My Summer of ’29

Feb 24, 2015 View Comments by

1929jd 1I am going to take a page out of my autobiography, which I can now laugh at—but at the time, it was certainly not funny.

When I was doing much of Harley-Davidson’s graphic design work, I got to meet a lot of interesting motorcycle nuts like myself. One of them was John Rank. John’s dad was Wally Rank, a well-known Buick dealer and collector of classic cars, mostly ’30s and ’40s Packards, Cadillacs, and so on. John, on the other hand, was a classic motorcycle collector, and was heavily into Indians and Harleys. To his credit, he did almost all the restoration himself, and his bikes had to be perfect! If a bike got a score of only 97 points, he would take it apart and redo it until it was 100-percent show ready. On his personal Harleys he was always making design changes—some of which even HD adopted.

Early one spring, John was invited to display his bikes at a garden show. Several old Harleys and Indians were selected, one of which was a 1929 Harley-Davidson Model JD. For whatever reason, I always admired that bike; maybe it was the romance of an era gone by, and the courage and pure tenacity of those who rode those machines on roads that were only ruts through a field. Those machines were and are simplicity itself; a twin cylinder 45 motor, no suspension, and a leather belt that tightened around a metal hub to stop you. Even on a good road those things jumped and pitched like a wild bronco, but they were still very cool. You can imagine my surprise when John offered me the use of the ’29 for the entire summer if I would help him transport it to the flower show, and then pick it up afterward. The really amazing thing about this bike was the fact that it was completely original, right down to the hard leather seat (no padding). That meant it had a six volt battery, and a spark advance, which if not set just right would backfire and send the kick starter lever into your ankle, and that was the one thing that worried me most.

Excitement number one was when I came to a stop sign and the bike leaned a little too much to the left. I knew enough to realize that this was not supposed to happen! One of the bolts on the frame had fallen out! With the help of a gentleman mowing his lawn, I was able to find a nut and bolt and fix the problem. I don’t think it would have been that easy with a modern machine. After that, all went well and the bike was placed under a large tent at the show on Friday, with pickup scheduled for Sunday afternoon.

When pickup time arrived, I immediately saw a problem: there were still a number of people languishing around, both in the tent and on the walkway, sniffing the flowers. Extracting the bike was not going to be easy. I didn’t want to wait until dark when everyone would be gone, because 1929 lighting is not all that bright. So, I proceeded to go through my preflight procedure. What I failed to remember is that bikes of this era tend to smoke a little when you first start them—OK, make that a lot. Within moments, people were choking and running out of the tent! My only thought was to get the “H” out of there as quickly as possible! But I soon discovered that there was not that much room on the sidewalk I had to drive it down, a situation made even worse by people who were too slow to get out of the way! To keep from running down a little old lady I had to cut my corner sharp, and in doing so took down an ice cream stand.

I was able to escape with only my ego bruised, plus some Rocky Road on the fender. I figured I was in the clear, with a nice direct ride home. And so it was for about a mile, at which point I entered one of the busiest intersections in our county. I accelerated into the intersection and the bike stalled dead center, the light changed, and I prepared to die. In my panic I flooded the engine, and I was kicking away like mad!

Then the strangest thing happened: nobody moved, even though they had a green light. Everyone froze until the bike started and I was able to continue on my way. Unfortunately, I got only about another mile before it stalled again, this time at the side of the road. No amount of kicking and swearing would start it—the battery was dead. I had it towed home and called John to pick up his bike. I’d had my summer of ’29 and realized that sometimes old bikes are best appreciated from a distance, in the romantic glow of yesteryear. And they really don’t “make ’em like they used to.”

Ride on.


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About the author

A Wisconsin farm boy, I learned how to ride a cow, before a horse and way before a motorcycle. I first started riding on my 16th birthday and I took my first real ride at my party: I pulled a wheelie and dug a trench in the lawn, which sent the bike in one direction and me in another. I was irrevocably hooked!