Friday, May 11, 2007


The Pre-16 Run is organized by Steve Wright, who wrote the brilliant 'American Racer' books,which he in fact self-published, and which sell on ebay for a LOT of money. More recently, he wrote 'the American Motorcycle; 1869-1914', which may still be available - he's just about finished with vol.2, 1915-2000, which means he has a lot to say about really old bikes.
The ride usually attracts about 30 pre-1916 machines, almost all of which are American. Harley Davidson, Indian, Yale, Excelsior, Premier, and Pope were represented this year, as well as the later Rudge and Sunbeam of Pete and myself. The event is run over 3 days every spring, the weekend after the Legends, in the rolling hills just northeast of San Luis Obispo. The roads are terrific, bendy, and almost free of traffic, with lots of scenery as we wind past the wineries, ranches, and farms. Even though it was a fairly dry year, there were still a lot of wildflowers on the grassy hillsides and in the creek gullies. The prior week it had been 95 degrees in the area, but over the weekend it hovered in the 70s/80s.
Top pic is a 1915 Indian with Sidecar, a really nice restoration, looking great here in front of the San Miguel mission gate. Yes, I posed it there next to the agave, but doesn't it look terrific?
Next pic is Mr Mann; that would be the dog, not the fellow with the map, sitting in the sidecar of another immaculate '15 Harely, owned by Urban Hirsch (who is apparently one of the richest men in California). Urban brought several machines, all spotless.
Pete Young brought the interloper Premier, the only pre-16 from England. It ran well over the 100 miles on Friday, only losing a pedal along the way (it was found). But, no match speed-wise for the '15 Harleys, 'the first modern American motorcycle', according to Legends Show 2-time winner Mike Madden. Pete's bike would average around 40-45 mph, the Harleys seemed like they would average 65mph all day, with a top speed of perhaps the 90's. They were ridden with panache through the hills, or perhaps abandon, as they have only a rear brake, which has both internal shoes and an external band brake. Still, not much to stop 600lbs of rider and bike from 70mph! Although, to be honest, my Sunbeam brakes are pretty weak too.
Most of the quick '15 Harleys were cheaters, with much later cams, and stroked flywheels, giving them 1100cc; some had later carbs as well. I'm sure I'd do the same if I had one; I was impressed.
American bikes had it all over English bikes in this period, with much more durable and sophisticated designs. Eight-valve and overhead-cam racers were developed well before other countries, but by the mid-20's, American manufacturers had hardened into a formula of side-valve engines, and increasingly heavy motorcycles. Rugged but certainly not quick, they sank from view in international competition, only to return in the 1960's when Harley went abroad for the 'match races' in England, using ohv XR racers. But I digress.
Pic 4 shows an unrestored, original 1912 Harley 500cc single-cylinder belt-driver. Very rare, single-speed, and using bicycle type pedals to start the engine, as did most of the bikes present. These are mopeds, according the our glorious state of CA, and can be registered once, for life, on a moped license plate, for $50. If you spend $50k on a pre-16 machine, imagine how much you'll save with license fees!
Pic 5; black '15 Harley, sitting next to my Sunbeam. If you look closely, you'll see a gold pinstripe underneath the red stripes, where the rider's knees have rubbed the paint away. You can click on the pic for a better look. I didn't get a clear explanation for the gold, but I believe some of the Harley's exported to England were painted traditional English black and gold, like my Sunbeam. I parked my bike next to his, just to highlight the similarity; he got a real ribbing from other Harley guys about his 'Limey bike'. This gang really dishes it out, but are in fact very friendly.
Next pic is an original, unrestored 1914 Yale v-twin. Yale was one of many American motorcycle producers which disappeared by the 1920's. They started out as the Yale-California, produced in Sacramento, but were bought out by the Consolidated Manufacturing Company, and production moved to Toledo, Ohio. This model produced 9.2 hp at the rear wheel, and had horizontal cooling fins for better air flow.
Pic 7 is 'von John' Parker's Mexican police bobber, a '47 Indian Chief. He came in with his wife Jenny, who rode her own '47 Chief, see pic 7. Note friendly one-finger wave.
Pic 8 is Fred Lange's 1915 Harley, with wonky headlamps and even crazier wiring; click on pic for a better view. Oily and beautiful.
Last pic shows the group underway, enjoying the road and the sound of a bunch of blatting old bikes. Like most motorcycle rides, people sort themselves out according to preferred speed. The sight of a '15 overtaking slower riders is inspiring. I have a pre-16 JAP 1000cc side-valve motor sitting in my garage, which was rescued from a boat (not the anchor, the engine!) in Uruguay. It arrived in the chassis of a Brough 11-50, but was clearly much earlier than the '34 BS. If I could find a chassis for the early JAP, those H-D's might have some competition...

Here is a video of me following Mike Madden on his 1915 Harley - listen to his brake (singular) screech on approaching a corner! The 'bonking' sound is my '28 Sunbeam - you can hear the 'chuff-chuff' of his Harley, mid-video.