Old Age and Harley Davidson

Here I am, as happy as if I were in my right mind.
Duded up in my black half-helmet and shades. So
what's a Brit car guy doing with a Harley?
Well, I'll tell you:

Contents

So, How Did I Get Into This? Rewards Program-Part One

Most of my life I have been looking out for tomorrow. You know, "I had better save for tomorrow. You never know what will happen". That kinda stuff.  My parents were the original pinch pennies and I don't know how many times I had it drummed into me that "A dollar saved is a dollar earned".  I kinda lived my life that way-saving for tomorrow. Spending less than I made.  Socking it away for tomorrow. Being careful. Saving up for I don't know what.

Now, I'm not gonna say that that was bad instruction or a horrible un-American philosophy. It wasn't and it's pretty much stood me in good stead.  It's nice to have capital and to be able to write a five figure check if I want to.  I've always liked the notion of a bunch of fuck you money ratholed away-It's a nice feeling. But-this is really off the point. I do have to say one thing though. You might be wondering: "What's with this guy? He's got all these old cars and he's telling me he's a pinch penny. That don't compute." Well, it kinda does. New cars is where you loose your ass. Buy one new for $40K - sell it four years later for $10K. You have spent $30K. Now, buy a decent old one for $10K or $15K or whatever, fix it a little bit, drive it a lot and, if you bought right, 5-10 years down the road it's worth more than you paid for it. Now this ain't the road to riches and it's not like the "no money down" get rich real estate schemes you see on late night TV but, you aren't left with nothing when you want to sell the car.

What occurred to me a couple of years ago(when I turned 60) was that, you know what, tomorrow was here.  Bud, it ain't gonna get much more "tomorrow".  So, now I can use some of what I saved.  Let me see.... what do I want?  Well, you know when you have spent a lifetime of training yourself not to want, it's not easy to turn that on again.  So, I thought something like this: "60 is a milestone birthday and you need to reward yourself.  You have been a reasonably good boy and have managed to stay out of big time trouble most of your life so, you need to reward yourself. You need something that you would NEVER get for yourself but you have always hankered for." You know, a reward is something everybody deserves and 60 seems like the right time to start a rewards program. But, given my tightwad background-No way was I going to blow 10 large on a cruise or a Week in Vegas. All you have left when you are done with those things is a sunburn, a few pictures and maybe, a social disease. Nope, it's gotta be something nice that I can USE and have fun with.

I'd always kinda wanted a Rolex watch.  Not needed mind you.  I got by just fine thank you with the $15 quartz models.  Battery runs down-fine-just buy another watch.  Bang 'em up working on cars. Dunk 'em in solvent.  Who cares?  But a Rolex now, that's a different thing. Overpriced sure.   Gaudy, you bet.  Not as accurate as a cheapo quartz.  Heavy as hell-sorta like wearing an alarm clock on your wrist.  But, let's get one. Is there any sense to it?  No, but I like the stupid thing.   It's more than that though.  I think I really like the idea of the stupid thing as much as the thing itself. Expensive, overdone retro-tech. Yup, sounds about right.  

So, on my 60th, I drove down to Oregon(no sales tax you know).  Stayed the night in a nice hotel, had a good dinner and, the next morning, I walked into the first jeweler's store I spotted and bought a nice gold and steel Rolex GMT 2.  Looked for a minute then pointed to the watch and told 'em: "I want that one".   Wrote 'em a check for $6K.  Clipped the thing on my wrist and walked out. Elapsed time 15 minutes.

Damn, if that didn't feel good and it still feels good.  That watch is on my wrist now-still ticking away.  It's been dunked in solvent a couple of times and joins me in the shower frequently but I do take it off before I grab the body hammer, grinder or power longboard sander. I expect I will wear it forever and I enjoy it as much now as the day I bought it. Just after I bought it a friend of mine noticed it and asked me if it was a Rolex. I said that it sure was. Then she asked me if it kept good time. My answer was: "That's really not the point of a Rolex my dear." Love it. Love it. Love it. Should have started this rewards program a long time ago.

Rewards Program-Part Two.

I thought the rewards program might kick in every decade.  You know, something cool on my 70th, 80th and-wait a minute-I am probably not going to get many rewards if I wait 10 years in between. JESUS! write it on a blackboard, you dummy.  TOMORROW IS NOW!!.  So, now I am on a two year program and I just had my 62nd birthday.  What to get myself now?

This particular choice gave me a great deal of angst and came dangerously close to eroding my self confidence but, along the way, I became familiar with a killer marketing strategy,  met a few more nice people and had to slap myself silly.

I bought my first motorcycle when I was in my late teens.  A 500cc Triumph Tiger as I recall. Nice bike.  Rode it around for several years then graduated to a 650cc Triumph Bonneville. Loved that bike. Bags of power-well, I did put Sifton cams, high compression pistons and bigger Amals on it. That thing would rip. Rode it over to Eastern Washington.  Over the mountains late at night.   Hit Yakima at dawn.  Grab breakfast and burn up the road back.  Great machine. Did a lot of dirt riding as well on a 250cc OSSA and a Norton.  Owned several Honda road bikes(a CB305 and a CL450) in the late 60's and early 70's. "Polite" is how I would describe the Hondas but they were good machines and I put lots of miles on them. I seem to remember that that CB305 redlined at over 10,000RPM and was finished like a watch inside and holy cow, electric starters?  But somehow, even with all of that, I sorta got out of riding.  

