Steve changes his ’74 XLCH chopper into a Knuckle lookalike
text by Steven Wyman-Blackburn photos by Steve Lita
Why or how lemonade became the accepted platform to describe how people make the best of otherwise unpleasant dilemmas is beyond me. While I understand that the metaphor is contingent upon the originating sour situation, I’ve always felt that lemonade was tantamount to a failed mixed drink. For starters, I prefer iced tea. Luckily for me, when talking about Steven Peters’ 1974 XLCH, my particular stance on the popular saying actually works quite well. Steve basically skipped the lemons altogether and began with the “improved” beverage.
While the bike wasn’t a lemon to begin with, it wasn’t perfect, either (hence the lemonade). It was riddled with dents and scratches, which signified a motorcycle that was well-worn and far from show-floor ready. And that’s not even taking into account the failed attempt of whomever drilled holes in the rear fender to accommodate the two-up seat it originally came with. (I say failed since the holes weren’t lined up properly.) It didn’t help that the Sporty had a slight chopper look with the small rear wheel and large front wheel. However, when all is said and done, the bike could start and perform well, and, duh, it’s an Ironhead. The fact that it came with the original frame, powerplant (save for the ’86 carb which Steve installed years later), rear swingarm, fork, and wheels made it the perfect canvas.
It all started when Steve bought a Harley 350 Sprint in 1985. Over the six years he rode it, he became friends with a salesmen from the local House of Harley-Davidson dealer. Well, when the kickstart XLCH you see here appeared at the shop, being a smart guy who could connect the dots, the salesman thought Steve might like it. So he pulled Steve aside and said, “Steve, we’ve got a bike with your name written all over it.” No joke. Steve was etched on the price tag and the letters from P to R could be found in every nook and cranny. The fact that it was a vintage bike was another plus for Steve. In April of 1992, the chopped bike was his.
Okay, so you know that Steve didn’t (and still doesn’t) want a XLCH chopper. So what did he fancy? If the Knucklehead style nuts on the stock rocker boxes weren’t a dead giveaway, Steve tried to emulate the look of a Knucklehead or, to be more precise, something from the 1930s-40s era, and it makes sense, too, since Steve’s dream bike is a 1936 EL. That said, the fact that a Knuckle has always remained in dreamland and never actually pushed its way into reality (i.e. Steve’s world) is essential when defining the bike for it ultimately shapes the Sportster’s overall theme. It’s part Ironhead, part Knuck wannabe. For starters, the fenders are aftermarket parts for Sportys and, probably the most conspicuous one of all, Steve kept the peanut tank. “I originally thought of changing it to a Fat Bob tank, but then I decided not to,” says Steve. “It’s still a Sportster.” When you pair that with a few of the illusions on the bike, you’ll see what I mean.
Now I’m not using the word “illusions” sparingly. Upon first glance, you might think that a particular area on the bike seems legit. But when you get a little closer, you’ll realize that, in actuality, the look or style is a façade. Don’t feel bad if you were fooled. I thought Steve replaced the original suspension and bolted on a hardtail frame. However, the Sporty suspension is just blacked-out. It doesn’t help that the leather saddlebags are also covering that particular area. I also falsely assumed that the front forks was a springer since the lower legs are blacked-out. It’s what Steve calls “black camouflage.” Those springs up top are what fooled me. In fact, the springs are the only, in Steve’s words, “real” vintage parts and needed to be cut shorter to fit onto the bike properly. And bring your attention to the “springer seat.” It’s in quotes for a reason. The side flange is covering the fact that it’s actually solidly mounted. “It looks
like it’s floating on a pogo stick,” says Steve.
Interestingly enough, this dichotomy between Ironhead and Knucklehead wasn’t the original look Steve initially tried to tackle. When the bike first made it into his garage, the only mission on Steve’s mind was to unchop it, if you can even call it that. That move is apparent through the first mod Steve made to his Sporty. “It originally came with an aftermarket chrome headlight,” says Steve. “It was installed lower than it is now and was pretty small.” The unchopping began when he replaced it with a much larger, teardrop headlight from the 1935-48 era and embellished it by reinstalling the original bracket upside down to push it up higher on the forks.
