European Motorcycles

Today in Motorcycle History

Harley Sportster Wreck


by Troyce Walls

    Due to the inescapable fact that I had quit my job before leaving, when I got back from the motorcycle trip to California I found myself in rather dire financial straits.  The ‘73 Kawasaki Z-1 I had ridden on that adventure had to go because I couldn’t make the payments.  All this unfolded as cold weather was coming on, a time in most climates that is not optimal for the selling of a motorcycle.  I tried the local Kawasaki shop but they wouldn’t offer any price, as they had new unsold ones sitting on the showroom floor awaiting a long, lonesome winter.  It hurt to know that if it were spring I could get twice what I was asking for the bike.  Of the two calls I received in response to the classified ad (that I couldn’t pay for if I didn’t sell the bike) one wanted to trade me farm equipment, and the other a ‘60-something Harley Sportster that “Needed a little work.”  At the time I didn’t see much difference in the two, but the Harley guy offered a little cash as well, so I had to take him up on it.  When I went to fetch the Harley I had to push it all over a parking lot to get it to run, using the term loosely, and just barely made it back to the house.  The weather had finally turned and I was a miserable young fellow, having just traded my beautiful Z-1 for that mess.  Several subsequent attempts to crank the Sportster over the next months toward Christmas resulted in nothing but backfires and sputters.  The previous three summers that I had worked as a mechanic at a Honda dealership were of no avail, as I had no idea what might be wrong.  It had been explained to me that a Harley mechanic was a different breed, and that the level of finesse that the bikes required mechanically involved pipe wrenches, large hammers, and yardsticks.  The Hondas to which I had become accustomed were much more similar to, say, a Swiss watch.  So off I went to Dad’s garage out in the country with another broken vehicle. 

    It seemed bizarre and truly unbelievable to me that an engine with a total of four valves could possibly find a need for four different and separate camshafts, as the recently parted Kawasaki had made do very well indeed thanks very much with a paltry two camshafts pushing eight valves.  Even more interesting was that the cams in my particular Harley anyway had little dots on the drive gears.  And that none of these little dots seemed to have anything to do with one another at any point in the engine rotation was truly mysterious.  All became relatively clear, however, when we aligned the dots, set the spark, and kicked ‘er over one more time.  It was one of those times when we remember why we work on these things, because the sound from those open drag pipes had changed from the spitting, coughing, and frustrating noise I been listening to since I’d gotten the thing into the melodious, powerful racket Harleys are supposed to make.  Apparently, whoever had previously assembled the engine was enough of an idiot not to know what they were doing on disassembly; but were smart enough eventually to have gotten it out of their hands and into mine. 

Once the beast was running more or less properly, the myriad other problems began to manifest themselves.  Gasoline dripped from the carb and a seam in the fuel tank, oil from several places on the engine, the forks were permanently bottomed out, and the front brake didn’t do anything.  The electrical wires (calling it a “System” might have been a bit high-handed) consisted of quite a few straggly odd sized pieces wound about here and there with flapping and unraveling various types of tape, including masking.  Some of the wire pieces, hand twisted connections going on back, allowed the taillight to glow when the ignition key was turned to on, but cranking the engine shut the light off again.  The headlight was a $4.95 discount auto parts store unit that didn’t do anything anytime.  There were so many wires for so very little effect. 

    Ok, fine. the aforementioned problems notwithstanding, I wanted to ride the thing at least a little even though it was the middle of December, before I began to work on it in earnest.  Bundled up, I opened the garage door and boomed into the cold gray afternoon toward the local settlement, hoping some of my buddies would notice me on my Harley-Davidson.  I would be so neat, because they would only know it was an HD, and would not know how I’d been ripped off in gaining ownership.  At approximately forty mph just at the edge of town I mentally noted a car, as I had learned to always do when on a bike, a large brown one waiting to pull into the road from a side street.  Making the mistake of relaxing slightly, since I was already nearly at the intersection and had assumed that the car was going to stay stopped, I proceeded. 

But then the car spurted across my path, and things began to happen.  First I tried to swerve to the right but the auto was going all the way to the ditch there on the right so I went back to the left.  At that point the operator of the monster must have noticed me, or just tried to avoid the ditch, and swerved back to the left.  Note here that the shifter and brake were on opposite sides of this particular Harley from what this Japanese enthusiast was accustomed.  Pouncing on what was normally the rear brake for me only managed to engage third gear on the Harley, an event that didn’t slow us much, what with the lack of engine compression braking and all.  Remember that the front brake was inoperative. 