I remember being royally pissed off at the helmet laws that were just coming in in the early 70's and that probably played a part.  You know, I don't understand why some folks seem bound and determined to "protect" the rest of us.  Seems like, every time I turn around lately, someone's out to save me from myself.  It kinda gets you down.  You know, "click it or ticket", no litterin', save the whatevers, bus the kids to school, don't eat (pick something) and, for Christ's sake, don't even think about smoking.  These folks have really gotten into high gear since 9/11 and I suspect we haven't seen the worst of it yet.  Flying anywhere now is just a bad joke and that same sort of nonsense is creeping into many other mass transit systems.  Yeah, yeah, I know, we're supposta feel safer and "it's for our own good".  I hated that phrase when my mother used to use it on me. I really oughta get into the explosive sniffing dog training business.  There hasta be an incredible demand for those pups.

Anyway, sold my bikes but kept the endorsement on my license, my old moto cross boots and a couple of well used leather jackets thinking "I'll get another bike someday".  So, now it's someday and I'm out looking.  The first thing I notice is the amazing number of Harleys on the road seemingly all ridden by guys ranging in age from middle age to coot. Younger guys gravitate to the Japanese crotch rockets and that was my first choice.  But, you know, my days of crouching down over a set of clip on bars are really over.  A couple of trial runs convinced me(and my back) of that.  It's a pity 'cause those bikes are really trick.  Beautiful engineering, bags of power, handling, braking. God, what more do you want?  Well, something a little easier on the back-that's what.

Harleyland-Part One

So, what's up with Harleys?  Now, mind you, I had some prejudice to overcome.  First off, when I was riding, it was common knowledge that the Harley guys were just animals and you needed to give 'em a wide berth.  'Sides that, you couldn't bathe if you owned a Harley(I have it on good authority that this was a firm requirement).  So, you didn't really wanna bother with Harleys and particularly not get downwind of their owners.  

The Japanese bikes were so much better then that Honda, Yamaha and Suzuki trashed Harley in the marketplace and the company was just about tits up.  So, we never even considered a Harley.  Their owners were so far down the food chain and the machines themselves were so periously close to the bottom of the technological heap that they just weren't serious contenders.  To be fair, the Japanese also trashed my favorite manufacturer Triumph and a lotta' other Brit bike makers.  Norton, BSA, Matchless and Velocette to name a few.  I owned a 500cc Norton single for a while.  What a neat bike. Rode it in the dirt and it would just thump up the hills.

A little tricky to get started.  You had to go through a complicated drill.  "Tickle" the carb (depress a plunger that caused the carb to flood thus drooling raw gas into the cylinder), retard the spark and bump the thing over on the compression release until you got it past the firing stroke. Crack the throttle and then jump on the starting pedal with some gusto and, if you did everything right, it fired up-pong,pong,pong,pong,.... out the megaphone exhaust.  Just cool.  Black tank with gold pin stripe.  The Brits knew(and still do) a thing or two. Wish I still had that thing.

But now, some guys at work have bought Harleys and I'm studying the bikes in our parking lot. They do look neat.  Not neat in the technical sense-neat in kinda a statement sense.  They seem to be designed to look powerful and a little mean.  That big V-twin engine sure looks beefy, the paint is beautiful and I don't notice many puddles of oil underneath them.  Chrome work looks good but man, is there a lot of it.  More chrome doodads than you can shake a stick at.  Window rattlin' sound you can almost feel.  I have to say, I'm not big on the Harley sound-it's OK but, give me the sound of a little Honda 350 four cylinder anyday.  That whoop, whoop of a high revving four just sends chills up my back.  But, wait a minute, these Harleys have nice big padded, comfy seats-bars lifted up and back and footpegs or(my God) floorboards positioned to let you sit up straight or recline a little. One of these things might work for me.

I spent a few Weekends on the Internet reading up on Harleys and, as usual with the Net, there's all sorts of blather to wade through before you get down to some bits of information that might be useful. I picked up a few things. Seems like you hafta tune the new bikes right out of the gate 'cause they are "smogged" by the factory. Also seems like you need to get used to riding a "big" bike. All sorts of talk about that.  Big bike experience seems to be a must.  A great deal of debate on what the best sounding pipes and mufflers are.  That's a little bizarre but OK, let it pass Claude. The number of models Harley makes is real confusing. Fatboys, wide glides, softails, lowriders, Sportsters, baggers, etc. I started teasing the Harley guys at work that I was thinking about buying the "Sponge Bob" model. One of 'em took me seriously and asked his dealer about it and got verbally abused. But really, a "Fat Bob" gas tank or a "Cow Glide"?

