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GOING THE DISTANCE
"FATE IN A USED CAR LOT"
by DAVID SNOW
Photo by David Snow
INTERVENTION OF FATE: She had to be mine!
I think I'm the only other person on the planet---outside of Genghis and his wife, Patty---who can appreciate the significance of Genghis' presenting me with his XLCH buckle (See Scott's article, "Objects of Power"). I'd like to thank Scott. It's the backstory behind Scott's belt buckle, a seemingly worthless piece of junk, that gives meaning to the buckle. Like Animal Mother. How can a 44 year old pile of rusty, greasy junk assure me without the slightest doubt that I've found my last Harley? She was exactly what I needed in a Harley when I needed it? That she was the only Harley that could've gotten me back onto a Harley?
Guy Bolton of Greasy Kulture mag wants me to do a feature on Animal Mother, but she's not ready (needs paint, pipes, rar fender, sidemount taillight) and I'm not ready. I've written a few paragraphs in a document on my Apple, but I've still not fully wrapped my mind around the power and glory of " '69 XLCH." It's all in the backstory....
I first saw Animal Mother nine or ten years ago at a used car lot in North Little Rock, a few blocks up from the tat shop where I was working. I was riding the F.U. Chopper at the time (my sole means of transportation) and it was one of those instances where you're cruising, no particular place to go, diggin' the ride, when something catches your eye. A flash of chrome, the jaunty cant of rear shocks, an extended front end, the unmistakeable profile of a Harley V-Twin.
I wheeled into the parking lot. Parked next to a couple of jap bikes was an Ironhead, but not just any generic Ironhead---it was a tin-cover bike. Though I was not a serious student of Ironheads, I knew enough from Iron Horse (Scott's tales of "Sally" and his feature on "Sally's Sister"), Harley histories, and Allan Girdler's Sportster book, to recognize the significance of that classic, stamped tin primary cover. Unless some previous owner had converted it to a distributor battery ignition, I was looking at a first generation XLCH, a Magneto Sporty. I scoped the carb side, sure enough, like a dangerous, poisonous, toadstool, a Fairbanks-Morse magneto sprouted from the chrome cam cover. I squatted and rubbed the grease away from the dirty gas-stained engine numbers. Yes indeed, a genuine XLCH, but not just any old 'CH. This was a '69. 19-freakin-69.
Is there any number that resonates more in the biker world? Okay, beyond the swingin' '60s' sexual connotations, I don't believe there is any number more counterculterally '60s than 69. If the '60s were concentrated into a single number, it'd have to be 69. The climax of the decade, the moon landing, Woodstock, "Hell's Angels '69," E-Z Rider! I was on my knees before the holy relic that was Animal Mother's number boss, I was conscious of the magic of "69 XLCH." I cannot recall the last time, if any, I encountered a '60s XLCH on the street. I don't think it would've had as great an impact on me if it had been any other year---'65, '66, '67---that would still have been memorable, but '69 sealed it. I was smitten.
I was acutely conscious of another aspect of Animal Mother. Her very existence---right there on the side of an innocuous back road, in a cheap used car lot---was an open, naked challenge. Scott, with his martial arts training and decades-long Harley career---is probably the only person I know who'd be hip to what I'm trying to relate. Even though I was riding the "F.U."---a 96 inch, 4-speed, kick-only, S & S Evo in a rigid corbin-Gentry frame---I stood as a mere pretender in the presence of a truly dangerous animal---the most hardcore motorcycle Harley (arguably, any manufacturer) ever offered the public. As deep into the 20th century as 1969, a motorcycle could be purchased from a major manufacturer with a racing ignition capable of crippling unwary customers for life. It borders on the absurd, the incomprehensible---like street shredding Ford Thunderbolt lightweights or Plymouth Hemis that came with a 30 second warranty. We will never see their like again.
The car dealer wandered over and I probably could've traded the F.U. straight-up, made a little cash, and ridden off on the dire bitch goddess before whom I knelt. I knew what she was all about---a relic species of she-monster straight outta Jurrasic Park. I wasn't ready. I consciously backed down and walked away, bested.
Here's the deal: I knew exactly what would be required by Animal Mother---total commitment. I was comfortable, I didn't want to be bothered. The F.U. was a great, trouble-free ride. I'd been on Big Twins for over 20 years. I knew 'em. I didn't want to learn a new way of life---which is exactly what a mag-powerd 'CH demands. It'd be like entering any subculture, one would have to learn and adopt its values and traditions. The last time I had entered such an insular alternative lifestyle was when I got into tattooing. Animal Mother had thrown down the gauntlet, but I didn't want the hassle.
