Harley-Davidson 1930-1941 Revolutionary Motorcycles & Those Who Rode Them

The following review appeared in Iron Horse magazine. It was written by editor David Snow, who made some very perceptive and cutting insights that describe the book better than I -- the author -- could see at the time. But then, back in 1996, I was still somewhat idealistic, perhaps even naive, when it came to Harley-Davidson historical truth vs. Harley-Davidson marketing hype.

Iron Horse Biker Lit Crit

(Vol. 19, No. 4; April 1996) p. 61-63, 83.

Harley-Davidson 1930-1941 Revolutionary Motorcycles & Those Who Rode Them by Herbert Wagner

by Snow


Buy this book. Now.

You can order it directly from the publisher for $24.95 + $2.95 postage. The address is Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 77 Lower Valley Road, Atglen, PA 19310. Do it today.

If you haven't already noticed, I like this book. It receives the coveted Iron Horse Four Cross Cluster of Iron award for conspicuous ballsiness above and beyond the call of duty. Thanks to the blithering popularity of Harley-Davidson these days, Harley oriented books are multiplying faster than a pair of bunnies force fed a diet of Purina Rabbit Chow laced with spanish fly. The resulting overabundance of literary excreta exhibits a characteristic inbred incoherence and the hard-hitting approach of a warm, fuzzy, fluffy press release. Strangely enough, these books all seem to have been written by this Timothy "Bugs" Remus character. The latest Motorbooks International catalog begs the question: just how many more versions of Look At The Shiny Harley can the market bear?

Which only serves to highlight the excellence of Harley-Davidson 1930-1941 by Herbert Wagner. When contrasted with the endless, empty-headed, yuppie fetish books devoted to H-D, Wagner's serving of Harley history is sustenance for the soul of any dedicated biker. Imagine--- a book of substance written by a hardcore biker that treats its subject matter with intelligence and depth. Wagner's book speaks with a commanding authority and enthusiasm that stands head and shoulders above the groveling, gushing authors of Shiny Harley Vol. XXVII and How to Fondle Your Softail.

First and foremost, Wagner's book is about motorcycling --- about riding and owner involvement with the machine. The veneration of the motorcycle as a functional piece of equipment intended for use and abuse is a much more informative and fascinating point of view than the usual treatment of Harley-as-fetish-object-and-fashion accessory. The reader is treated to nearly 200 jam-packed pages of vintage action photos of bikers from the '20s, '30s and ' 40s throwing their motorcycles all over the countryside. It's fucking incredible. These people really rode, blasting their foot clutch/ hand shifting hardtails over all kinds of terrain, in all kinds of weather, all year round. The spectacle is sure to make the modern, yuppified Sunday-go-to H.O.G.-meetin' Harley posers hang their heads in shame. As Wagner states: "Thirties' Big Twin riders make those of today look like wimps." Shots of bikers plowing their Big Twins through rivers and stream's, charging up hills, or down snow-covered highways are downright inspiring and will make you want to rush out to the garage and fire up your own bike. To me, that's the measure of a motorcycling book's (or magazine's) success.

Wagner limits himself mainly to the decade of the '30s because he perceives it as Harley-Davidson's true golden age, which reached its pinnacle on Nov. 25th 1935 with the official introduction of the Knucklehead. (Wow, exactly 60 years ago today, as I write this!) Wagner's sense of historical perspective is impressive, and his case for the Knuckle as the most significant and influential Harley model ever is compelling. Wagner sees the Knuckle as the culmination of the work of Harley-Davidson's founders, the realization of decades of development, design and evolution. He states that "the 36EL...formed the basis of all subsequent Harley-Davidson Big Twins including today's Evolution motor." The "revolution" in the book's title refers to the overhead valve design of the motor, which was, indeed, a drastic departure from the side-valve mills that, with a few short-lived exceptions, had dominated American production motorcycles until the EL 61. That the Knuck was the last project jointly developed by H-D's founders (William A. Davidson died shortly thereafter) further bolsters Wagner's argument for the Knuck as the most important bike H-D ever produced.

