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Motorhead Memo: Lost history of the 8-valves

By Kip Woodring

Motorhead-web

This was supposed to be easy. The idea was to simply inform those who might not know that the new Milwaukee-Eight was not Harley-Davidson’s first dance with multi-valve engines. No sir, not by a long shot. Fact is, The Motor Company built an 8-valve engine for racing almost exactly 100 years ago. Well, to be a little more precise, they built a precious few of them; no one knows for sure exactly how many, and in several iterations to boot. That’s what keeps this from being simple. As for being easy? Well, while the idea for this article was shaping, it turned out I could only offer you, dear reader, a paragraph or two of solid fact about this historic, almost mythical, landmark machine. For those who want only answers, I hope that will suffice. But for me this whole era and the machines that made it is laden with a lot more questions than answers. But, that’s what makes it worth it. Usually, in cases like this, it’s best to start at the beginning, so…

Origins of the original

Bill Ottaway had his work cut out for him. Lured to H-D in 1913 from a floundering Thor, he had already been tasked with making the J-models all they could be. He did. By the fall of 1915, improved intake manifolds, better cam profiles, stronger valve gear and a high-capacity oil pump meant a whopping 25-percent increase in power for the J. All good… but in the meantime the founders had reversed their attitudes about factory-backed racing and had handed him the chore of coming up with a competitive racing machine. He did. The pocket-valve production-based 11K model was holding its own against some pretty formidable competition, but it had given all he could get out of it… so, what next?

Here’s the ad H-D took out in 1916 trade papers to announce availability of their spanking new 61” Model 17 8-valve V-twin racer. The astronomical price was enough to distract you from the intentionally vague specifications listed. My personal hunch is the specs were vague because the lead time for getting an ad in the paper was such that Harley themselves weren’t certain about the details of their new racer, until after the ad came out. No matter what... they had to show the intention of compliance with the (pre-AMA) FAM governing body “rule” that such machines were to be sold to the public. At the listed price… fat friggin’ chance!

Here’s the ad H-D took out in 1916 trade papers to announce availability of their spanking new 61” Model 17 8-valve V-twin racer. The astronomical price was enough to distract you from the intentionally vague specifications listed. My personal hunch is the specs were vague because the lead time for getting an ad in the paper was such that Harley themselves weren’t certain about the details of their new racer, until after the ad came out. No matter what… they had to show the intention of compliance with the (pre-AMA) FAM governing body “rule” that such machines were to be sold to the public. At the listed price… fat friggin’ chance!

Times were tougher than you’d think for the industry as a whole, and lots of manufacturers were dropping like flies during the wholesale switch to cars. The founders meant to be among the survivors in the only way that worked: getting your name and reputation in front of the public. In those pre-Internet, pre-television, pre-radio days that meant articles in newspapers and trade papers. It meant racing… successfully. Getting from old gray mare to swift gray race horse was Ottaway’s job. He did it.

The opposition’s technology was looking pretty ferocious. Excelsior (deep pockets provided by Ignatz Schwinn’s bicycle empire) had come up with their impressively fast “Big Valve” racer. Indian had been racing Oscar Hedstrom’s 8-valve track bikes since 1911, and naturally enough, dominated the field. But the machine that kept Ottaway awake nights was the awe-inspiring, ferociously potent and futuristic overhead cam Cyclone! It wouldn’t be easy to mount a challenge to this kind of superior hardware without a scratch-built, race-only monster of his own. Impossible with a pocket valve like the 11K.

It might come as a surprise, but in 1911 there was no NFL football, big league baseball, or any other popular professional sport that could top horse racing and boxing. No TV or radio also meant that when people were looking for weekend entertainment and the ponies or fisticuffs didn’t do it for ’em... motorcycle racing had a natural audience. A big one at that! Most of them came to see the sheer spectacle of spindly machines, slinging around a track making a sound many had never heard and going faster than any could imagine. At the time, one of the best of these racers used an Indian 8-valve engine, like this one. To say, in hindsight, that Oscar Hedstrom was a hell of an engineer is to put it mildly. But Oscar retired in 1913, leaving the competition with... ah... a hell of an opportunity to catch up!

