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Motorhead Memo: Moto-lexicography

By Kip Woodring

I really never thought I’d do “requests,” but, by request, here’s a short glossary of Harley cultural colloquialisms for your edification and entertainment.

Apehanger: If you simply look at the person on board as they are riding with handlebars this high, it’s obvious how a “handle” like this came to be attached to handlebars. Technically, “apes” are simply a bar design that should leave the rider’s hands at or above his shoulders, hangin’ in the wind. It also follows that similar bars, which aren’t quite that high (but more legal) are nowadays referred to as mini-apes.

Bendix: Actually, this is the equivalent of the starter drive/starter clutch used in modern, so-called “compound” starter motors, used by Harley since 1989 (OK, 1988 on Sportsters). Earlier electric starter setups used separate components, located all over the bike, to get the job done. Typically perched on the inner primary cover from 1965, this essential component was originally supplied to the factory by the Amer-ican company who basically invented the gadget—namely Bendix. Although you can’t even find a real Bendix for a hog anymore, the name stuck—like the part will often do when it fails.

Bobber: Well! Others might offer alternative definitions, but to me it’s obvious that it all began with a popular women’s hairstyle from the roaring ’20s! Basically, if you just hacked your hair off in a straight line (in bangs along the forehead for example) you had “bobbed” your hair. It wasn’t all that different when it came to trimming excess crap off a hog in that era, either. Most folks were poor back then, but all it really took was the desire and a hacksaw and you could “bob” fenders and such with ease, to save weight and add a little free performance.

Chopper: More to do with a torch than a saw and adding or modifying bits on board the bike than simply removing it all. Long front ends, tall sissy bars, funky handlebars, wide and weird wheels, and more and more creativity for the sake of creativity as each year passes, are hallmarks of a chopper.

Cone: Simply the general shape of the cam cover on the ride side of both Shovel and Evo Big Twin engines from about 1970 through 1999. Not as aesthetically pleasing as the kidney cam cover that preceded it, but I like it better than the cover on Twinkies, which as yet, has no name. (Tells ya sumpthin’ right there, huh?)

Cowbells: Otherwise known as fork slider covers, these are the shiny cans that bridge the gap between the lower (slider) part of the front forks and the fork panel set (“tins”) on Heritage models or the nifty nacelle on Road Kings, that surrounds the upper parts of the fork above the lower triple tree. Folks have a very strange (to me) tendency to swap perfectly great stainless steel cowbells for chrome ones which will usually rust and look like crap 10 years down the road. Oh well.

Cow Pie: Ah ha! Here’s a charming colloquialism! The term is used to describe the look of the Big Twin four-speed transmission top and shift mechanism used from 1979 until the end of factory four-speeds. (Yes, it does look like one! How did you think that name came up anyway?)

Crash Bar: The original but politically incorrect description of the large loop of (usually chromed) tubing we often see attached to the forward portion of our frames. We’re supposed to call ’em “engine guards” or “safety bars” and Lord knows, never, “the place we hang our freeway pegs”! But secretly (and from some experience) I suspect that crash bar says it all, well enough.

Derby Cover: Technically, this is just Harley lingo for the clutch in-spection cover that once resembled a man’s hat style. Shows you how a name sticks all the same, since Harley clutch inspection covers haven’t looked like the derby hat so popular in the ’20s and ’30s since about 1970! If logic prevailed, these covers would currently be tagged with a nickname like “dome-olites’ or some such shit, wouldn’t they?

Fat Bob: Nothing more (in the beginning at least) than keeping the big factory gas tanks on a bike that was otherwise “bobbed” to a slender minimum. The typical look of a bobber (as opposed to a chopper) was little, petite, not only minimal but miniature. So if you did that, but kept those tanks instead of swapping for some sort of “peanut” tank, you were indeed aboard a “fat” bobber.

Jiffy Stand: A rare instance where the factory term is actually more accurate than the one usually used. (I don’t know about you, but I haven’t actually kicked my jiffy stand yet!) All the same, it seems that we prefer to refer to that stand which is not centered under the bike as either a “side” or a “kick” stand even though you really can deploy it in a “jiffy.”

