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Posts Tagged ‘1937 Model U’

Harley-Davidson 1937 Model UL — Flathead

In a previous post, I briefly touched on a remarkable collection of classics in the northwest and how I was most fortunate to interview the family and learn more about an inspirational man with a genuine love of wrenching on vintage motorcycles.

In this post, I’m taking a deeper dive on the first (frame-up) restoration in that collection — a 1937 Harley-Davidson Model U-Series Flathead.

According to Harley-Davidson, the UL production in 1937 was 2,861 units and the motorcycle sold for $395 or the equivalent purchasing power of about $7,100 in 2020.

Harley-Davidson 1937 Model UL — Teak Red

There is nothing more alarming than a motorcycle that has been built, modified or customized by someone of dubious talent and knowledge. All it takes is a quick spin around Craigslist, searching for the terms “project,” “bobber,” “custom” or “café racer” to turn up any number of bikes that will have you saying WTF.

Many times these projects are started with the best of intentions, but the absolute worst are the ones that are started in an attempt to make a quick buck, or resurrect a wadded up bike.

However, this ’37 wasn’t someone else’s project.  It would need help bringing her back to life, but it had all the original sheet metal, flathead engine, transmission, speedometer, leather saddle bags, solo seat and more.

Instruction Manual

Bob spent several years on the identification, collection of manuals and parts search for this exceptionally high caliber restoration.  He completed the motorcycle restoration in 1975 and was often seen riding it at various antique club events through-out the years. The motorcycle has lots of crowd-pleasing brightwork, is an excellent runner with showy pieces of Art Deco styling and old school looks.

A fascinating backstory is the original restoration color on this ’37 was Olive Green with Black striping. Bob loved spending time with his grandkids who were all very involved in taking things apart including motorcycles.  It started with bicycles then mini-bikes and later on with motorcycles and automobiles.  In his workshop, he’d show them how to take apart things and repair them — the correct way — with the correct tools!  Several years after completing this restoration, he decided to work on a project with his grandkids and taught them how to disassemble the ’37 inorder to repaint the sheet metal Teak Red.  Those kids meant the world to him and passing down his tradesman skills might be his legacy.

1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL

The ’37 is an excellent example of the — Flathead Engine — a charming, honest, beautiful bike that doesn’t rely on diaper-shined chrome or flawless paint to impress.  Named for its flat-topped, vented cylinder heads, the side valve-equipped (using tappets) 74 cubic inch V model Big Twin actually came out in 1930, but in 1937 the U-series motors were of dry-sump oil design.

At first flatheads seemed out-of-step or backwards compared to higher-horsepower overhead-valve designs. But, out in the real world, the “flatty’s” broad spread of torque, less clattery operation and cheaper buy-in continued to win over riders.  The 74 cubic inch “F” motor has a 4-speed tank-shift transmission and a Linkert M51 mechanical butterfly carburetor.

The teardrop-shaped fuel tank is adorned with an instrument panel (dubbed the “Cat’s Eye”) that bundled all the gauges into one graceful package. It even has the rare dash panel with the oil and amperage indicators.

1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL — aka “Cat Eye”

The Big Twin model was built in part to compete with the 74 cubic inch Indian Chief.  The U and UL models featured 74 cubic inch power plants, and the UH and the ULH models were outfitted with 80 cubic inch engines. The 80 cubic inch models were produced until 1941, and the 74 cubic inch U and UL models were in production until 1948. The three-wheeled Harley-Davidson Servi-Cars made from the early 1930s through 1975, were powered by flathead engines during their entire run of production.

One of the most notable improvements found on the ’37 U-series, was the new design, which recirculates the oil from the oil tank, through the engine and back to the oil tank. Up until 1936, all Harley-Davidson motorcycles used “total loss” systems, which essentially ran the oil from the oil tank, through the engine and ultimately onto the ground.  Thus the nickname: “road oilers.”

1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL

The valves are actuated by four gear-driven camshafts (one per valve) and used adjustable tappets to maintain precise spacing between the cam lobs and the valve stems. Although the cylinder heads don’t contain any moving parts, they do play an important role in cooling the engine. Initially Harley-Davidson outfitted the U-series motors with cast iron cylinder heads, but soon switched to forged aluminum alloy heads with deeper cooling fins for improved cooling. The engine has brass spark plug inserts added to address the former engines’ problems of stripping threads. This motorcycle doesn’t have them, but at the time customers could opt for optional silicon aluminum heads.

1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL

Fuel and air are fed into the motor using a single Linkert carburetor, which is positioned on the left side of the motorcycle. Harley reversed this arrangement for its overhead motors, which all have right side carburetors. Exhaust was routed and expelled via a single fishtail muffler on the right side.