So, then I thought a trip to the local dealer was in order. Now, I don't like auto dealerships. A nest of vipers if you ask me,so there was some hesitancy. Confronting a whole cadre of people who don't/won't understand that you are not just slavering to buy their entire stock out TODAY isn't high on my list of fun but I thought maybe I could sneak in and do a little sniffing around. Well, didn't have to worry about that.  The place was packed with people.  Seemed more like a clothing store than anything.  At least half the place was devoted to riding apparel. Jackets, vests, gloves, boots, chaps, T-shirts of all different styles imaginable just all over the place(And very ambitiously priced, I might add). Even had a little coffee bar over in the corner. Spotlessly clean(yes, a clean Harley place). Whoa, things have changed.

So, eventually I sidle over to the bikes and start poking around.  Each one had a little price tag on it and they got me real screwed up.  I'd been on the Harley website and had some idea of MSRP for these things and that was pretty damn stiff but the dealer prices seemed to be about $3-4K over MSRP. Wow, what the hell is going on here? This can't be right so I beat a hasty retreat figuring I had gotten my Fat Bobs confused with my Sponge Glides or whatever.  Well, as you know it turns out that this is the rule in Harleyland.  Now, I'm confronted with the concept of haggling a salesman DOWN to MSRP.  No, this will never happen in my lifetime.  I just won't be buying a new one.  So, back to the Net for some shopping.  Now, it turns out that the newer used ones are priced just about at new MSRP(or more).  Man, am I going down the hole after the white rabbit or what?  Seems like everyone who wants to sell their Harley wants to get their money out of all the chrome doodads they have tacked onto it.  Can't seem to find just a stock one either. They have all been customized in one way or the other.

Well, by this time my birthday had come and gone and I was still rewardless and very confused. You know, you turn your back and the world changes and nobody even sends you a memo about it. What the hell is this Harleyland business?  Prices way over list, packed boutique dealerships selling spike heel ladies riding boots and everybody in the damn place sporting hundreds of bucks worth of Harley leather gear and tats.  More white hair than you would see at a old folks home too, I might add. It's about this time that motorcycle angst set in and I had a real battle in front of me.

Motorcycle Angst

Here's the deal.  I've gotten older(old).  My reflexes and eyesight aren't what they used to be.  Traffic is far more congested and maybe people are a little busier nowadays but they seem to be more agressive on the road. I haven't ridden a bike in 20 years.  Here's the question: "Am I too old for this?"  Yeah, probably so. Maybe I should pass.  Yeah, maybe I shouldn't do this. After all, I don't have any "big" bike experience-whatever that is and, at best, I'll probably just embarrass myself.  Dump the thing and then not be able to pick it up again or some such.  A few people at work told me that and, you know, once you start doubting your adequacy, the corrosion sets in. Maybe I should get another present for myself.

I spent an awful two or three weeks tussling with this demon.  Couldn't sleep.  Dreaming about all sorts of disasters involving "big" motorcycles and my inadequacy.  Never felt like this before and I know it's really stupid but I can't seem to shake it. Is this what getting old is like- feeling defeated before you even step up to bat?  Christ, I can see it all now.  Too old for this-too old for that.  Finally, just sitting and rocking and waiting for the terminal tumor to pop up somewhere.  Probably should use a much safer straightback chair since I might be too old for a rocker.  You know they are kinda' unstable.

The upshot of this angst business is that I had to slap myself silly and tell myself: "You know what? If you can't handle the thing, you can sell it but DON'T-repeat DO NOT defeat yourself. What a wimp- giving up before you try."  That my friend, is a slippery slope indeed.  Yep, you might add a year or two to your life if you pack yourself in cotton wool, get one of those stupid walk in bathtubs, arm yourself with Carbon Monoxide detectors, eat right, buckle up, drive safely and on and on and on. Let me tell you, this thinking is dangerous.  It sneaks into your head and saps your confidence and, if you don't fight it, it will turn you into an old coot. DO NOT GIVE UP BEFORE YOU TRY!

Do yourself a favor and reflect on this.  It may happen to you.  It happened to me and it scared the snot out of me.  Look, we are all moving into new territory as we age.  Adjustments will be necessary but surrendering before you try shouldn't be an option. There's nothing wrong with aging provided you don't let your head get old.

OK, so now I'm slapped up, thinking right and back in the hunt.

A Blue FXDX

During my angst period, I was half-heartedly still looking and had singled out a model Harley calls their FXDX.  It's a Super Glide "Sport".  What "Sport" means to Harley is that it has fully adjustable front and rear suspension and twin disk brakes on the front wheel.  Comes in two flavors, the FXDX and the FXDX/T.  The "T" stands for touring and that gets you some really neat detachable saddlebags, a much more well padded seat and a mini-fairing with a windshield.  The engines and cases are finished in black wrinkle paint and that gave the whole bike a moody look I liked. Reviews I read said the bike could actually be hustled a bit in the corners and possessed decent braking. Has an 88ci or 1450cc engine referred to as a "twin cam". Sounds good.

