Text by Dale Walksler
Photos by Jim Dohms
I have always liked a challenge, and this is a great one — a worn out 87-year-old bike and only 45 days to rebuild it in front of a TV audience. To be seen on History Channel’s American Restoration, this is a behind the scenes look at what was involved in redoing this rare old Harley.
This wasn’t the first time my old friend and fellow motorcycle enthusiast Buzz Kanter has thrown a challenge at me. It’s hard to remember all the projects Buzz and I have worked on over the decades, but the reward is always a great motorcycle project, fun with old friends, and some ink in American Iron Magazine (AIM).
My guess is that most Harley riders have no idea what a Harley JDH is or represents. They look like single-cam Harley JDs, but less than 2,000 higher-performance JDHs were ever made. They were fast and reliable machines, and many were ridden hard, abused, and worn out. Eventually they became all but extinct. The few surviving examples have been scooped up by collectors, with the best selling for well over $100,000.
Buzz bought his first JDH, a rough and rusty rolling basket case in a basement, in 1992 and immediately fell in love with these rare old motorcycles. In 2012, he rode one from New York to San Francisco on the Motorcycle Cannonball. So you know he has plenty of experience with JDH Harleys. But those are stories for another time.
What we began with on the TV show was actually a pretty good start for a project. It looked funky, but it was all there and in fair running condition. Because we had a tight production schedule to get this bike finished, it became an exercise in precise calculating of which parts got what finishes. It had to look good when finished, but we did not have the luxury of waiting for plating and painting.
If you saw the show (almost a million households viewed the first airing), you know some of this already. Bob, Buzz, and I quickly and efficiently tore it down in the Wheels Through Time workshop. We had it apart in less than an hour. Then, for the first time I can remember, I chased Buzz out of the workshop and told him to come back in a month to see the finished project. Then the real work began.
Bob White and I discovered that the frame and the forks were bent, which was pretty common — remember that these machines were raced, and that means crashed. Fortunately, we had a genuine 1920s Harley frame table at the museum workshop for just this reason. Once straightened, we sent the frame and fork out for paint. John Dills painted the components in a luscious two-tone maroon that Buzz had picked out. We tossed most of the crappy and mismatched nuts and bolt hardware and replaced a lot of it with leftover nickel nuts and bolts from a recent Crocker and other old bike projects.
While waiting for the frame and fork to come back from painting, we stripped the tanks for inspection. They were worse than expected, so we opted for replacement tanks with welded seams from Tom Feezer of Replicant Metals in Pennsylvania.
Since the name of the show is American Restoration, all the parts had to either be repainted or replated. My pals at Plating Specialties in Michigan handled this in short order. I am thankful they cleaned the parts prior to plating, saving me the 20-plus hours that I did not have to spare.
Back to some of the details on this 1929 Harley. The front wheel had a massive British brake from the 1960s. Harley started offering front brakes in 1928, and they were less than inspiring. So this is a welcome improvement. And the forks are Harley, but from a much earlier year, meaning it does not handle like a 1929 road bike. In fact, matching up this older front end and tighter frame geometry makes it handle more like a 1940s dirt track 750 Harley racer, as Buzz was going to learn on his first ride. Next up was the handlebars, which have seen many variations over the years. I contacted Tom Faber, who makes bars for Harleys manufactured from 1909 to the 1950s. I use Tom’s bars on many of my bikes. They have never failed and have always been perfect.
Something happened to us that you won’t see on the TV show. Running tight on time with the painting and plating, we worked long hours to get the job done. It was all coming together when we almost lost it late one night while installing the most critical visual part: the right gas tank.
Want to find out what happened? Find out in American Iron Magazine Issue 338!
Also available in digital format CLICK HERE American Iron Digital
Be sure to check out the work of award-winning photographer Jim Dohms, a regular contributor to AIM, while you’re at it!