The primary chain, located on the left-side,  transmits power from the engine to the 4-speed transmission. The transmission is hand shifted via a lever mounted on the left side of the fuel tank and the clutch is controlled with a foot pedal. A secondary chain transmits power from the transmission to the rear wheel using a brake drum mounted sprocket.

The front and rear drum brakes are engaged manually with no hydraulic assistance. The front uses a cable to connect a right side mounted hand lever to the left side mounted drum. The rear uses a series of adjustable rods to engage the motion of the right side brake pedal through the frame and out to the left side mounted rear drum.

1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL

The ’37 Model UL rides on a “hardtail” frame.  Basically, there is no rear suspension. The sprung solo seat helps offset the lack of any rear suspension, and the “Springer” front end is the main suspension on the Model UL.  It’s a two piece element that uses six external springs on the top and moveable rocker arms on the bottom. The springs absorb impacts while the rocker arms permit vertical movement of the front axle.

The left hand grip operates the engine timing, allowing a rider to retard the timing for easy starting and advance the timing for normal running. The horn button and the high/low beam switch for the headlight are located on the left side handlebar as well.

1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL

Shifting the 4-speed transmission is accomplished using a hand lever that is attached to the left side of the fuel tank. A shift gate helps the rider find the gears without skipping gears when shifting. The foot operated clutch, known as a “rocker clutch” is used to engage and disengage the clutch. All Harley’s use the “toe to go” set up where pressing the clutch pedal forward with the toe engages the clutch and pushing the pedal back with your heel disengages the clutch. A friction disc is used to keep the clutch pedal in the heel back position, so that the rider does not have to keep their foot on the pedal when the motorcycle is stopped.

It’s challenging to explain the ’37 Harley-Davidson Model UL mystique.  There is both excitement and apprehension in managing the technique of a rocker clutch and tank mounted shifter.  Adding to the rider challenge is counteracting the heavy Springer front-end during a corner. Stability, if there is such a thing on this model, is a complicated matter and the manufacture of motorcycles in the 1930’s were very reluctant to talk about it.

In the fast moving world we live in today, it’s difficult to wrap your head around the bicycle-like origins starting in the Davidson family’s backyard more than 116-years ago.  If we had the luxury of going back in time, we could ask the young inventors, but I’d anticipate the founding group would be exceptionally proud of Bob’s restoration treasure and the enduring craftsmanship on “their” 1937 Model UL.

UPDATED: March 8, 2020 — The third post on this vintage motorcycle collection is: Every Restored Motorcycle Has A Story — The 1913 Single

Author Comments:  Although my name appears on the post, it takes a “village” to pull together this type of information.  I’m not only delighted to be working with Bob’s family, I also get the honor of thanking them here.

Photos taken by author and courtesy of Harley-Davidson.  

All Rights Reserved © Northwest Harley Blog

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Archives Warehouse — Harley-Davidson Museum — Milwaukee, WI

Before jumping into the nuts and bolts…

Disclaimer: Some of the names and identifying details have been changed to protect the privacy of individuals.

This article is the first in a series of planned posts about a collection of vintage motorcycles in the northwest and the man whose work was steeped in the craftsmanship necessary to become proficient at restoring this collection.

Outbuildings, Workshop and Showroom

I’m not a motorcycle archivist, but definitely a fan of reflections in a classic motorcycle headlamp. Vintage motorcycles turn heads wherever they go.

You might find on a typical road trip to Sturgis, a classic motorcycle rattling along in it’s own space in the slow lane.  You’ll roll up along side to pass then with a nod to the rider, be momentarily distracted from the road as the vibrating antique parts try and reach out to tell their story.

I came to know about this remarkable collection of classics in the northwest and was most fortunate to interview the family.  Getting a tour of this private collection is a slow-walk through motorcycle history in America.  I was not only impressed with the number, but also the significance and uniqueness of them.

January 1937 H-D Enthusiast

As a general rule, bloggers are impatient and eager to illuminate a story, especially when it comes to finding a rare stash of motorcycle history.  But, I wanted to be deliberate in the research of the bikes and truly capture the ‘soul’ of the story — the man who is behind the restorations and who made the magic.

Let’s call this man, Robert (Bob) — the heartiest of men with a large stature, a strong handshake, a friendly smile and a genuine love of wrenching on classic motorcycles.

There’s something a little magical about taking an old, neglected, forgotten motorcycle, bringing her back to life, and restoring it to her former glory.

Why do classic motorcycles grab us fiercely by the heartstrings?

There is no simple answer to that question, but one thought is they intersect with our own history.  If not you, then your father or granddad, all who would’ve been lucky to ride one of these works of art and as is often the case, it triggers a flood of fond memories.