This whole concept of haggling a retail dealer DOWN to MSRP just really bothers me.  Yeah, yeah I know, supply and demand but I also kinda think that there needs to be a balance between short run returns and long term customer loyalty but look, let's leave that to people that care.  Anyway, I figured an E-Mail campaign might work so I E-Mailed a number of dealers in the Northwest to see whether any of them would bite.  No luck, most didn't have FXDXs so that placed me in an even more hopeless bargaining position.  Finally, a woman who works for me volunteered to have her next door neighbor who works for a Harley dealer see whether he could help me.  We talked and he looked on their network and found an FXDX at a dealership in Oregon.  Called 'em up and haggled and we were homing in on a price I thought I could live with(a bit over MSRP but with an extended warranty).  It never seems to rain but it pours.  I had left the Oregon deal hanging for a day and that evening I just happened to pick up the local paper and-lo and behold-there was a 2001 FXDX/T, 5,000 miles on it with the extended warranty all offered at a reasonable price.

Called the guy up that night.  Drove up to look the next morning and snapped it up. So much for MSRP and so much for dealer premiums.  Shame on you Harley-Davidson.

The guy and his wife that owned the bike seemed like really nice folks.  He's a CPA and she has a banking background.  Nice folks that just bought a lovely waterfront home out on Hood Canal. In the throes of a remodel and general spiffing up.  Nice folks but the guy might have been a little over-bikeed. In addition to the Harley, he had a big Kawasaki and a BMW.  Both the Kaw and the Harley were for sale.  I got the distinct impression that he was folding under significant spousal pressure to clean house.  I also suspect that a certain amount of cash flow management was going on as well. But anyway, he threw a bike floor jack into the deal and went the extra mile to make sure the extended warranty got transferred to me. Thanks Gary.

It took a while for the title to clear through Harley credit(of course, he owed more than I bought it for) so I just left the bike with him for a couple of Weeks while the paperwork got processed. After a couple Weeks, I got a friend to drive me up to his place(about 40 miles away) to pick up the bike. I wore jeans and my moto cross boots which over the years had accumulated lots of paint spatters from some house painting excursions. Unfortunately, my Sears Roebuck black leather jacket which was very honorably battle-scarred had somehow gotten way too small so I donated that to my friend and dug out an ancient black suede jacket that was faded, stained and suitably grotty. Found an old helmet in storage and was ready to go.

I think Gary was a little concerned about letting me loose on the Harley so he rode it up to a parking lot near his place and watched me while I putted around in the lot.  When we were both satisfied that no disaster was iminent, off I went into an absolute downpour.  There some things bout riding that I had mercifully forgotten and one of 'em is how nasty it is to ride in the rain. Particularly nasty for people like me who wear glasses.

Harley Riding-First Impressions.

Nice torquey engine.  Piece of cake to start out.  Just a sniff of throttle and let the clutch out and that boy trundles right away.  Not much need to rev it with all that torque. Blip, blip. blip and you are in fourth and just snoozing along about 40.

Turn coming up.  A gradual turn so no need to slow just a downshift to third.  The bike seems to object to quick shifts so, a deliberate shift seems appropriate.  Third gear now and starting into the corner-WAIT A MINUTE-LEAN OVER YOU SUCKER-LEAN-LEAN-LEAN. Whoa, just made it around that right hander and am sure glad there was no oncoming traffic. I would have been a grease spot.  No flicking this sucker around.  You just have to pound it down to get it to lean.  WOW! This ain't no Triumph.  Generous amounts of weight shift seem to be in order.  The old trick of swinging out your knee to the lowside to cause the bike to dive into the corner gets ignored by the Harley.  You need to get everything over to the lowside and maybe haul on the highside handlegrip and then the old guy will consent to lean.

Red light ahead.  Downshift and apply the rear brake.  Stomp on it a bit harder and give it a good chunk of front brake.  Gasp! Just made that stop. Not real interested in slowing down are we? Well, you are about 250 pounds heavier than my old Trumpet(and I am close to 100 lbs heavier than my old self), so I guess we are bumping into the laws of physics. I'm really going to have to practice threshold braking with you. It's essential to know what our braking limits are. For right now, let's allow more distance from the car in front and start slowing for a corner about 30% sooner than I think I need to.

Doddling along in traffic now.  Stop and go-miles of it and a line of cars creeping along. Is it just me or is this thing a little unstable at crawling speed?  Yeah it's heavy with a lot of weight over the axles and you can feel that for sure but, it seems like the front end just wants to collapse around the fork pivot(the bars want to go to left lock when I am doing a slow speed weave to the right). If I didn't know better, I would say that we need some more preload on the steering head bearings. Anyway, it's a little twitchier than I expected at slow speeds.

So, we are out of traffic and doing a freeway on-ramp.  Let's run this boy up a bit.  Do a flying merge at about 80.  Nice.  Not a rocket but lots of juice.  Settle back to 60 in fifth gear.  Wow, this is nice.  Very smooth.  Engine snoring along at 2,500rpm. Snugged down in a really comfy seat with that mini-fairing deflecting a good bit of the buffeting. I like this. In particular, I just love the seat.  The way it curves down from the tank and then up abruptly to get over the rear fender means it just locks your bum in between and you feel mucho secure. I could ride this way for hours. In fact, I wanna ride this way for hours. The bow waves of the other cars aren't blowing me around as much as I remember and the bike feels rock solid.

