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GOING THE DISTANCE
by DAVID SNOW
Photo by Genghis
XLCH: A Towering Bitch Goddess to love/hate.
Animal Mother Bummer---- Half an XLCH.
Was really bummed when I gradually discovered last month that the bike I’m riding is not what I thought it was. No, in all my years of Harley riding I never accepted the critique that a Sportster is half-a-Harley, but I now know that Animal Mother is only half an XLCH.
Make no mistake, her black heart is all CH. The motor is a ball-busting, 110% pure Dire Bitch Goddess 1969 XLCH fired by a genuine magneto manufactured by Fairbanks-Morse for Harley-Davidson that will destroy your ligaments and pride if you ever make the mistake of taking her for granted for even the slimmest of split-seconds. I love her dearly. No problem there.
We’re talking about a matter of inches--- a measly inch and a half to be precise. Who’s gonna notice? Only deranged purists who know that a miss is as good a mile and you either ride the RealFuckinDeal or you don’t. You see, within the hardcore 1957-’85 Ironhead community there exists an even harder core of Ironheaders. These crazy mofos don’t just make the obvious distinction between the post-’78 frame change Ironheads, nor do they merely scorn later left-side shifting pretenders or those bored-out 61-inch overcompensating deviations from the true path of 900cc righteousness. Nor is this even a matter of looking with disdain upon the AMF era. All that stuff’s a given--- glaring to even the casual observer. Nope, within the hardest corps of the Ironhead road gang who ride with oil-splattered pride the first generation of Harley’s Superbike (1957-’69), there are those who maintain and emphasize the critical distinction between the “long-frame” XLs and the “short-frame” XLs. After riding HDs for years, after writing for various Harley mags for years, I am ashamed to admit I’d never heard of this level of XL hair-splitting.
It began to dawn on me that something wasn’t quite right with Animal Mother. I would cast admiring glances her way every night before bedtime, as she’s parked inside my mountain cave. Over the course of a few winter weeks, researching early Sportster history from the WL through the K model to the first XL, scoping out bike features in old issues of Easyriders, Choppers, Big Bike, etc., not the least of which was Scott Wong’s great black and white photos of Sally the Bitch, I hate to admit that my admiration took a critical turn. Infatuation evolved into evaluation. I started to make comparisons and began to feel uneasy about Animal Mother. Suspicions that were confirmed by a “long-frame vs. short-frame” post on the Ironhead forum I frequent.
Here’s the deal: the original XLs (the XLH, XLCH, XLR) had a 57-inch wheelbase. With the introduction of electric starting in 1967, the wheelbase was extended to 58.5” to accommodate the electric start junk. The extra 1.5” came in relocated top shock mounts and a longer swingarm. The 57” frames were phased out altogether in 1969 along with the magneto ignition and the RealFuckinDeal XLCHs. Somewhere in Animal Mother’s past, she was removed from her 57” cradle and placed in an electric start frame--- I believe in a effort to maximize her pseudo-chopper profile without going to the trouble of actually chopping a frame. When I first got her she sported that Crazy Frank’s rear fender/seat/taillight combo, the narrow springer & Frisco-style tank. I think the guy who built the bike back in the ‘70s went for a long wheelbase stock frame to approximate the chopper styling of the day.
I was disappointed. I thought I had the ultimate of the hardest of the hardcore Harleys, the barest of the most bare-knuckle bikes ever made--- a short, light and tight XLCH. Overly critical? Some of my fellow forum members didn’t get it, couldn’t care. Just ride, they said. Apostates. An inch and a half may seem minuscule, but if you really ride, you know that’s a big deal when you’re talking a bike’s wheelbase--- especially if you make that twisty, misty mountain hop every day and dig zipping in and out of traffic and have to daily maneuver up and down into a trailer.
It took all of 10 minutes of ebay surfing to get over it. Ironhead parts are incredibly cheap and plentiful. Thank the biker godz nobody wants anything to do with the nasty beasts. Original, cherry short XLCH frames go for 400 bucks, swingarms for $60. A new project, a new quest, a new aspect of Harley history to discover, debate and live. I’ll be building my REAL XLCH rolling chassis on the side, while I’m riding Animal Mother. When the time comes, I’ll drop her into her rightful home and she will be complete and restored to her true glory, in a short frame as Harley intended. Then… I’ll start looking for an electric-start Ironhead mill to drop into the pseudo-chopper long-frame. I’m pretty sure I’ll need that button at some point.