Jockey: Ordinarily, but not necessarily, part of the suicide “pact” along with the twitchy foot clutch. Moving the shifter from way out there on the tank to a spot right where your fist naturally fell put this crucial control far more readily at hand (as far as racers were concerned) than the factory arrangement. The name makes total sense when you picture a professional rider on a thoroughbred quarter horse hard at work whipping flanks, then transpose that image onto one of a biker whipping shifts out of a hot old Harley with his mitt down by the oil tank.

Juice Brake: Originally, a term used to differentiate the factory’s switch to hydraulic rear drum brakes, from the previous mechanical type. Not sexy, silly or swanky but a clear way to describe the difference, and one that has (for some) come (wrongly) to encompass all hydraulic brakes on hogs.

Kidney: The original (visual) shape of the cam cover on practically all Harley V-engines until 1969. Actually, although the vestigial shape is still there, nobody ever calls them that on XL engines—wonder why?

Lollipop: A kickstarter pedal that always looked a lot more like an old-fashioned two-stick Popsicle than a lollipop to me… but that’s not what they’re called… go figure!

Pillar Bolt: The specialized little fasteners that hold the points/timing plate in cone motors and Sportsters, and in turn, into which the outside points/timing cover attach.

Ratchet Top: Following the propensity Harley owners of yore had for naming hog bits after some other damn thing they vaguely resemble, ratchet top merely refers to the style (and design) of the transmission top (and its integral shifting mechanism) used on Big Twin four-speed trannys from 1936 through 1978.

Riser: Most likely from the day of the original Springer front end, referring specifically to the “dog bone” style (because they look like the ones Pluto gnawed in Disney cartoons, more than real ones) used from the dawn of the bobber/chopper era. Now, the term is generic as all hell, since even the shortest “lower handlebar clamp” is called a riser. Yuck!

Scoot Boot: Anglo-American euphemism for what, on a car, would be called a trunk in this country and (sure enough) a boot in Britain! Harley likes the equally made up words “tour pack” but we all know what we’re really talking about—massive storage for all our crap in the worst possible location. Yup, “scoot boot” oughta call up an image of too much weight, too high up, for people who don’t know the meaning of traveling light. But, since “saddlebags” (which don’t really straddle a saddle like their namesakes did on a horse) seemingly don’t hold enough stuff, it’s close enough. I prefer a “house on the back of a Harley” but that’s so wordy, it’s not likely to catch on.

Step Starter: Back when compression ratios were always single digits and engines were half the size they are now, assuming proper use of the manual spark retard, you only had to step on that pedal to get the desired result. Between their invention and their deletion somewhere along the way, more power and displacement led to less stepping and a lot more kicking. Nobody I know has a step starter on their daily driver these days, but quite a few have kickstarters, so that’s what we call ’em!

Stretch: Logically, this means adding length to a frame tube. Usually stated in inches (rather than degrees, like rake or trail), one announces that there’s, say, four inches of stretch in the down tubes and two in the backbone. (Or vice versa!) Down tubes, of course, being the ones running vertically from steering head to engine cradle and backbone being the horizontal tubes hiding under the gas tank(s).

Suicide: As in “suicide clutch,” it means mostly a bike with a foot clutch that has a return spring. The factory setup upon which it was based was an in-or-out affair with a simple rocker pedal. Logical, be-cause since shifting with the gated, ratcheting gas tank shifter was a deliberate (ponderous?) task at best, even with only three speeds to worry about, not having to worry about keeping your foot pressed on a slippery pedal was a fine thing. You could take your time and simply rock the clutch back into engagement when damn good and ready. Adding a spring changed all that, but the payoff (with proper coordination and practice) was a much quicker shift. Handy in stop light drags with other hogs (not so equipped) or fending off those pesky foot shift-equipped British twins in a speed contest of any kind.