The rain had stopped a little while ago and the sun started to peek out and I started to enjoy myself. The reluctant stopping, turning and slow speed wobbling had occasioned a great deal of jaw clamping but now I was loosening up and enjoying the ride.  This is cool.  You are out in the elements. You can feel the temperature changes and smell the smells and see ALL around. Yup-good deal. I don't know why I stopped doing this.

Further Thoughts

I've had the bike about a month and have gotten used to the weight shift required to corner rapidly and can report that the bike turns in pretty well and can take a corner at a good clip. It's a little picky however and it's quite a challenge to stay on the right line through the corners. I'm at the point where I am satisfied with the corner more often than not so, no more crabbing about that issue. It ain't no road racer but it ain't shabby either.

Braking is still a sore spot as far as I am concerned.  I have practiced emergency braking quite a bit and report that it's pretty easy to lock up the front wheel.  Even when you get front and rear on the edge of lockup, stopping distances are not impressive.  I just don't think we have enough rubber on the ground.  The bike seems to have enough braking power but, I'm sure it could use bigger contact patches.  I hate to think what the distances would be with two up.  Put new pads on the rear brake and bled 'em out and, for now, will just allow another couple of car lengths.

The fellow I bought the bike from had put shorter handlebars on it.  He was a little armlength challenged. I'm not and so, I put the stock bars back on and this helped quite a bit.  The extra leverage at low speeds lets me compensate for the front end wanting to wash out more easily and slows down the steering a bit.  Result-more stable.  Not great but workable.  I'll live with this for a while before I crank up the steering head preload.

I also stripped off the saddlebags, sissy bar, luggage rack, crash bar and forward pegs that came with the bike- lightening it by, I'll bet, 50 pounds.  Jesus, those accessories are industrial strength and sure weigh the part.  In fact, the entire bike is industrial strength.  Harley engineering seems to be the exact opposite of my hero Colin Chapman's.  Chapman used to design parts and components in the lightest manner possible and, when they broke in service, made them a sniff stronger.  He did this until they lasted a reasonable time.  As a result, his cars were amazingly light(and very fragile). Harley has taken the opposite tack and appears paranoid about ANYTHING breaking.  So every component is massive.  This leads to impressive weight.  I'll bet there's an easy 40-50 pound diet you could put the bike on by redesigning things like footpeg mounts, exhaust pipes, brake actuating rods, air cleaner covers and the like.

It sure is nice to use my SAE sockets again.  I know, I know, we should go metric but it's so nice to use the old SAE tools again. I can reach into the rollaway drawer and grab a 1/2" socket by feel. Look at a fastener and know it's a 7/16".  Can't do that with metric stuff, so I grab every socket from 10 to 17mm when I dive under the Porsche on the assumption one of 'em will fit.  I don't care that the metric system is scientifically coherent with a meter being the circumference of the earth divided by the wavelength of light or whatever.  What's wrong with using a measuring system based on the length from King Henry the VIIIth's nose to the end of his outstretched arm? It's worked for us for several hundred years and I relate to it.  Those damn meters.

In sum, I like the Harley and the more I ride it, the stronger that feeling is becoming. I can get home after work, slap on my jeans, jacket and boots and can be off again up the driveway in 15 minutes for just a quick putt(30-40 miles) around the neighborhood with maybe, dinner and a beer thrown in.

It's kinda funny isn't it? Seems like you go through a little ritual when you suit up. T-shirt on, Jeans on, boots on, jacket on, glasses off, prescription tinted goggles on(WileyX are what I use and are recommended), helmet on and gloves on. By the time you are done with this; you aren't thinking about work or family or whatever-you are starting to focus on the ride ahead. You sorta change. I think safe riding requires a lot more focus than say, driving a car. You really have to concentrate on your environment on a bike. Woolgathering is right out cause mistakes on a bike aren't treated very kindly. Anyway, riding is a great mental dry cleaning but, oh man-do you have to watch your a.. when you are on the road. "Defensive riding" is not enough. Hyper-defensive, Super-defensive, Mega-defensive, maybe. Now you know, that's not a bad thing. My driving got a little sloppy over the years. Commuting, that's the death of alertness. Ho, hum, snuffle along to work again. Same route-same tieups-blah,blah. Well, this is just the recipe for woolgathering and you shouldn't do that-car or bike. The Harley sure pointed that out to me big time.

I am also becoming readdicted to riding. I had forgotten how complelling this activity is. It seems like the more you ride-the more you want to. You don't have to have anywhere to go. Getting someplace is not the issue. "Going" is the objective. Just riding. This is tough to explain but it seems as if all your rides get distilled into one mental panorama of riding. Right now I can close my eyes and visualize myself riding through some area of the State I have been. I can recall the weather, the smells and the road. I can recall how the machine felt as I navigated. Almost like a video. You feel so intimate with your environment and your machine it's hard to tell where your machine and environment end and you begin. Anyway, this is hypnotic and the more I ride, the more I seem to want to -just to get back into that zone.