It might come as a surprise, but in 1911 there was no NFL football, big league baseball, or any other popular professional sport that could top horse racing and boxing. No TV or radio also meant that when people were looking for weekend entertainment and the ponies or fisticuffs didn’t do it for ’em… motorcycle racing had a natural audience. A big one at that! Most of them came to see the sheer spectacle of spindly machines, slinging around a track making a sound many had never heard and going faster than any could imagine. At the time, one of the best of these racers used an Indian 8-valve engine, like this one. To say, in hindsight, that Oscar Hedstrom was a hell of an engineer is to put it mildly. But Oscar retired in 1913, leaving the competition with… ah… a hell of an opportunity to catch up!

But, Ottaway wasn’t getting “scratch-built” support from Walter Davidson during hard times. Instead, he had to compromise and settle for a new top end on the proven 11K single-cam bottom end. The 8-valve idea looked good; much cooler-running, less hammering of frail valves and springs, not too many different parts to worry about, might even breathe better. Bill was an engineer in his own right, and kept himself informed of the latest thinking in internal combustion. He knew how good (and proven) Hedstrom’s 8-valver was. Under the circumstances and constraints, seemed like the best way to go for H-D as well. Meanwhile, all the engineering journals and papers available kept talking about this fella in England, a gent named Harry Ricardo, who knew his way around head flow like no one else. Following his principles, Ottaway had his own prototype 8-valver up and running by the fall of 1915. But… but… it was pre-igniting so badly it melted spark plugs! With a cool 25 grand into the project and the 1916 season looming large, Ottaway had to go, hat in hand, to Walter Davidson. Walter—the penny pincher—wasn’t happy! A steamship voyage to bring the man himself to America, paying top dollar for his expertise, not to mention putting him up for weeks, was another major expense, and not part of the original plan. On the other hand, not bringing Ricardo to the rescue meant scrapping the project and wasting the money already spent. Not an option at this crucial juncture. It turned out Walter caved, Ricardo and Ottaway handled all the issues in just a few weeks and the competition debut of a 55 hp, 61” Harley-Davidson 8-valve racer was on time and spectacular!

Shootout in Dodge City

July 11, 1916, in Dodge City, Kansas, was damn hot! Not just from the noonday summer sun! The third annual Dodge City 300 Classic was well under way and spectators couldn’t believe what they were seeing. The first lap of this “road race” (on dirt roads) saw the expected Indian out front. By the second it was a new Harley 8-valver. From then on, it was Harley-Davidson all the way! By race end H-D’s 8-valve racers dominated, coming in first and third, and setting a new track record. Indians finished fourth and fifth, with the speedy Excelsior splitting the Harleys for second. All in all, a blockbuster beginning for the soon-to-be-named Harley “Model 1.” By the end of the year, Harley had kicked ass all season, the United States declared war on Germany and that was that for motorcycle racing… for a time.

One of the first and best at the game of catch up was the so-called “Big Valve” Excelsior. Make no mistake, these things were fast! Trouble was, they weren’t exactly cutting edge technology... more like existing tech refined. Soon enough, that would prove to be “too little, too late” in pre-war racing.

One of the first and best at the game of catch up was the so-called “Big Valve” Excelsior. Make no mistake, these things were fast! Trouble was, they weren’t exactly cutting edge technology… more like existing tech refined. Soon enough, that would prove to be “too little, too late” in pre-war racing.

Eight-valve oddities

To be clear, the original Harley 8-valve racer was only marginally faster than the competition. What made them so successful, so quickly, was Ottaway’s team management. The man had every detail worked out, to a degree not seen again until Mercedes-Benz went car racing in the late 30’s. I mean Bill had the paid professional racers eating and sleeping right to keep them in shape. He had drills to make pit stops efficient and fast. Same thing with refueling techniques and so on and so on. In other words… Ottaway was the epitome of a race boss. The men and machines under his supervision were absolutely as efficient and effective as he could humanly make’em! He did it.

Those men we should talk about some other time; they were amazing and deserve to be remembered. But for now, let’s stick to the machines… and the beginning of the mysteries… so far.

Most of the race bikes in that long-ago time (excepting Indian, of course) were in the same boat as Excelsior. Then this monster came along! The Cyclone was an almost science fiction-level bombshell of high-tech engineering, an all ball-bearing engine with bevel-driven overhead cams and more... eat your heart out, Ducati fans! This engine got attention! Sadly, it didn’t come to much on the track. Explosively fast, they usually exploded before the end of the race... mostly bad luck, and primitive metallurgy, not poor design. Fact is, once the Cyclone’s manufacturer (Joerns) faded from the scene, two other brands picked up where it left off. The OHC Reading Standard was an exact copy and Excelsior built an updated and improved version of their own to replace the Big Valve.

