirt with a picture of a skull hovering above crossed pistons and rods. Above that were the letters "B.R.M.C."---a replica of the colors of the fictitious Black Rebel Motorcycle Club from "The Wild One" movie. This flick has a special place in the formation of the biker subculture. This 1953 movie inspired many US soldiers newly returned from World War II, to become bikers. Free from the yoke of war, they were as primed as an S & S carb on two kicks with the gas on and ignition off, to fire up for invading the wind's space, ready to conquer the wind as they conquered their enemies in the war. It is hard to imagine that a Hollywood flick could be so influential as to make life imitate art, instead of the other way around. Those bikers committed to being bikers already, recognized 'emselves in the movie's characters, most notably "Chino" played by Lee Marvin.

After I finished my ride today, I felt compelled to pop in the VCR tape of this iconic film into my TV, to experience the inspiration that our biker forefathers originally felt, when they watched this film over a half century ago. The inspiration derived from this film is by no means vicarious in terms of reliving what bikers of 1953 felt when they watched the movie. The inspiration is real, current and as visceral today as it was back then, because of the bikes in the flick like Chino's Harley. Of course, you have to be a hardcore biker to relate to the real-world Harleys shown in the flick. No hundred grand show queens in here, man.

I doubt that the "Easyriders" movie had as much biker cred as "The Wild One." The latter was a one of a kind, once in a lifetime movie of unbelievable influence---whose message reverberates as loudly as a straight-piped Harley today, as it did when the panhead was The Firm's flagship motor in the '50s. While "The Wild One" was rooted in the biker subculture, "Easyriders" was a salute to the drug culture of the '60s---an acid trip accompanied by a couple of Harleys. Motorcycles in "The Wild One" were essential, but merely optional in "Easyriders." One could have substituted a couple of Volkswagens for the bikes in "Easyriders" and the basic message of the movie wouldn't been altered.

Whenever I watch "The Wild One" I can't help but notice how much I relate to Lee Marvin's "Chino" character, moreso than to Brando's character. This is because Lee Marvin's character rides a Harley while the main character played by Brando, was on his personal Triumph. Man, they should've insisted that the main character be on a Harley. It's my guess that Brando insisted on using his own bike as a condition of his participation in the film. This is pure speculation, but I can picture the movie's producer caving in to Brando's demands. Mebbe they should've made Chino's character the main character, with him being far more ruthless than Brando's hypersenitive "Johnny" character. Johnny felt that he was misunderstood by the world. Chino on the other hand, didn't give a crap. FTW, baby.

Bikes like Marvin's in this 58 year old flick are timeless in their outlaw appeal. It is true that our Outlaw 74s are directly descended from bikes like Chino's panhead. I do know that one thing my '71 shovelhead has in common with Lee Marvin's outlaw machine, is the venerable four speed transmission that they share. Indeed, Mabel's transmission's case is virtually identical to the one that transmits power to the drive chain in Chino's machine, except for two added tabs on Mabel's. These tabs were added onto the case in 1965, when electric start was adopted. The tabs supported the new aluminum primary that holds the starter. I felt profound empathy with Lee Marvin's bike as well as his character, because of the common denominator of our traditional four speed trannies.

This fantastic transmisson reigned supreme for fifty years, and may I suggest the obvious: The righteous four speed transmission transmits more power to more Harley-Davidson rear chains and belts, than any other transmission in the history of the biker subculture. The first Harley-Davidson four speed transmission was introduced in 1936 with the 74 cubic inch side valve VL model and the inaugural 61 cubic inch knucklehead E model. It lasted unitl 1986, when the last of the four speed framed Harleys were made by The Firm. The ability of the four speed tranny to go the distance for this expansive stretch of time, speaks to its indestructible nature. Here's a personal anecdote to illustrate the nine lives of this remarkable unit.

A few years ago, my tranny developed a ginormous leak, so I had to ride Mabel to Rosa's Cycles in Huntington, Long Island so that Andrew Rosa could rebuild the tranny. By the time I talked to Andrew about taking her out to him for the rebuild, the tranny was leaking like the Hoover Dam with all the release valves opened. Andrew asked me to ride Mabel to his shop, but I had visions of the tranny running bone dry on the way and imploding as thoroughly as Obama's economic policy. Andrew cryptically said to me.....

"Fill her transmission up just before you leave. You'll make it here without a problem."

Without traffic, the ride to Andrew's shop is little over an hour. I purposely left NYC at 5:00 AM to avoid traffic. Riding would be nerve-wracking enough, just knowing that the tranny was dumping oil as fast as liberals are creating new national debt, without the worrying about getting mired in traffic with dry gears. I wanted to get to Rosa's Cycles as quickly as I could, with a minimum of drama and complication. By the time I got off the Willamsburg Bridge leading onto the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway in Brooklyn, Mabel's tranny had dumped all of the Valvoline gear oil I put in before the ride, and I mean all of it. By that time, the tranny gears were being lubed by petroleum fumes. True to Andrew's word, the tranny didn't miss a beat on the way to his shop. When I got there, Andrew said.....

"See, no problem. These transmissions are so strong and reliable, that you can ride for a long time with very little oil."

The legendary ruggedness of these four speed transmissions cannot be exaggerated, and makes them the modality of choice among traditional bikers. Harley components have been characterized as "tractor-like" because of their toughness, and the bulletproof stature of the revered Harley-Davidson four speed transmission is consistent with this claim. Who needs more than four gears when those four gears are serving you so well? It's like wishing for three cylinders for your Harley mill, when two have done the job since forever. "Big triplet" doesn't have have the class sound of "big twin." To me, extra transmission gears seem as superfluous as fuel injection, computers, circuit breakers and catalytic converters on a Harley. As I said, one thought I did not entertain while riding this morning was.....

"I sure wish I had a six speed tranny, man!"

Why mess with perfection? Many confuse the "newest" or "most" with perfection. Having newer and more, does not perfection make with me, man. Tried and true counts, and quality trumps quantity. Harley's five speed tranny made its debut in 1980 with the FLT. The FXR got it in '82 The Firm's six speed came out of the closet in 2006. Time marches on, but sometimes people miss the forest for the trees. Sometimes what's always been directly in front of people, is absolutely perfect for their needs. Was there a cry in the biker subculture for an additional gear in 1980? If there was, I didn't hear it.

I've never envied FLTs' and FXRs' transmissions, because I'm a True Believer of the traditional four speed transmission, that has served so many bikers in exemplary fashion, for the past 75 years! Think of it, man. Seventy-five years goin' strong and this amazing tranny switches gears on my stroker shovel, as well and as competently as it did for Lee Marvin's panhead in 1953! Truly astonishing from a time perspective. Talk about bending the time-space continuum!

On this Independence Day weekend when I ride my Harley 74, I will rejoice in my four speed Harley-Davidson transmission---Mabel's Four On The Floor on this Fourth Of July. Righteously American and as dependable as our freedoms are, this tranny keeps on keepin' on, man. I don't need no stinkin' five speed transmission. All I need is my bulletproof four speed that'll last me and Mabel forever. Enjoy the Fourth Of July, as we celebrate the uniqueness of American freedom and exceptionalism--something our forefathers foresaw on July 4, 1776. Rejoice in our freedom to ride the blacktop, and our sworn duty to challenge the wind. Later.