Harley-Davidson Historical Documents: Found and Preserved
It may not have been dark and stormy that night in 1978, but deep within the bowels of Harley-Davidson’s Juneau Avenue factory, strange deeds were afoot. Fahrenheit 451 was being played out; roaring flames were licking at a staggering 40,000 arcane parchments, curling them into ash and cinders—The Motor Company’s legacy literally going up in smoke. And all in the name of “modernization and streamlining.”
Tasked with the onerous job by scions of the company (then owned by AMF), anonymous souls wore thick gloves, their faces masked against the heat and smoke; they stoked the conflagration, shoveling in hundreds of pounds of original engineering and design drawings stretching back to the company’s early days, circa 1908, through the mid-1970s.
Ever hungry for more kindling, the red hot maw of the furnace swallowed up ream after ream of one-of-a-kind renderings marked “pre-teen V-twin”, “JD”, “Flathead”, “Knucklehead”, “Panhead”, “Shovelhead.” Decades of innovation and motorcycling history disappeared in a cacophony of crackle and snap, rose up the thick brick chimney and were then carried away by the winds blowing across Milwaukee.
Yet, not all was lost. One pair of courageous hands, intent on saving at least a fragment of the collection, braved the flames—and in the process rescued some 250 drawings from oblivion. Carefully sequestered away, for decades the documents lay in yet another dark place, forgotten, in an attic far from the light of day—until 2003, when unearthed, poetically enough, during Harley-Davidson’s 100th Anniversary celebrations at a location a scant three miles from the Juneau Ave. plant itself. To motorcycle purists, the discovery could be compared to that of King Tut’s tomb or the Dead Sea Scrolls.
The story of discovery begins with Scott C. Hall one day while surfing the Net. Hall is one of those multitaskers who has his hands in a number of simultaneous ventures and adventures. The Wichita, Kansas businessman (Hall Industrial Services), who worked his way up from mowing lawns to supplying boatloads of heavy construction equipment to oil fields, is an impassioned collector of antique motorcycles, literature, memorabilia, parts and—as his business card states— “Fun Stuff!” His collection focuses on rare American marques including Indian, Henderson, and, of course, Harley-Davidson. Hall also has, perhaps, the largest private collection of British-made Brough Superiors
He always has a sharp eye out for the unusual, as he did the day he chanced upon a single item among countless thousands posted on eBay—something about an original Harley-Davidson design drawing.
Intrigued and inspired, Hall began his own odyssey, eventually calling upon the expertise and partnership of his friend and fellow antique bike connoisseur Mike Smith. One of America’s premier motorcycle restorers and a highly knowledgeable historian, Smith owns Antique Motorcycle Works in Oregon City, Ore.
Together Hall and Smith tracked the source of the document being offered on eBay to a “tiny hole-in-the-wall” gift shop in Milwaukee. The pair promptly booked flights and made their way to the doorstep of the store.
Meeting the proprietor, they learned that a close friend of his who had been employed at Harley-Davidson in the 1970s had acquired several drawings and was now interested in testing the waters to see what they might fetch on eBay’s open market. Thus, Hall and Smith were able to meet the owner of the cache of documents, who explained that the destruction of the mountain of original documents had been instigated to “get rid of a bunch of paper taking up space; for the sake of making room for more offices.”
The AMF plan had been to use the then-new technique of microfiche recording to make copies of the original design drawings, and to eliminate the bulky originals via the company furnace. The plan apparently backfired (no puns intended) as more recent queries now indicate that H-D cannot seem to find the microfiche files they had made!
Recognizing the importance of the original drawings, Hall and Smith struck a deal for the entire mother lode. Now, for the first time, we have an up close and personal look at these unique and historically significant drawings.
While the collection numbers close to 250 documents, we focused on a handful to better appreciate their detail and unlock some of the lore of Harley-Davidson. These documents, now truly rare, are wondrous works of art in their own right—each meticulously drawn on fine Chinese linen (the premium medium of the day) and coated with translucent wheat starch, thereby producing durable (but regretfully not inflammable) documents that otherwise have stood the test of time very well. Serving to dispel the ambiguities faced by historians and restorers, these precious documents cast a clear and exact light on the very foundations of the world’s most famous and enduring brand of motorcycle.
When asked to make their own selection of representative samples from among the 250 drawings, Hall and Smith both agreed their first choice would be the renderings of the famous H-D bar-and-shield logo. One of the most recognizable corporate and cultural icons in the world, it is printed on untold millions of T-shirts and a variety of other items. We see here the only original renderings known to exist. H-D itself has no such original; in fact, even the microfiche copy has apparently gone missing.