There was a brief, colorized, magnified, and terrible view of the back side of the ugly protruding “3 MPH” bumper heading directly for my right shin as I gouged along the left side of the Monte Carlo.  Screaming metal, screaming me.  I managed to lift my leg in time to clear the bumper, but that left me with no foot on the peg for upcoming events.  The glancing path off the side of the car directed me toward a high curb, with the Sportster still moving all too rapidly.  In short order, the impact of the previously-noted permanently-bottomed forks into the curb was followed with a more personal collision of my genital area with the rear of the fuel tank.  Things began to get fuzzy then and I just knew it had to be about over, but there was more to come. 

I guess I had faded out for a very short time because when things began to clear up I noticed I was still on the bike, and it was still moving.  For some reason I can’t possibly identify, while holding my crotch with both hands, I looked down at the speedo (which, somehow, was one of the few things that worked) and read 20 some-odd mph.  I couldn’t believe it was all still going on.  There were trees everywhere, and there were far too many of them to suit me.  The first tree went by on the left simply by leaning the bike while I tried to get my paws back on the bars, but the next one found its mark.  The tree came aboard just to the right of the front wheel and caught the handlebar first, where my fingers were almost back in place.  They were smashed by the tree which then came on down the starboard side, taking out the cute sidedraft carb that had been keeping my right knee out in the cold wind.  Then the top of my foot, the one I had just barely gotten back on the peg, struck Mr. Tree, at about the same time my torso stopped against the pine, bringing my poor privates to meet said Mr. Tree. 

Myself, I decided I would like to stop there, and sort of inadvertently hugged the tree (ahead of my time, I guess).  The last thing I saw as I began to fall back was the Sportster making an eerily silent arc through the trees out to the right.  It was so peaceful and quiet then, and I just wanted it to stay that way, because striking the tree with my chest (after the other bodily parts) had knocked the breath from my lungs, so I thought that I had discovered what dying was like, and it seemed like a good idea.  The evergreen needles and the few remaining hardwood leaves were painted vividly against the Russian gray winter sky above me.  I passed out.

Things were slowly beginning to hurt when I awoke, after an apparently short period.  The drunken and angry operator of the automobile leaned over me and began to shout a crazed dissertation on crazy motersickle jerks and similar public nuisances.  I rolled onto my side and curled up, because I really didn’t feel like defending myself at that moment. 

    Someone called Dad then, and thinking back on it later I’m pretty sure he probably thought I’d finally bought it on a bike, just as he’d always feared.  But when he arrived and found me alive, conscious, and more or less in one piece he never said I-told-you-so even once.  That is something I’ll always remember fondly, and with great respect.  The injuries turned out to be relatively minor.  Among them were: a cracked clavicle, bruised ribs, two broken fingers, two cracked toes attached eventually to a twisted ankle, an interminable headache, a badly bruised knee and inner thigh, and two extremely uncomfortable testicles.  The helmet was scraped badly over the right eye area.  The highway patrol “Officer” insisted that I sit in his patrol car while he searched in his trunk for a warrant he thought he must have for me.  Turns out he was a personal friend of the driver of the car, and was just acting accordingly.  Dad managed to put a stop to that circus and took me to the hospital.

    Two days later I received a letter informing me that I had been charged with the accident by the attending patrol officer, and that I was liable for the damage to the automobile involved in the accident.  The letter was from the insurance provider for the auto owner. 

However, I promptly contacted several witnesses (the accident had occurred near a local gathering spot and cafe) and an attorney.  He wrote the appropriate letter and a few days later I received another letter offering compensation for the amount of damages done to the motorcycle and my body.  The motorcycle wasn’t worth much to begin with, and my insurance was covering the trip to the hospital, so this was a good thing. 

After a little period of convalescence, I went back into the garage and reattached what I could to the cycle, then left it alone.  Some weeks later a fellow Honda mechanic, who was always irrational about Harlies, offered to trade his awfully nice CB500 for the Sportster.  I almost overreacted, but managed to remain calm enough on the exterior to give him the old “Well, okay, but you’re beating me on this one,” routine.  Bad Harley finally gone, but it wasn’t the last one.  I had ridden it twice for a total of about seven miles, never back from the way I had gone, and unsuccessfully both times.