Most of the race bikes in that long-ago time (excepting Indian, of course) were in the same boat as Excelsior. Then this monster came along! The Cyclone was an almost science fiction-level bombshell of high-tech engineering, an all ball-bearing engine with bevel-driven overhead cams and more… eat your heart out, Ducati fans! This engine got attention! Sadly, it didn’t come to much on the track. Explosively fast, they usually exploded before the end of the race… mostly bad luck, and primitive metallurgy, not poor design. Fact is, once the Cyclone’s manufacturer (Joerns) faded from the scene, two other brands picked up where it left off. The OHC Reading Standard was an exact copy and Excelsior built an updated and improved version of their own to replace the Big Valve.

Much has been made of the fact that H-D priced their 8-valve twin and 4-valve single race bikes at a stratospheric $1,500 and $1,000, respectively. (Indian sold theirs for not much more than the road bikes… $350 for twins and $300 for singles.) The accepted notion is that it’s because H-D didn’t want anyone but a factory team rider to get their hands on the racers they made, while Indian wanted to pack the field with theirs. But… as we’ll see later… Harley 8-valvers did get into the hands of certain favored folks, mostly overseas and mostly post-war. Mystery number one: how’d that happen?

There’s also the matter of the 4-valve singles. They were essentially the twins with the front cylinder lopped off. Thing is, H-D had a perfectly good vertical single at the time. Why not put the 4-valve top end on that? Some say it’s because Ricardo proved that the intake tract on the singles wouldn’t or couldn’t take advantage of the breathing potential in the heads… but to this day nobody knows for sure. Mystery number two: what about the “half-a-twin” singles?

Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson waited until everyone else in the game had shown their cards, then sprung this on them! The 1916 8-valve model literally took the racing world by storm! But the storm passed too quickly! After kicking butt for a season, the 8-valve was heard no more until 1919 and the resumption of racing. (We’re going to get into that next month.) But for now it might be instructive to take a look at a few details. First, the Harley’s 8-valves operate differently than the Indians (picture 2) by lining exhaust valves up fore and aft, while the Indian’s are oriented side-to-side. The original is also the only 8-valve H-D to use exhaust pipes... four of them... one on each of four round ports. Last (for now) there’s the fork... which looks like all the other forks on all the other bikes. That wouldn’t last because in the same way the engine evolved over the next 13 years, so did the frame and forks. As you’ll see... next issue!

Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson waited until everyone else in the game had shown their cards, then sprung this on them! The 1916 8-valve model literally took the racing world by storm! But the storm passed too quickly! After kicking butt for a season, the 8-valve was heard no more until 1919 and the resumption of racing. (We’re going to get into that next month.) But for now it might be instructive to take a look at a few details. First, the Harley’s 8-valves operate differently than the Indians (picture 2) by lining exhaust valves up fore and aft, while the Indian’s are oriented side-to-side. The original is also the only 8-valve H-D to use exhaust pipes… four of them… one on each of four round ports. Last (for now) there’s the fork… which looks like all the other forks on all the other bikes. That wouldn’t last because in the same way the engine evolved over the next 13 years, so did the frame and forks. As you’ll see… next issue!

Then there’s this: we’ve already seen that the 8-valve was developed in 1915 and raced in 1916, so why was it cataloged as the Model 17? Following H-D naming rituals from the time should have made it a Model 16… right? Right—mystery number three?

As you’ll see in photos hereabouts, the original 1916 8-valve racer was, for all intents and purposes, a racing top end on a single-cam, production bottom end. But before it was over, there were at least a couple more top ends and eventually a twin cam bottom end… the two bottom ends, at the time, referred to as “indirect” and “direct” acting. Mysterious!

What that means, to me at least, is that Ottaway wasn’t exactly 100 percent focused on war production. He was obviously researching ways to make the 8-valve racers better and faster during those years of conflict. Because he knew when those overseas battles were over, there’d be plenty more fights on American soil…in the speed wars on race tracks!

(To be continued… mysteriously.)

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