1907 Harley-Davidson Strap Tank | Silent Gray Fellow
After a long, long journey, Otis Chandler’s 1907 Harley-Davidson motorcycle rests in comfortable retirement at his museum in Oxnard, California. More than time alone separates it from its beginnings in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; the world around it has changed completely.
That the little dove-gray machine has survived at all is something of a miracle, given the hazards it faced—the pounding it surely took from the rutted dirt roads of the early 1900s, the likelihood that it received lackadaisical maintenance for some of its life, and the delicacy of many of its components. But survive it has, with an amazing number of its original parts in place.
William S. Harley certainly wasn’t thinking about the well-paved world of 21st-century America when he designed his first gasoline engine in 1901. What he did have in mind was a powerplant for a bicycle. The idea was hardly novel, as the concept of powered bicycles dated back to 1867, when one S. H. Roper built a bike powered by a steam engine.
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Gottlieb Daimler, later of Daimler-Benz fame, was the first to mount a gasoline engine on a bicycle—for which he built a frame out of wood—in 1885. By the time 21-year-old Harley set pencil to paper, several companies were producing gas-engined bicycles, or kits allowing riders to motorize their own “wheels” (as bicycles were then called).
Two years after finishing his plans, Harley and Arthur Davidson (one of three Davidson brothers—Walter and William were the others—who would eventually join the company), were producing a few Harley-Davidson motorcycles in a 150-square-foot wooden shed in the Harleys’ backyard. Total output that first year was three motorcycles.
Though all of the early H-Ds were designed for competition, road riders wanted them, as well. By 1907, Harley-Davidson had 18 employees working in a 4000-square-foot factory trying to keep up with demand.
In that year, motorcycle #2042 was built. Even after four years of development, Harley-Davidson was still building what amounted to motorized bicycles, and would continue to do so for quite some time. The basic design, less engine, looks much like any bicycle of its day—in fact, remarkably like a Schwinn cruising bike from the 1950s, right down to the wide saddle, pedals, chain-and-sprocket drive, simple handlebars, and “coaster” brake on the rear wheel.
Power—about four horses worth—made the difference. The engine, all 26.8 cubic inches of it, used an already obsolete configuration. Suction pulled open the intake valve against a weak spring, and a cam opened and closed the exhaust valve. Air-cooled, the engine was lubricated by a total-loss oiling system in which oil drained from a tank, lubricated the crankshaft, then was burned (or leaked) into the atmosphere. The engine drove the rear wheel directly via a large leather belt, without clutch or transmission.
Ironically, the atmospheric intake valve was one of the reasons Harley-Davidson’s first V-twin engine, introduced in 1911, was a failure. The valve limited maximum rpm, which in turn kept the early twin’s output down to seven horsepower. An improved single came along soon, using cam drive for both valves, and that design was soon applied to the twin, as well. The legendary Knucklehead powerplant was still almost a quarter-century away.
Starting was a complex procedure. First, the left handgrip was twisted, which closed a switch and connected the battery. Then the fuel and oil drain taps were opened, and a large lever was moved to retard ignition timing and open the exhaust valve to relieve compression. A second lever could be used to adjust drive-belt tension. After that, the intrepid rider started pedaling in the conventional manner.
Once a speed that turned the engine over rapidly enough was reached, and the timing/exhaust valve lever was pushed forward, the engine would start. Usually. Underway, the 185-pound Harley-Davidson was capable of up to 40 mph, more than fast enough considering the limitations of road surfaces, coaster brakes, and bicycle tires.
Other motorcycle builders were already building more sophisticated machines by 1907. Shafts replaced leather belts on a few, and the first four-cylinder engines were appearing. Frame design was progressing elsewhere, as well. Harley-Davidson was not noted for innovation, but it was already gaining a reputation for building reliable motorcycles, which led the Detroit Police Department to order its first H-D not long after #2042 left the factory.
What the H-D lacked in novelty, it more than made up for in beauty. It is obvious that the artisans at Harley-Davidson were craftsmen, as well. Large clean castings were polished or painted. Smaller details were finished beautifully, from the straps holding the box-like fuel tank to the top frame tube (which gave the 1903–‘08 H-Ds their “Strap Tank” nickname), to the delicate chain-and-rod throttle linkage (operated by twisting the right-hand rubber grip on the handlebar), and dozens of other small parts, all protected by nickel plating.
Though obviously inspired by bicycle designs, the frame was rugged enough to withstand having an engine bolted to it. As can be seen in the photographs, a graceful curve was introduced into the front down-tube to clear the engine; all welds showed the benefit of a talented fabricator guiding the torch.
The front fork was clever as well, designed to allow a small amount of vertical wheel travel via a double-tube design using pivots to connect the forward tubes (which carried the wheel and had tiny adjustable springs at their tops), to the solid bicycle-style rear tubes. The rear axle was attached directly to the frame. As can be imagined, most of the suspension effect came from the sprung saddle.
Strangely enough, 10 years after #2042 was built, Harley-Davidson entered the bicycle business, building pedal bikes that looked remarkably similar to the early motorcycles, minus tank, engine, and belt-drive, of course. This side business didn’t last long. Motorcycles for both civilian and, by 1917, military use, were keeping the factory busy without any further distractions.
When Otis Chandler purchased it several years ago, the Strap Tank was in sad condition—rusted, inoperative, and lacking many components both major and minor. By the time it was handed over to noted motorcycle restorer Steve Huntziger for a complete makeover, Chandler and Henry Fuchs, general manager of his museum, had made contact with its previous owners and found that one of them had removed all the missing bits. Happily, the owner had saved the parts and handed them over to be reunited with the bike.
Only a few parts could not be salvaged, and those were replaced with custom-made duplicates. After eight months, the Strap Tank emerged from Huntziger’s shop as an exquisite, shining jewel, riding on original-style white rubber tires, and wearing the original paint scheme that led Harley-Davidson advertising to call its machines Silent Gray Fellows.
Silent the little Strap Tank may be today, but it was certainly far less so in its heyday, particularly when an adventurous rider flipped the nickel-plated lever that opened the exhaust cut-out.
The 1907 Harley-Davidson Strap Tank’s lack of use in modern times is understandable, and not just because of its design limitations. When new, it cost $210, or about one-third the price of an Overland Runabout automobile. Today, its owner considers its value to be more than 2,000 times greater.
Photography by Cordero Studios
1907 Harley-Davidson Strap Tank Photo Gallery