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GOING THE DISTANCE
Photo by Genghis
LATE MODEL SPORTSTER: Flunks the Tradition Litmus test.
"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....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....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 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...."
Late model Sportsters have always left me cold. Looking at a later Sportster has the same visceral reaction in me, as examining a package of week-old chopped chuck in the supermarket's meat section: No saliva-production and if I'm lucky, a minimalist appetite. Subsistence ain't enough, man. Sure, it might fill my belly until the next unstimulating piece of nutrition comes along, but it sure doesn't do much for the hunger in my brain for Hardcore Traditional Harley Meat. Feed me some red meat, baby! Don't throw dollops of Half-A-Real-Sportster in my path!
My disinterest in late model XLs certainly has something to do with the way late frames look, compared to the frames that graced XLCHs. To me, the CH frames looked like very close relatives of the tradtional four-speed swingarm frames that held panheads and shovelheads from 1958 to 1983. To my eye, they have the same graceful lines and proportions. Of course, the righteous four-speed frame also held EVO motors until this frame's final year in 1986, but the aluminum muscle of the EVO has the same cold fish effect on me, as post-ironhead Sportster motors do. Likewise, the ironhead Sportster motor seems like such a close relative visually, to my beloved shovelhead motor, that anything postdating ironheads, seems foreign both designwise and metalurgically. To me, post-shovelhead and post-ironhead aluminum mills look somehow artificial, as if they could fold at any moment of internal stress. Imagine a magazine titled, "Aluminum Horse," and I think you get the gist of what I'm rappin' about. Hey, perception is reality in politics and the biker subculture! Which leads me to my main point:
Snow becoming a Harley Traditionalist, floored me!
When Snow was at the helm of Iron Horse in the magazine's most golden era, my feeling was that Snow was the furthest thing from being a Harley traditionalist. Check out this scene from 1993:
Snow met me at East Houston Street in the Lower East Side. He was on his Wide Glide, "Rebelene." I was astride Mabel, my ever-lovin' shovelhead. He was going to lead me to the old Iron Horse offices, when it was located in the West 40s in Manhattan. Snow had turned his motor off when he met me, and when he went to start Rebelene again, there was no starter motor or solenoid action. He tapped the ignition switch on the fatbobs, and then the motor turned over. 'Loose wire,' he said.
We rode to the west side and then up Sixth Avenue, until we got to the block where IH's offices were. Snow said, 'Turn off your motor and push your bike and follow me. This way, cops won't give ya a ticket for riding on the sidewalk.' We pushed our Harleys about a half a block, then into the service entrance of the building, where we boarded a freight elevator, that was big enough to fit both our bikes and us, and then some. Then we emerged at the IH offices, where Rob Sager was setting up his photo studio equipment to take a picture of me and Mabel for my new IH column, called 'Going the Distance.' As we were sitting around waiting for the shoot to be completed, Snow said to me in semi-disgust as he pointed to his Wide Glide, 'Look at her, she's nothing but a bunch of compromises...'
Keep in mind that he was dissing the same class righteous Duo Glide frame that had been revered by so many Harley traditionalists since 1958. What Snow was mainly complaining about, was the presence of rear-suspension. Yup, rear shocks, as his beloved Animal Mother, his hardcore '69 XLCH, has on the back of her haunches. Go figure. Not too after that time at the IH photo studio in '93, Snow began his brainstorming his next bike, which would be "uncompromising," that is, not traditional. It would be a rigid, and it would either hold Rebelene's EVO mill, or an S & S motor. The rest is as they always say, history. The end result of Snow's untraditional bike project, would be the infamous FU Chop. It wouldn't even have a Harley motor. My, how times...and people change! But I dig this change in Snow.
It seemed during my time at IH with Snow, that we were polar opposites with regard to Harleys. I was the ultraditionalist, always defending Harley-Davidsons while Snow went on his "flip yer patch" bent of disdain for the Orange & Black. I always felt like Snow was like a brother, but a brother whose wayward course away from Harleys, made me sad to see. But hey, his return to the fold to the Harley Faithful, is sumpin' to behold! Man, I'm diggin' it. It's not just his return to the fold as a Harley rider, it's his complete immersion in the Kool-Aid of Harley Love for one model, that's amazing. It reminds me of my love for the shovel powered four-speed swingrarm, it is so fanatical in nature. Bikers who are loyal to a fault to one model of Harley-Davidson, are the ubermensch of the subculture! It is ironic that Snow who once sought no compromises in bikes that didn't meet a Sawzall they didn't like, discovered that true uncompromising consists of settling for no less, than a traditional Harley-Davidson like a short-framed XLCH. Yes, people change, and they sometimes find that tradition, is the toughest taskmaster of no compromise.
Snow educated me about traditional Sportsters. Until his lesson about the existence of short frames and long frames, I had no idea about their roles in Harley history. I certainly didn't know about the fervent followers of the short frame. I truly respect their integrity in their allegiance to their ideals. Man, "Short Frame Tradidionalists." What's next, pre-electric start four speed frames? Actually, these do exist, and they are slightly different dimensionally than the Electra Glide frames that were introduced in 1965. But, I'm not that fanatical. I love my electric start. Later.