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Harley’s secret stash

By Kenzo

The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Archive Collection

Randy Leffingwell and Darwin Holmstrom

Motorbooks, $60, 408 pages

I’m reminded of the last scene in the film Raiders of the Lost Ark. The successfully recovered Ark of the Covenant has been crated and loaded on a forklift, and the camera pans out to show a seemingly endless secret warehouse filled with similar crates that presumably hold other lost treasures of the world. The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Archive Collection was sort of like that: a secret warehouse filled with motorcycles for every model year, special machines that have disappeared from public view, and bikes whose very existence were mere rumor.

We now know that The Motor Company has been stashing motorcycles away in secret since 1915. That was when the Davidson brothers and William Harley began saving at least one motorcycle from each model year. In 1919 they enhanced the collection by seeking out and repurchasing important motorcycles manufactured since 1903. Months before the opening of the new Harley-Davidson Museum, Randy Leffingwell set up his photography studio in this secret warehouse within the Juneau Avenue complex and began documenting the collection.

This lavish coffee-table book might be “the gift” for Christmas 2008. It weighs just over seven pounds and contains more lush photographs in these 408 pages than I can count. If this tome contained nothing but Leffingwell’s photographs, it would be well worth the $60 price tag. However, the text written by Darwin Holmstrom provides so much unique information that this becomes an encyclopedia that’s absolutely essential for any collector or restorer of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

An excerpt from the section that describes Harley’s 1912 Model X-8-A states, “In the summer of 2004, Archives staff cleaned this motorcycle and installed a new drive belt. In the process of their examinations, staff members discovered that this machine has several engineering prototype features and experimental changes. Some components appeared to be handmade. The freewheel pivot was welded onto the frame, which had an extension welded onto it. In addition, this vehicle has an experimental rear hub actuator, perhaps as a prototype or update for the freewheel mechanism introduced in two-speed hubs in 1914.

“For 1912, the company introduced a new frame that enhanced riding comfort through an innovation it called the ‘Ful-Floteing Seat.’ This invention put some of the helical coil springs from the cushion front fork into the seat tube to provide additional compliance to the Troxel seat. The Motor Company manufactured 545 belt-drive motorcycles in 1912, selling them for $235 apiece when equipped as this example.”

Motorcycles featured in this book begin with serial number 1. Yes, the first motorcycle manufactured by H-D still exists and was completely restored in 1996 through 1997. The authors then jump to the 1906 single, followed by the 1907, and then to the only surviving example of the 1909 Model 5-D, Harley’s first V-twin. The book doesn’t document every machine in the archives, but does include many models that I’ve never seen published.

Over the years, specific motorcycles have disappeared from public view only to reappear with the opening of the new Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. The 1936 EL Record Bike on which Joe Petrali twice broke the American Straightaway Record on March 13, 1937 is one such machine. Others, like the 1981 Nova and the 1975 Model OHC-1100 Experimental, never even saw the light of day. The 1995 XL-1200 Biker Blues bike designed by Wyatt Fuller had never been publicly shown before the museum opened this summer, and it now joins the earlier 1994 FLSTN Fat Boy Biker Blues custom that appeared at events until 1998.

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the secret of this vast collection was a conspiracy that went far beyond the staff that lovingly maintained it. The first Buell Blast to roll off the assembly line was signed by every person involved in its design, engineering and manufacture. The 2003 Ultra Classic Electra Glide with sidecar that was built to commemorate The Motor Company’s 100th birthday was dismantled, the parts sent around the world to all H-D facilities where employees signed them, and was then reassembled in Milwaukee. There are over 10,000 signatures on the bodywork, making this one of the most unusual custom jobs in the world, and it was never publicly displayed! I thought that three people couldn’t keep a secret unless two of them were dead, but the existence of the archive collection proves me wrong.

There are models featured with sidevans and sidecars, others as fully equipped military and police vehicles, and the Servicars. Road, track and hill climb models from different eras range from experimental and custom to championship bikes that proudly wear “1.” In addition to Sportsters, Fat Boys, and Glides, less familiar models are also showcased. Two chapters on “lightweights” include the ML-Rapido Baja; MC-65 Shortster; the M-50 and M-50 Sport; Model H Sprint; the BTH Scat; the Model B Hummer; and the S-series models. However, if these are not quite your idea of what a Harley should be, how about the D-3 golf cart or the Y-440 snowmobile? H-D also had a line of bicycles that were produced at the closing of World War I. The Model 420 Motorcyke Tank Bicycle of 1917 doesn’t look like an antique since it fits right in with the current motorcycle-retro bicycle scene, and H-D’s 1918 Model 8-18 racer is a beauty even by 2008 standards.

I think everyone has a dream machine, that if-price-was-no-object motorcycle model that they would choose as their perfect ride. Mine has always been the XR-750 fitted with a café fairing and enhanced performance. After looking through this book, my fidelity has been shaken by the appearance of a 1977 XLCR-1000 Café Racer and I’d buy a 1994 VR-1000 in street trim if I could afford it.

The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Archive Collection is much more than eye candy. It’s a key reference book and essential for anyone who rides, wrenches, or writes on Harley-Davidson motorcycles… or Harley ice yachts, snowmobiles or bicycles.

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