Trap Door: A rather comforting reminder of the days when (a) people did their own work on bikes they kept for decades and (b) Harley knew a thing or two about racing—when it really counted. The story of the trap door goes something like this. When H-D decided to do something about the British Invasion (bikes of the ’50s, not bands of the ’60s) it took the form of the 45″ K-model, featuring trendy “unit construction,” wherein the engine case and tranny case became one and the same. The problem with the initial arrangement was servicing the gearbox. You had to split those newfangled cases to do it! That sucked so bad that within a year or so (and just in time for the jump to overhead valves that turned the K into the X) some clever soul at the factory redesigned the cases. The improvement amounted to adding a separate bolt-on “door” to the left case half, behind the primary drive, that for all intents and purposes turned the entire gear set into a cartridge affair that popped out as an assembly and with much less grief! DIY owners everywhere and ever since were damn glad that they no longer had to tear the whole engine apart to replace a gear or shift fork in the tranny. Simultaneously, professional mechanics and racers reaped that benefit as well as others involving pit stops and quick internal ratio changes at the track or in the race shop. Yup, before too long, Sportsters and racing derivatives like the XR750 had another small but crucial advantage over the competition. (The factory even put a trap door of sorts on the Big Twins when they went to the five-speed transmission in 1980, though for somewhat different reasons and on the right side of their boxes, with much the same great result.) Funny, but now that the British bikes are no longer a threat and far fewer folks work on their Sportys, the trap door has disappeared from the newest version. Pity!

Wishbone: Frames on Harleys have come in many varieties over the decades. Most, whether a single or double tube comes from under the engine to the steering head, are of relatively straight (and straightforward) construction. But once upon a time for a few years running, Big Twin frames came with very deliberate and very curvaceous twin tubes running down from the steering head and disappearing under the engine. These were as aesthetically pleasing as any production frame has ever been and the real reasons for their disappearance are a mystery. All the same, for a brief while, based on their appearance (again) these so-called “wishbone” frames were as Art Deco and delicious as it gets.

Wide Glide: Oh the horror! Of all the slang terms attached to Harleys and their parts, this is the one that seems to lead to the most confusion. Understandable enough, since it’s the generic name of a couple of front fork designs and a model name! I don’t pretend that I can clear it all up for everyone, but in simplest terms, all Big Twins got wider than (then) normal forks when the factory switched from spring forks to hydraulic telescopic forks. That’s partly because they went to enormously wide (for the day) balloon tires about the same time. Calling them “wide” glide (or any kind of “glide”) came later, and resulted from H-D’s marketing terms for the motorcycle that came with them first—the Hydra Glide. The notion in the minds of the ad men was to imply that these new hydraulic forks would let a rider “glide” smoothly over bumps and dips that the old Springer forks would bounce you over. At first, all went well. Of course, Harley riders, then as now, can’t leave well enough alone! So, stripped-down versions of the new “glide” forks went on to grace the front end of many a custom of the ’50s and ’60s—choppers, bobbers, the whole lot! In the meantime, the factory stuck another, similar type of hydraulic fork on the K-models and Sportsters, which did not use the balloon tires, and thus were “narrow,” but never referred to as “glides” by the factory. We had to come up with a way to tell the parts guy which forks we had and that led to wide-glide versus narrow-glide nomenclature. Decades later, Willie G. and his troops came up with a factory model that sported (in addition to a flame paint job) a “prestripped” set of these glide forks—with the wider triple trees, intended for balloon tires—but fitted with a narrow 21″ wheels instead. They called this particular model “Wide Glide” and shortly after, trademarked the term. Trouble is, there’s no other term for the forks themselves, let alone the models! If I were in charge, the forks that have “tins” covering them would still be called “Hydra” (for instance) to tell them from the stripped versions. That would only leave the wide-glide (equipped) models (like the original, the Dyna, the dressers, Softails and such) to sort out. I won’t exactly wait around for such clarification, by the way. Largely because, as natural a move as it seems, the factory has never seen fit to stick WG (forks) on any Sportster model, yet has come out with even wider (49mm) Glide forks for Dynas and a couple of Softails too. Paraphrasing Alice (in Wonder-land, not at the restaurant): “Things just keep getting curiouser and curiouser!”

If you’re still curious about any hog slang I may have missed, or have some enlightenment of your own to share, you have but to put in your request.

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