The XLCH also came to him with differently sized wheels, a 21″ front and 16″ rear, which contributed to the original builder’s quest for increasing rake. Steve leveled out the playing field by adding the correct size 1974 wheels: the rear wheel is now 2″ bigger and the front wheel is now 2″ smaller. Steve adds, “It levels out the bike perfectly.” Chopped culture also reared its (subjectively ugly) head in two other areas. While the rear fender was fine (besides the mismatching holes mentioned earlier), Steve had to reinstall the front and rear turn signals since the original owner had chopped them off, but the tombstone taillight was already on the bike, so Steve painted it black. And in the front, Steve made the bike complete by replacing the small chrome front fender. “I’ve heard some people say that my new fender looks like a Model K,” says Steve.
Steve’s artistic trajectory began to head toward vintage styling when he saw a Sportster that had been converted into a Knucklehead lookalike. “I was at the 90th anniversary celebration for Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee,” Steve recalls. “I thought, ’Yeah! I can do that. I already have the headlight and taillight anyway.’” With this new direction in mind, Steve quickly went to his local Harley dealership and chose the pair of used handlebars you see here from a selection of three. “It’s 3′ wide, which is similar to the period. It was from that point when I took off the buckhorns that the project really started to change.”
And that change soon led to the gas deflecting, shark fin muffler, a 1935-40 reproduction aftermarket part. The mufflers received the black satin treatment only after Steve tried to rub off some spots on the flat black paint, an action which smudged the coloring, making it resemble a black satin finish. Speaking of color, the bike originally came in burgundy. Steve almost altered it when he realized it was commonly used in 1949. Win-win! For something more substantial, the “springer” saddle illusion mentioned earlier was not intentional, either.
A few other mods that convey the movement toward a Knuckle include his slow but steady change from chrome to blacked-out parts, the 1947-50 chrome and red Speedball tank emblem, and the 1935-57 art deco horn (which is actually paired with and located in front of another usable horn since the retro one isn’t loud enough). Then there’s the stripes on the rear fender, which Steve calls Art Deco speed lines even though people now refer to them as Sergeant Stripes. His reasoning? That’s what they have been called since the late ’40s. The speedometer was also moved and the tach removed. “It’s kind of like the dashbars from the early ’30s,” says Steve. “It doesn’t look like a dash, but it has the same feel.”
As we all know, customizing comes with its fair share of trials and tribulations. The pipes you see here were actually a nuisance. The rear pipe would have originally gone through where the kickstart lever is currently located, so Steve had to cut and twist them before installing it back on. However, that only pushed the front pipe 3″ forward, forcing Steve to cut 3″ from the bottom. Some of the brackets he created also came at a price, especially the left- and right-side streamlined half moon footboard brackets (which were bent inward with a slight upward tip bent into the front and took an entire day each to create). Another troublesome story involves what I like to summarize as the goodbye-shifter-peg-during-ride scenario, but that’s a whole different ball game.
Oh, and see the picture of a trailer to the left? I called it the Medieval tour pack during the interview, but Steve clarified by saying that it’s modeled after the Mullins auto trailer built only in 1936-37. For those of you who are curious, the trailer attaches to the bike’s swingarm with a carabineer-type clip rather than a trailer hitch. Like the XLH’s gas tank, the trailer also features the speed lines. “I built the trailer myself,” says Steve. “It has a steel frame from a bicycle trailer. Save for the hinges, latch, and handle, everything else is made from hardboard, pine, and oak wood, and hardboard like Masonite. Even the fenders are made from wood.”
With so many mods already lined up — some planned, some not so much — it’s safe to say that Steve still has his work cut out for him. When asked whether or not buying his 1936 EL dream bike would affect the look of his Sportster, Steve had to think about it for a moment. “I never thought of that,” begins Steve slowly. “I don’t know. This one is just so fun and unique the way it is.” Fair enough. After consulting my wife, Jenn, on a closer for the story, she said, “Life gave him lemonade, so he made an Arnold Palmer … with a splash of vodka.”