I don't know how many times in the last few months I have been doing something responsible like paying bills or fixing gutters or painting the house and this video starts playng in my head. Well, bills are paid but the gutters still leak and the house is less than half painted.

The machine just begs for the open road and wants to cruise for hours. Its only drawbacks are that it is a little under-tired I think and it doesn't have much of a rev range to play with. 2 to 5K revs is about it so, you are shifting a lot around town. I'm in the throes of modifying the motor to stage 1 tune. That's really nothing much: free flow air filter and mufflers and richen the mixture up a little(yeah sure, read on about the Stage 1 nonsense I ran into). I'm understanding all the talk about mufflers now. The stockers are too restrictive and the first pair of slip ons I ordered(Cycle Shack) were way loud. Now I'm waiting for another pair I hope will be a little quieter. Sorta like Goldilocks and the Three Bears.

I'm doing Stage One to see whether I can improve the throttle response. I can't seem to smoothly blip the engine when I am going down through the gears. Sometimes not enough revs-sometimes too many-sometimes a big snuffle back through the carb. Anyway, makes for more jerking around than I would like. That may be another bit of "big bike" experience to absorb. You don't whack off shifts (either up or down) with a Harley. It doesn't like it. I suspect it's those mondo flywheels that just aren't comfortable with quick rev changes. Slow down your shifting quite a bit and the bike appreciates that. Stately shifting, yep that's the phrase.

Stage One is also supposed to give an additional 10 horsepower to the rear wheel. Well, that's good but horsepower isn't the deal with this ride. It's not real fast but it has enough to cruise at any legal speed you want and feels like it will keep going for years. People think it's "beautiful" and, while I wouldn't go that far, I think it looks impressive and very well finished.  Harley has clearly concentrated on the esthetics of the bike and have crafted every little part into the overall design.  "Crafted" is I think the appropriate word.  I don't think the bikes are engineered as much as they are crafted and, in it's own way, good craftmanship is every bit as appealing as good engineering.

Here's the thing.  These machines were built to be ridden and ridden a long way.  I know several guys who have 50-75 thousand miles on their Harleys and just ride the snot out of them. Give those bikes a couple hundred miles of open road and they'll just gobble it up.  They'll do stop and start and twisty bits but that's not their thing. So, you pays your money and you takes your choice. If you want to burn up the road-look elsewhere. But, if you want to cruise, a Harley's just the ticket. I'll be keeping mine for a while. Did I suck in for another example of "expensive, overdone retro-tech"? Maybe, but I think I will be riding it as long as I can hoist myself (or be hoisted) into the seat.

There's something else attractive about these bikes. It's hard to put into words but it's something about their essential "machineness" that grabs me. As you know, I like older cars and I am realizing that that's partly because their machine nature isn't as well hidden as it is in the newer cars. You can see their machinery-look at it-touch it-feel it almost. Well, the Harley has that in spades. Big finned cylinders, pushrod tubes, exhaust pipes snaking around, belts and chains spinning like mad, a carb sucking in air and it's all right out there in front of you. That's cool! I can look at the thing idling away on its jiffy stand and visualize that crazy single throw crankshaft flinging those pistons up and down. You can visualize all the other parts working together as well. Entertaining as all get out. A machine shouldn't try to hide its essential nature-that's part of its attraction.

One last thing.  I think the much flapped about "big bike" experience is code for "doesn't stop real well and can't be flung about in the corners".

On Harleyland

I just have to talk about this.  I am fascinated with the strategy Harley has used to capture market share.  They aren't selling bikes really.  They are selling a lifestyle built around one of their bikes.  The lifestyle is what's selling and, for my money, this is a real coup.

No way could Harley compete on a technical basis with the likes of Honda, Suzuki and Kawasaki. Those guys are industrial giants and Harley is (in comparison) a little pissant company from Milwaukee (hardly the geocenter of innovation).  On a strictly technical basis, the Japanese giants have left Harley so far in the dust that you can't even see the ol' Sponge Bob.

So what do you do if you are Harley?  Try to go toe to toe with Honda on a technical basis-forget it. You would just be a grease spot.  Remember, these boys WIN the major international bike road races. They would just eat you up.  So, what do you do?  Your hardware is nowhere near as technically "good" as theirs so, you focus on style-that's the first thing.  Differentiate yourself on the basis of style. Harley's success there is obvious.  Their bikes are "styled".  Esthetics seem to be as, if not more, important than engineering.  OK so you have done that now you gotta get the people to buy 'em and this is I think where Harley made a masterstroke.

You know, the best way to appreciate this is to look at the helmets the Honda, Kaw and Suzuki riders wear.  Full face jobs with visors.  Arguably much more sensible.  Ever see a Harley rider wearing one of those?  Not likely.  Half helmets or little chrome pots for the Harley boys. Why the hell is that and why, when I had to buy a miserable helmet, did I opt without thinking for a black half helmet? It's the image, stupid.  So what is this image?  Well, it's a distillation of the old Hell's Angels one-percenter and Easy Rider lifestyle.  Bad boy, outlaw, independant, redneck, beer drinking all-American sort of nomad.