Next on Hall and Smith’s list is the full scale 1:1 drawing (28 x 21 inches) of the 1915 F-head V-twin motor complete with the words “Harley-Davidson Milwaukee, Wisconsin USA” embossed in high relief across the engine case. Says Smith, “The drawing has a cutaway in the timing chest showing the timing gear hook up with the timing marks, the oil connections and magneto. It even has the spark plugs, and all the fin detail and carburetor. My gosh, it’s just so beautiful.”
Though Harley-Davidson introduced its first V-twin in 1909, the 1911 version is considered the first successful V-twin configuration. The 61 ci 1915 motor was a milestone innovation, as it doubled the preceding engine’s horsepower through redesigned cams, higher compression, larger manifold and carburetor, and increased breathing. “That same basic motor design,” says Smith, “took Harley all the way to 1929 and the 74-inch JD and Two Cam motors. So you could say [this] motor drawing is of the Granddaddy of Power.”
Scanning the collection of drawings relating to Harley’s front-end development, one can see the evolution. A 1908 tapered tubular design, in effect an early leading link springer, was in production until 1923. At that point, H-D added external helper springs to accommodate the heavier weight of the front end.
The more widely known four-spring Springer front-end design appeared in 1926, based on the smaller scaled Harley Peashooter. “It was a downsized Springer that evolved into what was later seen on the VL models, which was a heavier duty cast I-beam design,” explains Smith.
One of the more technically, as well as artistically, appealing drawings is that of a nomagraph that illustrates the exact relationship of the piston position with various angles of the crankpin.
Says Smith, “When seen up on a wall, a person might think ‘abstract art’. On closer inspection, seeing that it’s a Harley-Davidson drawing, you’d recognize that it’s an engineer’s effort to illustrate piston and cylinder relationships to the crank. Call it engineered art.”
Another Smith favorite is the drawing of the racing Peashooter’s head, the only drawing that documents a very rare motor. What set the Peashooter apart from the competition—which relied on F-head design to win races—was Harley’s development of a full hemi-spherical head and a complete overhead valve with almost straight-through porting.
In order to win the Short Track World Championship, the Peashooter had to race in Australia, where short track originated, and competed there from 1927 to 1930. The hemi Peashooter was built to compete against the Rudge 4-valve and AJS Big Port of that period, and was produced in a street version as well.
Asked for his choice of milestone frame drawings, Smith selected the 1915–16 Harley single cylinder racing frame. “This illuminates a bike of which very little documentation was even made back then,” Smith explains. “Prior to 1914, H-D publicly denounced that they were involved in racing in any shape and form, but then realized Henderson and Excelsior were selling a lot of motorcycles by winning races. So, the factory made a 180-degree flip-flip and announced that they were into full support racing in 1914, and had hired William Ottoway away from Thor to oversee their racing efforts. However, their brochures indicated they only offered twins. However, photos from the period show they were making singles, but never documented [them]. So, the drawing is a significant piece of history.”
While Harley claimed in their catalogs that they produced the racer only from 1916 to 1918, photos exist in Smith’s archives from the Portland One-Mile Race of 1914 that show 1913 factory short-couple pushrod motor racers in the backend of a trailer. It is no secret that the factory used these special racers to win national races, but called them standard production bikes, obviously to improve the company’s image and sales.
A stellar example of early H-D gas tank styling is that of the 1915 design, rendered in both stock form and racing form. This was the last from Harley’s famous “Silent Gray Fellow” era.
Harley’s bikes were painted gray until 1916, when the factory switched to the Harley Green that remained in fashion until 1930. As seen with these drawings, gas tanks up to 1915 were very square-cornered affairs with flat tops and sides—the plunger device seen on the gas tank is a hand-operated oil pump. In contrast, the construction of the racing gas tank called for the use of rivets, which helped the bikes survive the intense beating they took during the grueling 200-mile races around the wooden boardtracks of the era.
These were bikes with no suspension, rigid front forks, rigid back, and clincher tires blown up rock hard to 90 psi. The jarring tended to break the gas tank soldering and the loss of gas resulted in the loss of the race. While other manufacturers employed straps and bracing around the gas tank, Harley addressed the problem by both soldering and riveting their seams. As Smith explains, “This also kept the gas tank clean and allowed Harley-Davidson to paint their name in larger letters on the sides of the gas tank so people in the grandstands could see it.”
Though we have sampled but a fraction of the treasure trove of original Harley-Davidson designs, we can recognize their value as the only surviving examples of unique works of art and a link to the epoch when men, not computers, drew the future of American motorcycling with a steady and true hand.
The documents serve to resolve some of the questions that have bedeviled restorers—the drawings themselves bearing the handwritten changes made over the years, with many signed off by Arthur Davidson himself. As with the ancient hieroglyphics and the Dead Sea Scrolls, it will take quite some time to mine all the gold inherent in these images. While several leading museums will feature special displays of the drawings, as to their final disposition, only time will tell.