1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL

To provide some historical context and mental imagery — it was a time when there were far fewer people around, fewer laws and regulations, when gas was cheap, when driving was a pleasure, and if you owned a powerful two-wheeled machine you could point the chrome headlight down an empty road and go!

In 1937, the San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge opened to traffic — at about the same time, a new generation of side-valve engines were introduced from the Milwaukee motor company.  Replacing the V series which had a “total loss lubrication” system, the new U series motors in 1937 were dry-sump oil designs. Most of the motorcycle parts were made in common with the Model E 61 inch OHV motorcycle that debuted a year earlier.  As it turns out, Bill Harley was granted patent 2,111,242 for this oiling system on March 15, 1938.

1913 Harley-Davidson Model 9B

The completely revised engine had many upgrades that separated it from the earlier V motor including new cases, cylinders and now had roller bearings throughout the lower end. New forks, frame and sheet metal improved the image of the new bike, with styling cues heavily influenced by the Art Deco movement, something that the flowing lines of paint and emblems reflected.

Fast-forward to 2020 and my private tour was finally here!

1948 Harley-Davidson Model 45

I’ve aspired to attain eminence in photography and my bucket list includes photographing motorcycles in a professional studio.  But, finding a studio with a large white soft-box that’s big enough to ride a motorcycle into is an obstacle.  Well, it is for a regular guy and renting a commercial studio with light stands, multiplex flash strobes, drop clothes and diffusion panels to eliminate reflections in the paint wasn’t in the budget.

But, I’ve digressed…

I stepped through a side-door entrance and onto the wooden floor of the showroom that houses the motorcycle collection. The space is huge and it’s open and airy with an industrial aesthetic and light pouring in through multi-paned windows.  There is a lingering smell of oil and I noted a few drops on the polished floor.

1916 Indian Power Plus

A beautiful collection!

I didn’t want to be that annoying “tourist” snapping too many photos, but I was that irksome camera-happy dude on this day.

It was a “ride through history” on rare and collectible motorcycles. More significant, were the remarks about the attention to detail and listening to the fascinating backstories, anecdotes, folk-lore and the restoration tales that my “tour guides” shared on each of the motorcycles.

A panoramic scan of the showroom is an overload of storytelling. Side-stepping across the wooden floor finds a person gazing across more than a dozen motorcycles stacked side-by-side.  Set up like an academic library, against an outer wall are multiple bookcases and shelves, where hundreds of engine manuals and parts catalogs were filed away.

The only item missing in this showroom was an onsite cafe!

1925 Henderson Four

There is even an old draughtsman drawing board complete with an articulated protractor head displaying some vintage documents.  The illustrations contained a collection of various engines schematics from their earliest incarnation.

Deep breathing makes a person more aware so, I quickly exhaled, then took another big breath while meandering my feet slowly across the showroom floor.

A bright Teak-Red restoration caught my eye; it was a stunning 1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL flathead.  It’s a little like seeing a childhood photo of someone you miss.  Then I turned to look at a bicycle form of mechanical sculpture…a tribute to the original “Silent Grey Fellow” was gently positioned in the corner — a rare 1913 Model 9B single cylinder… the very essence of simplicity!

Engine Manuals and Parts Catalogs

These old motorcycles were made when clunky was normal and oil leaks were expected. It’s oddly endearing.

Gleaming in the middle was an Azure Blue over Silver 1948 Harley-Davidson Model 45 and at the far end of that row was a shiny Dark Blue 1925 Henderson 4-cylinder.  And placed at a right-angle near the Henderson was a beautifully weathered 1916 Indian Power Plus that looked as if it had just been pulled out of a barn for the first time in many decades.

I’ve listed only a few of the motorcycles in this gem of a collection.

It’s striking and every motorcycle reaches out to tell a unique story of the time, money and effort required to be restored. Imagine how often you’d want to call in sick to skip work so that you could tinker with these bikes.  It speaks volumes of Bob’s discipline, persistence and the decades long practice of his craft.

If you are like me, old things make you feel young.  Admittedly, I have a fascination with dusty items and will be posting several articles on these vintage motorcycles, the workshop and the man behind the restorations.

Stay tuned…

UPDATED: February 27, 2020 — The second post on this vintage motorcycle collection is a deep dive on a restored 1937 Harley-Davidson Model UL Flathead (HERE).

UPDATED: March 8, 2020 — The third post on this vintage motorcycle collection is at: Every Restored Motorcycle Has A Story — The 1913 Single

Photos taken by the author and courtesy of Harley-Davidson.  Cover of the 1937 Enthusiast is courtesy of Harley-Davidson Museum.

All Rights Reserved © Northwest Harley Blog

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