Not the least of the myraid reasons why Wagner's book is so fascinating are the eyewitness accounts that he gathered through his obviously painstaking research. Harley-Davidson '30-'41 almost reads like an oral history of the era, and the recollections and anecdotes he recorded are truly priceless glimpses into a bygone motorcycling age that remove any maudlin tinge of nostalgia from the subject. This is a great credit to Wagner's work. These days most of the prose regarding Harley --- from the crank 'em out books and magazines to the latest factory flack-eagerly succumb to the temptation to wallow in the sepia-toned muck of cliche-ridden romaticism. Invocation of "nostalgia" has become so reflexive the obvious joke is lost on the Harley geeks. Why not substitute the word "irrelevant" and get it over with? Wagner, a real biker who builds and rides his own Harleys, simply has too much understanding, respect and reverence for his subject to reduce it to yet another excercise in manipulative mediocrity. He aims much higher and hits his mark with resounding success. He makes the past live. The reader is placed right there in the dust of the rural roads of Depression-era beside the men and women of the '30s whose lives revolved around their motorcycles. The reader relates to the people in Wagner's book as fellow bikers, rather than romanticized ghosts.

Regarding the developing new Knucklehead, Wagner quotes H-D dealer Erwin Martin of Wisconsin Rapids:

"Hap said that a sensational new machine was coming out in the sixty-one category and that it was going to be a full-blown overhead valve. Then I got into the engineering department and saw stuff. You could sort of put things together and figure out what was going on. I saw the engine when it was pretty well assembled in 1934 when they were in the preliminary stages of getting it up. Being interested in engines, I'd compare it: 'Hey this one has got something.' It was out of this world. It really was."

When reading any history, it's easy to forget that as the actual events transpired, that the outcome was anything but certain. Wagner demonstrates that the four founders made quite a gutty call --- introducing a new, unproven, revolutionary model in the midst of the catastrophe of the Depression years. Christy Spexarth, an H-D engineer who worked on the Knuck, is quoted as saying:

"Bill Harley thought the overhead valve was the way to go and he thought correctly. He often mentioned that to us. That the Sixty-one was the salvation of Harley-Davidson. He was right."

Several nagging problems were unresolved right up to the point when the new bike was about to be released to the public, not the least of which was devising a method of draining oil from the heads back to the cases. Obviously, an oil-splattered motorcycle would've turned off customers no matter what its valve configuration. However, between Bill Harley and the engineering and experimental departments, H-D persevered at the last minute utilizing crankcase vacuum to suck the oil through the pushrod tubes. Wagner quotes Frank "Uke" Ulicki (oldest active Harley dealer in the world today) reaction to the formal unveiling of the Knuck in 1935 at Milwaukee's Shroeder Hotel:

"They kept it pretty secret. The test riders weren't allowed down by us. But they had been testing it for quite a while. I fell in love with it. I said to (my brother) C.D., 'That's my machine.'He said back, 'No, that's mine.' My enthusiasm for the Sixty-one was contagious. After that I put the flathead aside."

The bike took off --- And not just because of its performance (OHVs burned the new high octane fuels much more efficiently than flatties). Wagner makes the case for the Knuckle's good looks --- "In the minds of many the 36EL and its 1937-1939 successors rank among the best looking motorcycles ever built. This machine reached an aesthetic peak difficult to match let alone surpass."

But it was as a road-burner that the Knuckle's success was assured. Wagner throws in a generous helping of quotes that put the reader in the rider's seat of the first 36EL. In an added bonus, Wagner provides the engine number of the machine that belonged to each biker quoted, which further familiarizes each voice with the reader. What follows here is but a small selection of the voluminous first-hand motorcycling stories that make Wagner's book breathe. Like this from James Bukovic (36EL1011) :

"That machine was quite hot. That was one of the best running machines I ever had. Never gave me any trouble. We took it to a hillclimb in Upper Michigan. Of three or four first places I took them all. A guy wanted to give me a brand new machine and some money to boot for that Sixty-one. I refused. On the highway I don't know what it wouldn't beat."

Erwin Martin (36EL1341):

"I picked it up early in the spring at the factory. Damned cold ride--- ten below zero. I'd ride about 30 miles, stop at a filling station, warm up, then take another shot at it... Nobody could stay near me on that Sixty-one. No flathead could beat it."

Frank "Stinky Davis" Matheus (36EL1773):

"A fellow named Bob Stuth had a fast 80 flathead (36VLH2632). He and I would race for beers. We'd start on some new concrete west of Lambreck's farm. I'd take him every time. We'd start out pretty even, but by the time we got up in the gears I was leading. It used to bother the hell out of him.