So, you have styled the bikes, now you have developed a style for the riders.  And believe me, you encourage it.  You won't find many full face helmets in a Harley dealership(at least the ones I have been in). The few that are stocked are probably a concession to the Buell boys. What you will find are lots of half helmets, leather chaps, leather vests, leather jackets, leather pants, leather gloves, leather boots with Harley emblems on them.  All black of course. All approved by Harley and all stiffly priced.  Boy, a guy gets duded up in all that gear and tops it off with a pair of Harley captain sunglasses and he might well be a one-percenter.  But he isn't 'cause no one-percenter could afford a Harley or all that gear now.  He's probably an Accountant or a CFO or some other paper shuffler that just looks like a "Wild One".  He's not.  He's got responsibilities-family, mortgage payments, car(and now bike) payments and a credit score to worry about but, for a while when he's all dressed up and putting around, he's the terror of the highway.  Lock up your daughters. Hide the silverware. Here he comes.

Now you have the bike and the owner all sorted but that's not enough.  To keep your sales up, you have to make it easy for the new rider to get into the Harley life.  Go into a Honda dealership and what do you see?  A bunch of bikes that's what and a few accessories.  Buy a Honda and off you go.  The dealer doesn't seem to care whether you ride it or not or what you do with it. Not so at Harley.  The parts guy always stuffs your Harley emblazoned plastic shopping bag with a calendar of events and every time I have visited the local dealership for this or that, the place has been packed. Maybe 100 or 200 bikes around the place and all these people stomping around in their leather getups. Something happening every Saturday and Sunday. Barbeques, blues band in the parking lot, rides and tours to here and there-all organized by the Dealer.  You are always encouraged to participate. "Hey, check out the barbeque" or "Have a listen to the band" or "Go check out all the bikes" or "We are going on a tour to ______ in an hour.  Why don't you ride along."  Son of a gun.  You buy a Harley and you have an instant group of friends.  You can go riding with them, talk bikes or just sit around eating hot dogs.  What a deal-instant club membership and instant riding buddies.

This whole thing is so neatly reinforcing.  The bikes and the apparel set you apart and the massive push to participate in group events push you together.  You are all Harley owners and you are talking Harleys.  Think about the poor guy who buys a Suzuki.  His wife probably thinks he's a nutcase and his neighbors suspect mid-life crisis.  Only a matter of time before Joe starts cooking Meth in the garage.  He doesn't know anybody that rides a Suzuki other than those pimply teenagers that flash around on their crotch rockets and he doesn't have much in common with them.  But the new Harley owner already knows a dozen other guys in the neighborhood who ride and they reinforce themselves.  'Sides his wife might like one of those cute leather vests to wear when he takes her out for a ride or, for sure, a pair of those $400.00 spike heel leather riding boots. My friend is already in a dither about what to wear when we go riding.

So there you are.  It's all packaged for you.  The riding buddies, the machine and the appearance.  Wow, I am impressed.  So impressed I bought some Harley stock.  Way to go Milwaukee.  Don't play your competitor's game-make 'em play yours.

Stage One and Beyond

Stage One

A little while ago I talked about Stage One tune for this bike. Well, I sorta thought it would be a snap to do but, it turned out a little differently. Stage One tune includes a free flow air filter and filter housing. That was easy-Harley offers a Screaming Eagle kit for this and it is a true bolt on. Next thing was the slip on mufflers. After puncturing my eardrums with the Cycle Shack pair, I ordered a set of Screaming Eagle torque mufflers. These are OK. Sound levels aren't terribly anti-social but aren't wimpy either.

But then I came to the carburetor jetting and am still fuddled. Seems like every dealer I called gave me a different recommendation. Dealer one: (a) drill out idle mixture screw cover to let you adjust the idle mixture, (b) change low speed jet from a #45 to a #48 or a #50 OR? install a "California" needle and do nothing with the high speed jet. The "California" needle seems to be a needle used in the 900cc Sportster in the late 80's. BUT,WHAT's THIS "OR" BUSINESS?. OR? OR? Oh, oh ... down the hole after the White Rabbit. So, chasing after the bunny, I took a survey of local dealers.

The next dealer I called, Dealer two, said: (a) drill out idle mixture screw cover (b) Install "California" needle. Dealer three: (a) drill out idle mixture screw cover, (b) install "California" needle, (c) Reduce main jet size from #190 to #175. Dealer four: (a) Drill out idle mixture screw cover, (b) drill out vacuum hole in slide to 1/8", (c) Use our proven and proprietary jet kit. Now, at the last dealer, I peeked over the guy's shoulder and determined that the proprietary jet kit contained a #175 main jet, "California" needle and a low speed jet of indeterminate origin. In addition, there's all sorts of stuff on the internet about jetting and it kinda maps to one of these four recommendations.

So, what do you make of that? These results don't instill confidence do they? Everyone I talked with was kinda in the same "ballpark" but I would have thought that with a stock engine and off the shelf parts, these dealerships would all give you the same answer. Disillusioned again.