Years passed. The F.U. was totaled by a semi---I considered rebuilding it or putting a new bike together. I had plenty of insurance cash, but, at the the time (2004-2005) anything to do with Harleys was absurdly priced. I was replacing the engine in my '67 Chevelle with a Goodwrench 350 that came with a factory warranty from Chevy for less than the going rate for a set of Harley heads. I'd come of age during the last era of cheap Harleys---I'd bought a cherry, unchopped 1951 Harley wishbone frame for the Project Shovel in 1987 from Cycles Inc/Stroker Motors in Rahway for a mere $450. It was a matter of principle---I'd feel like a chump paying overinflated 21st century prices for Harley junk. I decided to bide my time, found a cheap early '70s Honda (for less than a set of Harley heads) on Craiglist in Chicago, flew up there and rode it 750 miles back to Little Rock in a day.
More years passed. Patience paid off. Although I wasn't looking for her, Animal Mother came back into my life. I was sitting in the tat shop, shootin' the shit with a local vehicle hoarder who would come by and show off his latest acquisitions. I mentioned seeing Animal Mother years earlier at the used car lot. He didn't even blink. "Yeah, I know that bike. It's sitting in my carport." I described her to him in detail, as the guy was known to be something of a bullshit artist and a braggart. "Yep. That's it. I got it."
Needless to say, I had to see for myself! The guy's yard was full of rusty wrecks overgrown with weeds and some choice items--'68 El Camino, '66 Charger, 2nd generation Firebirds and Camaros. Crammed into a carport, next to a couple of Brit choppers, boxed in by a Vega wagon was Animal Mother. "It's been sitting for a couple of years. My son had it down in Florida for a year, but I don't think he rode it much." I was hoping "son" never managed to start her and thus, possibly abuse her. I was encouraged that she was last tagged in 1998, which is typical hoarder practice---they like to own things rather than actually ride/drive 'em
I'd been given a second chance. Seeing Animal Mother again was like bumping into some hotass crush you lusted after in high school. This time I was ready. I accepted the challenge and relived the classic '70s biker progession from UJM Honda four to a raw, primitive Harley twin. And a 'CH is the rawest of the raw. To me, a magneto-powered XLCH is the ultimate rejection of the over priced, over indulgent Harley scene. It's the most minimal of motorcycles---the least amount of machinery necessary to constitute a bike. The most "no-bullshit" bike ever produced.
I also dig the fact that Ironheads are the last of the cheap antique Harleys. I paid $3,500 for Animal Mother, which I knew was a little steep. But I also knew I could sell her dufus chopper junk on eBay ($500 for her narrow springer--$500 for her Crazy Frank's rear fender/seat/taillight combo). Ironhead fans are living the dream that Harley riders enjoyed from the '60s into the '80s---you could build a class ride for spare change (complete Shovels and Pans for $500 at police auctions). As it is, a decent running Ironhead can be had for $2,000-$2,500, with deals a thousand bucks cheaper not uncommon. And all Ironhead parts are similarly, reasonably, if not ridiculously priced. Last month, I scored a cherry, uncut 1966 XLCH short frame on eBay for only $225.
To me, this is simply astounding. That an original, stock, unchopped, 50 year old Harley frame can be had for Starbucks change, is mind-blowing. It makes me giddy. It's like a deranged prospector who strikes it rich and is the only one who knows there's gold in them thar hills. I got goosebumps when I clicked the "buy it now" button---again, it's having a sense of context and perspective which informs the backstory---because I'm lucky enough to appreciate the Ironhead cult before it hits big time. Hey---maybe it never will. Maybe Ironheads will always remain the outcast blacksheep of the Harley family. So much the better. But I can also imagine a few years from now, telling some flabbergasted FNG about the good ol' days when they were giving Ironheads away.
BTW---I lived with Animal Mother for about a month before I realized that she was cradled in an incorrect electric-start frame. It became a daily habit to type in "XLCH frame" on eBay, at which point I learned just how cheaply stuff could be had. The average rate for a good 'CH frame seemed to be around $250. Again, stunning to someone who'd paid $450 for a '51 wishbone (I've seen straight '51s sell today for $2,500). Anyway---the day I expanded my eBay search to "Ironhead frame" and "vintage Sportster frame" is the day I found the '66. I was guided by two considerations---a great frame, at a great price. Bam! $225 is an absolute steal. I feel like I got away with grand larceny. Heh-heh....
It was all part of the demands that I knew I would have to answer the day I first knelt before Animal Mother. I knew it would be my unquestioned duty to return her to her roots as a streetfighter. Her frame was slightly modified, but unchopped, and I knew the pseudo-chopper crap would have to go, all those compromises of her original intent as purposed by Harley-Davidson, as a thinly disguised racer for the streets. A 'CH should be small, light and tight---it was the first superbike, the first dual-purpose scrambler (especially with the hi-pipe). Piling chopper crap on the ultimate no-bullshit motorcycle isn't just ludicrous---it's blasphemous.