Lavern Radke (36EL1880):

"We had a speed stretch on Highway 51 going north. You'd lay down on that thing and the speedo would run up over a hundred. I was going with my wife to be and would park down the street so her father wouldn't hear it. I didn't have a suit of clothes without chain grease on them."

Ray Frederick (36EL2091):

"The Sixty-one was supposed to be a high-speed job. Mine was red and black. There were two gas tanks. In one side I'd put aviation fuel and get a few more miles an hour out of her. Every once in a while there'd be a guy in a souped up Ford or Chevy who'd challenge you. I'd switch tanks and put in the high octane gas. Then nothing could pass me on the road. I couldn't go fast enough."

Harry Sebreny had a hot Knuck (36EL1489) that he named "Soupy Sixty-one":

"I took off the muffler and put on a straight brass pipe. It echoed like a cannon going off."

After accepting a challenge to race a California hot rod, Harry and Soupy 61 poured it on:

"They bet strong on their car. Real strong. All cash. I rode that thing flat out and that Sixty-one went like a dream. It just floated. When you opened it up it was like riding a cloud. They lost their money. I was back before their guy in the hot rod was half and three-quarters of the way. They were surprised. They wanted to buy it right there. They offered me more than I paid for it. After the race Bill Davidson put his arm around me."

The first-person quotes bring an exciting immediacy to Wagner's work, and the sad fact that many of his subjects are passing on to that Great Highway in the Sky makes his labor of love all the more poignant. What better tribute to the hard-riding men and women who pioneered modern American motorcycling than as vital, timeless voices that speak clearly across the years to bikers of today? For those who really ride, who really live for their motorcycles, the comments and recollections of the '30s bikers are as relevant as the latest motorcycle ride in the '90s. Hmmm. Let me get this straight --- hardcore greasy bikers on loud, fast bikes racing in the streets? Certainly doesn't sound like H.O.G. material to me. Unless they're Sturgis or Daytona slumming, I don't think that any of the current Harley bigwigs would be caught within a hundred miles of guys like the ones speaking in Wagner's book. And guys like that probably wouldn't be caught within a hundred miles of any of today's Harley dealerships. Very damn few of 'em, anyway. Wagner shows just how deeply the people who ran Harley-Davidson were once involved with motorcycling. It had nothing to do with clobbering trademark trespassers or sponsoring charity events or selling fashion accessories or promoting bullshit cafe openings. It had everything to do with riding the hell out of motorcycles. It's most telling that, in the author's preface, Wagner mentions that his "reseasrch extended to the doorstep of --- but not inside- the Harley-Davidson archives," and he provides a disclaimer advising that his book is an officially unauthorized document. It's just as well -- a book this good couldn't have been produced with factory cooperation (read: interference). The values of mainstream motorcycling have moved away from centering around the bike to peripheral bullshit like "image" (and the ongoing sanitation of that image) and bike brokering. How about bikers that were so dedicated to their machines that they refused to sell their motorcycles --- even for more than was originally paid for the bikes? Gee, what a fucking concept. Only a biker could have written this book. Empty-headed yuppie opportunists and factory sanitation men who don't know what motorcycling is about would've just produced another coffee table volume stuffed with splashy pictures in celebration of heritage and nostalgia.

And, of course, the big price tags that go with the party.

Wagner's astute historical analysis also provides insight into today's bike scene. He points to Harley-Davidson's resurrection of the dying club scene of the late'20s as an important factor in HD's survival of the Depression. However, instead ending the discussion (as would most mainstream non-biker-authors), Wagner goes the extra mile and proceeds to offer a perceptive observation. He anticipates the origins of the outlaw in the resurgence of the club scene of the '20s and '30s:

"Yet the signs of rebellion were there. A non-AMA group sprang up in Milwaukee. They had no name or clubhouse and oldtime riders remember them vaguely as the 'lakeside bunch.' They rode various motorcycle types --- Indians, Hendersons and Harley-Davidsons --- and didn't cultivate the clean-cut image that Juneau Avenue liked... They didn't always shave, they looked swarthy and they wore studded leather and not the preferred white uniform...."

Regarding the pervasive and sometimes oppressive influence of the AMA, Wagner States:

"This organization kept the naturally boisterous motorcycle scene under control... But it also sowed the seeds of discontent and reaction which later resulted in the outlaw motorcyclist, the outlaw motorcycle club, and-- it might be added --- the outlaw motorcycle historian." (I'm not sure what he's referring to with that last remark.) It seems to me, that also, just after WWII, the guys who started the original outlaw clubs might have had their fill of uniforms and structure during the war years. After the war, getting decked out in a Good Humor outfit might have lost a bit of its charm.