So, I averaged the responses: drilled out the idle mixture adjustment screw so I could richen the idle and popped in a California(Sportster) needle. Helped the midrange but, the damn thing was still sneezing back through the carb when I gave it some throttle at low speed. Next, I drilled out the slide hole to 1/8" in an attempt to get the slide to pop up faster and get me on the needle taper more quickly. The Stock and the California needle have the same diameter for about the first third of their lengths. This ploy seemed to help the midrange again but more sneezing than a roomfull of first graders. Next, I tried a #48 low speed jet. Still got some snuffling with that. Couldn't tell whether the motor would take a throttle blip or not. Curiosity now got the better of me and I replaced the main jet with a #175. Son of a gun!-the #175 felt stronger on a top end run. Now I really am confused and the low speed snuffling is worse so, upped the low speed to a #50. The #50 seemed to do the trick-no snuffling.

What the hell is going on here? The technicians I talked with seemed to be saying that Harley intentionally jetted their motors lean at low speed to pass emissions and intentionally jetted the motors fat at high speeds since, (a) emissions weren't checked at full throttle and (b) a fatter main jet would tend to slightly compensate for a lean low speed mixture as well as keep engine temps down when you are really on the thing.

This sounds so stupid to me I just can't swallow it but the results of my dicking around with this bike's jetting seem to agree with that story. Of course, richening the low speed circuit will richen top end a little so, assuming the top end is correct, when you richen the low end you will need to lean out the high speed jet a bit. Therefore, you need to: fatten the low end-lean out the top end and get more fuel to the midrange by using a needle with a stronger taper. So, here's where I left it: #50 low speed jet, sportster needle and #175 mainjet.

Anyway, I have fiddled around with this for more time than it is worth and it's still not quite right. I stopped myself from digging out my Weber jet drill kit and drilling out the low speed jet/emulsion tube to see whether I could richen up the just off idle mixture. Thank God I did-I would still be screwing with it. Not only that but, sooner or later, I would have been busted big time by the Troopers on Highway 16 for my 90+ mph mainjet testing runs.

So, I'm going to book some time on a dyno to sort this out authoritatively. Stage One candidates beware! My experience is that this is less of a trivial bolt on upgrade than it is made out to be.

And Beyond

Stage One is done and, like everyone else, I want more. The engine feels reluctant. That's probably not the right word but it feels and sounds just a little off. A displacement larger that a lot of cars and yet the performance doesn't sparkle. So, what to do next? Let's see how much more weight we can loose. I had already lost the saddlebags, sissy bar and crash bar now off come the forward pegs, sissy bar mount, upper belt guard, passenger pegs and mounts and trim pieces that fit over the rear fender frame mounts. According to my old fish scale, this stuff, including the stuff I had already taken off, adds up to 50 pounds. That's a nice weight reduction. Say about 7%. Equivalent to adding a few horsepower but, as importantly, I now have 50 pounds less weight to stop and to try and bend into corners. Sounds like the old "Chopper" days doesn't it? There's more weight to be lost but It won't come as easy now. Still dealing with an engine that runs as if it would rather be snoozing on the sofa though.

Next thing I did was pop a mild cam into the thing. I chose an Andrews TW21. It's a very mild cam and really the only major difference between it and a stock cam is the intake timing. The Andrews intake timing looks to be about 12 degrees adwanced from the stocker. Exhaust timing about the same. Sure, the Andrews has a little more lift and a degree or two more duration but essentially the difference is in the intake timing. Well, that cam really woke the engine up. It now pulls like crazy from 2K to about 4.5K and is altogether a crisper, more responsive motor. Sounds like it wants to run too. Damn, I actually have to hang on a bit now when I roll it on. Feels like it wants to lift the front wheel.

This was a great mod and, dare I say it, the bike now feels a little frisky on occasion. A "frisky" Harley? Nooo.. - can't be. But the major difference is in the attitude of the motor. Before the cam went in and I grabbed some throttle, I swear the motor would say: "Oh alright, if you REALLY want to, we'll go faster". Now, it says: "Throttle! oh boy." I kept the chain cam drive setup since I didn't want to drop the better part of a grand into gear drive cams. But I did have to replace the inner cam chain tensioner. 14K miles on the bike and that tensioner was worn down about halfway. There's a couple of other things to keep in mind as well.

Thing one is that the exhaust will get a lot more noisy with this setup. Kinda annoying now-there's a lot more "whack" to it.

Thing two is that you might need to rejet. #48 low speed seems to work for me right now and I am running a #180 main. Note that the #48 is one size leaner than I used before the cam. Maybe I now have a more "efficient" engine??

Thing three is that this setup is all done at 4.5-5K. That works for me since I think a Harley engine is all about torque and not revs and this setup sure delivers low end torque. Although I wonder if maybe a little more duration??? I'm going to research what the older Harley cam timings were 'cause I have a sneaking hunch that the really goofy timing of the stock cam was influenced by smog laws and noise regs. I'll bet that older engine's cam timings were more radical. The TW21 might be a little more conservative than I need.