So, within days of taking custody of Animal Mother, I bought that late model 39mm narrow glide in anticipation of the eventual front end swap. Immediately, the Crazy Franks's rear fender was sold. I scored a stock bobbed rear fender (a la original XLCH/XLR) and struts off eBay for $50. Meanwhile, I'd gotten Animal Mother running, ridden her twice---the first time, around the hoarder's nabe, sailing through stop signs, trying to adjust to right side shift and the second time, 10 miles to Andy Wolf's. "Where'd ya get that P.O.S?" he asked. "Hey---you know I always pick up strays," I said. That comment, and the fact that I'd been re-watching "Full Metal jacket," made me realize that my new bike was telling me her name. Make no mistake---she assumd the name, I didn't give it to her!
It was a load off my mind. No lie---when Animal Mother came back into my life and I was asking Scott what I thought were indirect questions about his old XLCH, "Sally The Bitch," (which he saw right through) I remember wondering, "Oh hell---Scott's gonna harrass me about naming my bike. What do I name an old Ironhead...?"
And, I don't know what it is, but out of all the vehicles I've ever owned, Animal Mother is the only one that demanded, deserved, screamed a name. Maybe it's the intensity of the interaction---the relationship---that one must cultivate with a kick-only, magneto XLCH that reveals idiosyncrasies of the machinery that we identify as personality. I suspect it was Scott's initial experiences with "Sally" that informed his perceptions of H-Ds in the years to follow. Scott started out with a dire bitch goddess and wound up with a mellow Super Glide and was thus predisposed to see in these machines, a certain---presence. Just the opposite with me, going from civilized japbikes to what turned out to be, in comparison, an even more civilized motorcycle---my '82 FXE Super Glide. Supremely mellow, reliable, confidence-inspiring, like a big, friendly dog. I wrote in Iron Horse about how the FXE, despite my initial dread and trepidation, was nothing like the kind of Harley the japbike magazines routinely badmouthed. After a couple of weeks with Animal Mother, I realized that Ironheads were exactly the kinds of Harleys the straight motorcycle press had warned me about. Noisy, boisterous, vibrating, grenading, vicious, demanding---of all kinds of attention and involvement. Primitive and brutal are the descriptors that immediately come to mind, in contrast, again, to the relaxed, laid back (even when stroked!) Big Twins. As much as I loved my Super Glide, it seemed a distant companion, as did the FXWG. Certainly they never screamed a name---I had to contrive "Rebelene" for the Wide Glide (which was perrect), and I never felt compelled, after 30 years on Harleys, to get an H-D tat until now. Again, the converse of Scott's experience. Scott began with a 'CH and winds up with a Super Glide tattoo. I start with a Super Glide and wind up with a 'CH tat!
Animal Mother is the Ultimate F.U. Machine, no key required, just cold, perfect zen. I know that nobody but me can kick her over---I wouldn't even want to watch some unknowing fool try to start her. She demands utmost respect and perfect attention---if you slack, even slightly, she will destroy you, leaving you weeping in the fetal position. I've been there. I love her.
Now, I fully understand that any modern bike can out-perform her. These jappers that approach 200 mph out of the showroom are mind-blowing, and a 250 Ninja could probably shut down Animal Mother. But, a 200 mph sewing machine housed in a Tylenol capsule doesn't move me. There's something about a 50 horsepower Ironhead rip-snorting through traffic that can humble any Ninja or beluga-like Hyabusa. I do it on a daily basis. I'm really looking forward to getting her into that '66 short frame. It sits on a milkcrate beside her in the front room of the trailer. I'm lucky that I can ride Animal Mother while I put together a rolling chassis around the '66. The only thing that will swap over from her electric-leg frame will be the front end. Once she's at home in the '66 frame, I'll be looking for an electric-start Ironhead mill (for my dotage).
Today, I photographed her with the Frisco tank mocked up, and the style really enhances her sleek racing profile. Hopefully, she'll be painted within the month and I'll get a stock Harley sidemount plate/taillight kit, so the rear fender will be as clean as an XLR racer. That'll be as far as I'll go with the electric frame---maybe then I'll do the Greasy Kulture feature.... (note from Genghis: Once you've done Going The Distance, all other forms of online biker lit are mere pretenders...) (oh yeah, her tin and sidemount will swap over to the '66, along with the front end.)
I was really proud of Animal Mother last month when, for about 3 weeks, I was between trucks and she was my sole means of transport. She never missed a beat and it was a great feeling to totally rely on her and have my confidence and ability with her confirmed. In January of 2012, after riding her for two months, I rode the 750 miles to CJs on Animal Mother, but the second time I planned to go there, she had a flat---so I drove there, then. When I drove there and it just didn't seem right to drive to get a 'CH tat. But it's just as well---only now do I feel that I've fully earned an XLCH tattoo.
Well, after all this writing, I may finally be getting a handle on my fascination/obsession with Animal Mother. XL Forum is a great enabler and I also like to mine my bike mag collection for XLCH gems. Did you know the first thing Jesse james wrote for Iron Horse was a feature on a hi-pipe XLCH called "The Bully?" A perfect name for a 'CH!