In the many fascinating photographs that accompany the text, Wagner consistently identifies the bobbed characteristics of the competition motorcycles, the racers and hillclimbers, that would later become custom styling traits. The beginnings of the custom motorcycle are clearly evident in the competition machines- stripped rides that reveal owner involvement. One hillclimber has the name "Jinx No. 13" painted on the rear fender, while another shot of a guy riding his street bike across a stream shows a checkerboard pattern paint scheme- an obvious aviation influence.

Wagner describes origins of Class C racing --- geared toward the ordinary rather than professional rider --- as developed by "Uke" Ulicki in 1933. This can also be seen as another contributing factor to the beginning of custom bikes:

"Class C mandated that contestants had to ride their own motorcycle, use pump gas, and leave the machine stock except that the headlight, front fender and muffler could be removed."

In addition to the incredible photos, Wagner reproduces a few vintage ads which I found quite interesting for their promotion of Harley-Davidson motorcycles as transportation. Wonder what Willie G. would make of that alien concept? Also interesting were the many riders in the photos who had tilted their Harley wings at what looks like a 45-degree angle. Wagner appears mystified as to the reasons for this, and I kinda got a kick fantasizing that perhaps it was some type of statement similar to the patch flipping we do here at the Horse. Shawn immediatel came up with a plausible explanation --- these guys were hillclimbers. They tilted their wings to show that they didn't just ride on the flat. Sounds good to me.

Another of the many treats in store for the reader of Harley-Davidson 1930-1941, is the account of a '30s-era factory tour. Talk about your old world craftsmanship! Those machines weretruly hand made.

On the other hand, it can be somewhat unsettling to check out the vintage '30s photos of Wisconsin motorcycle clubs. Anyone with the slightest sense of history (and the absurd) can't help but draw the obvious comparisons with what was going on in Europe at the same time. The spiffy club uniforms and beaming, clean-cut Aryan faces remind one of nothing less than Hermann Goering lookalike contests held in the genial settings of the rustic Midwestern countryside. It looks like outtakes from Triumph of the Will to Ride. All the banners, regalia, jodphurs, knee high leather boots and regulation caps heighten the effect of a Nuremburg trials meet. One can identify a certain, shall we say, Germanic tendency toward ceremony and ritual pageantry in the Wisconsin club scene of the 1930s. (Please, all of you Milwaukee-area German-Americans, no hate mail- I'm only being facetious here.)

All of which might serve to explain the swipes that Wagner takes at choppers at the close of his fine book in Chapter 7. Of course, this view is consistent with the historical animosity between the straight sensibilities of AMA types and the more informal approach to motorcycling of custom riders, but you can't help but think that chopper aesthetics offend the Teutonic sense of order and structure. Hey, it's Wagner's opinion and he's welcome to it. Choppers aren't for everyone; however I'd take issue with his contention that the riders of the first Knuckles 'Would have died laughing at the sight of a chopper." On the contrary, I think the bikers of the '30s-early '40s would immediately recognize in the chop's custom profile the configuration of the off-road racing Harley, i.e., a Big Twin stripped of the extraneous factory garbage that Wagner finds so attractive. I'd say that a '30s-era rider would have a helluva lot more in common with a hard-riding biker on a stripped, owner-built chopper than with a yupster tippy-toeing his fringed, conchoed, billet barge Heritage Softail into the H-D dealer's lot for an oil change. It's all a matter of where one's head and tastes lie. It's easy to imagine Wagner looking at a chopper and mentally de-raking the frame, shortening the forks to stock length and adding the big stock fenders, tanks, seat, floorboards, etc. in order to return the machine to pristine factory condition. Conversely, if you're into choppers, you'll admire the beautiful stock Knucks and Flatties in the book, all the while chopping them with your mind's eye.

Well, I'm not really sure if I've gotten across just how great this book is. In case there's any doubt or question, I ask that you perform the following experiment. Browse through Harley-Davidson 1930-1941 and I guarantee that within a few minutes your hair will be windblown, your clothes will be dust covered, you'll smell like gas and hot oil, and there might even be a drop or two of Sixty-one 60 weight on the pages. (Only a drop, though! Wagner is quick to defend the mechanical integrity of the EL.)

Note: If you are interested in a copy you might try Schiffler Books to see if any are still available.

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