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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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If you own an antique motorcycle or always wanted too I’m sure you are familiar with “Concours d’Elegance” type events.  Similar to the high-end showcase for automobiles at Pebble Beach or auctions at Bonhams the Legend of the Motorcycle is a world-class concours exclusively for motorcycles.

Held a couple weeks ago the annual event was on the lawns of the Ritz-Carlton in Half Moon Bay, CA and contained more than 150 of the best pre-1978 motorcycles from around the world.  These historic motorcycles were showcased and judged.  They were all there from Norton’s, Vincent’s, Excelsior, Harley, Crocker & Brough Superior including bikes from custom builders Jesse James, Shinya Kimura, Paul Cox, Roger Goldammer and Billy Lane.  Also on display were memorabilia from artworks, to racing photos and antique advertising as well as Steve McQueen’s 1940 Indian Scout.

A list of all the motorcycles at the event is HERE.  Or if you’re interested there are more than 100 photos of the event on the Sports Car Market (SCM) site.   I’d like to make it down to this event someday, but not sure where I packed my bowtie…

 

Advertising photo courtesy of Legend site and is Motoleggera Ducati 60 cc. gorgeous woman advertising poster, 1951

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 Did You See that Motorcycle?

With warmer spring weather in the NW comes the motorcycles.  And with motorcycles come the accidents. Regardless of who is at fault, the motorcyclists seldom fare well.

Simply put, a lot of drivers DO NOT see motorcycles or the motorcyclist. Yeah, some of those drivers are talking on their cell phone or enjoying a two-all-beef-patty Big Mac behind the wheel, but some pay attention and still don’t see motorcycles. We’re not invisible, but every experienced motorcyclist understands that many drivers don’t see us and rides accordingly. I think we all try and remain outside of any blind spot, and give ourselves enough cushion to make an emergency maneuver – bottom line is that motorcyclists think about accidents all the time. And they think about how to avoid them.

I remember a trip to Reno a few years ago where on an isolated stretch of Highway 31 between LaPine and Silver Lake it was after dusk and difficult to see.  The posse slowed below the 55MPH speed limit in anticipation of darting deer, but out of no where we came up on a large brick sized casing in our tire path.  A couple of us had the thing bounce off the bike frames after the lead rider basically ran over it. At the wrong angle this could have tossed a rider off before they could do anything. A car driver would have just gritted their teeth and hit the object. Whatever happens to their car, the impact will probably leave the car driver unscathed, but it could leave a motorcyclist seriously injured.  We were fortunate to only have some damage to the bikes.  It turned out to be part of an old Chevy Truck transmission which had broke down about 10miles ahead of us…duh, no wonder.

So why do people ride? That’s an interesting question. Many bikers would scoff and tell you that if we had to explain it to you, you wouldn’t understand.  Much of that is true, but let me try to give you some additional insight.  Many riders began riding motorcycles in their youth and now they are returning to the hobby. They’ve worked hard all their lives, maybe raised a family and now it’s time to enjoy something they have not enjoyed in years. Some of these riders even include significant others or their spouse in their hobby. You’ll see them heading down the highway loaded down and equipped with everything from tent trailers to a CB radio to XM satellite players cranking out “Born To Be Wild”.  Or maybe you’ll see someone on a Harley looking like they need a cup of coffee as they find America and are experiencing it the adventures way. Or they are sport bike riders dressed in multi-color leather suits and bent over their bikes looking fast sitting still.

No matter how we’re dressed, or whatever we ride, we all share one thing in common: we want to get home alive that night.

So give us a break. Keep your eyes wide open on us!  When you see us look and then look again for us when you don’t.  Because we’re out there and we’re looking at you.

Drive safe!

Photo courtesy of Fensterbme

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A bit of nostalgia on this rain/snow mixed day.  

After WWII the allies engaged in a scramble to pinch Nazi Germany’s technology and this included motorcycles.  The Harley “Hummer” (Model 125) design was an adaptation of the German DKW motorcycles whose engineering designs were forfeited to the Allies as a part of War Reparations.  The simple DKW 125cc was reproduced as the British BSA Bantam, the “Hummer”, the Russian Moskva M1-A and the Yamaha YA-1 in Japan. 

The Hummer was added to Harley-Davidson’s model line in 1948. The “Hummer” is the unofficial nomenclature as its official listing is the American Lightweight and referenced that way in the Enthusiast Magazine.  The Hummer was a stripped-down basic model using a redesigned “B-model” engine with the old 125 cc capacity. It was named after Dean Hummer, a Harley dealer in Omaha, Nebraska Omaha, who led national Harley two-stroke sales. The Hummer was as basic as it could have been, and was sold without battery, electric horn, turn signals, or brake lights. 

However, one company went on to innovate the DKW 125.  IMME (a German word for bee and the tank logo) was made in Immenstadt in Bavaria from 1949-51.  The Imme’s list of innovation is impressive in today’s standards let alone in the 50’s.  It had a single sided front fork, a rear swing-arm which doubled as exhaust, rear monoshock, and quick release wheels that leave chain and sprocket in place and a twist grip 3-speed gear box.  

The designer was Norbert Riedel whose claim to fame was designing 2-stroke motors to jump start German jet fighters. Production started in 1949, but only 80 motorcycles were made the first year.   Production numbers reached 400 a month later, and in 1950 up to 1000 a month. The bikes could be sold, but some financial (and warranty) problems occurred and the IMME AG went out of business.   Riedel had designed a new egg-shaped twin 150cc engine and planned a comeback with an improved version of the IMME and a 150cc scooter, but in 1951 the factory was shut down again.  Later Norbert Riedel worked for Triumph in Nürnberg and Victoria. He died in 1963 in an avalanche accident.  

Photo courtesy of Harley Hummer Club.

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