Custom Knucklehead returns builder to glory
By Greg Williams • Photos by Jim Dohms
He was the coolest kid on the block when he pulled up on a 1974 Harley-Davidson Super Glide. Everybody else was riding well-used British and Japanese iron, but not Mark Stevens. Mark grew up in Erie, Pennsylvania, and started riding when he was 16. At 19, thanks to a welding job, he could afford a brand-new Super Glide – not many other teenage riders stood out in a crowd quite like he did.
Mark kept the Super Glide for 17 years, eventually selling it and leaving his motorcycling days behind him. Then, about seven years ago, Mark returned to his riding roots when he bought a 2002 Softail. But when he rode to shows or other bike events, he always felt disappointed.
“Nobody cared about an ’02 Softail,” Mark says. “It was lost in a sea of Harleys, and I wanted to do something different.” Mark bought and rode a generator Shovelhead chopper, and then a couple of Panheads. But other fabricators had built these bikes, and he wanted to make a statement of his own.
That’s when a coworker told Mark about a 1947 Knucklehead chopper that was for sale. Built in the 1970s, the Knuck had been ridden in the last part of that decade through the late 1990s. It had then been stored in a loft for more than 15 years. When Mark arrived, the motorcycle had been lowered from its resting place and returned to running condition. He took it for a test ride and negotiated a deal. With the Knuck in his garage, Mark began contemplating changes that would make the Harley-Davidson his own.
“It was cool in a 1970s way,” he says. “But the rear fender was molded into the frame and it was a mile away from the tire. The entire bike was white, and on the tank there was some airbrush artwork of a bare-breasted woman brandishing a sword and holding a group of chained tigers. I just thought, ‘Here’s a bike I can tear down to make what I want.’”
Mark’s build philosophy, simply, was to take some of what he thought were the best design elements of 1970s choppers and incorporate them into his build. A high-mounted Wassell-style peanut gas tank and a springer front end were at the top of his list, but first Mark had to part the rear fender from the frame.
It had been brazed in place, and then smothered in Bondo. Mark used a Sawzall to cut the fender away, and it took hours of grinding to remove the brass and fender remnants from the frame—perseverance always pays dividends, though. After removing the fender, Mark sandblasted the chassis in order to see what he really had.
Up front, the neck on the straight leg Knucklehead frame had previously been cut and raked to 38 degrees. The job looked professional, so Mark left the neck alone. He added steel plates to the rear chainstays and under the seat area to give the chassis some flowing lines.
The holder of an engineering degree, Mark then placed the 4.50-16″ rear rim, a tire, and stock Harley-Davidson hub that came with the project back in the frame, and put everything on a jack to level the lower chassis rails. Measuring and crunching numbers, Mark determined just how long the springer fork needed to be so he could achieve the ideal stance, one where the frame bottom is parallel to the ground.
Frank Pedersen’s M/C Worx supplied a narrow 4″-over springer fork finished in chrome. An aftermarket 21″ front wheel with small “hill-holder” brake, as Mark calls it, was ordered online. Mark levered a skinny 3″-wide Avon Speedmaster into place on the front rim, while an almost 6″-wide piece of new rubber from Cheng Shin follows.
Mark wanted the rear fender to hug that big tire as closely as possible. He liked the style of the aluminum Stingray fender from Lowbrow Customs, and he fabricated struts using solid stainless steel and machined bungs to hold it in position. While mocking up the fender and mounting the Bates-style solo seat with springs, Mark welded threaded bungs into the top frame rails to take studs to secure the low-tunnel, 2-gallon Wassell-style peanut tank from TC Bros. Choppers.
“With the polished aluminum rear fender and black frame, you could paint a Wassell-style tank any color you like, bolt it in place, and have a completely different looking bike,” Mark says of the Knucklehead. Speaking of the Knuck, it ran well, but there was an issue with the rear cylinder head. When he’d test-ridden the motorcycle, Mark could feel vibrations emanating from that head, and he suspected that the pushrods or rockers had caused the problem. But, when the head was removed, it was discovered that only three of the five cast iron mounting tabs were actually holding it in place, as two had broken. Mark pulled both heads and sent them to Don Sullivan at Head Hog in Seville, Ohio, where oversize valves were fitted and the mounting tabs were repaired.
With the top end apart, the cylinders and heads were cleaned and painted, and everything was put back together with fresh gaskets. A S&S Cycle Super E carb feeds the appropriate mixture, while a set of 1-3/4″ drag pipes bought at a swap meet deal with exhaust.
The four-speed transmission is date-coded 1955, and it was left exactly as it was found with the exception of removing a hydraulic clutch cover to convert it to standard operation with a foot-operated clutch lever. A five-stud clutch of an unknown manufacturer and 3″ Primo belt transfers power pulses from the engine to the transmission. Gears are changed using a Fabricator Kevin jockey shifter.
For paint, Mark turned to his chopper magazines from the 1970s for inspiration. He chose to run a metal flake blue with hints of silver. The graphic includes fish scales, bubbles, and a stylized flame sprayed at the now-defunct Killer Custom Airbrush shop in Detroit, Texas.
“The springer gives the bike a different characteristic when you’re riding,” Mark says. “I do take it for short runs on a regular basis, and it grabs attention around here.”
While the build took place in Erie, Mark has since relocated to Daytona Beach, Florida, where he can ride anytime he chooses. We’d say with his custom-built Knucklehead, Mark is once again the coolest kid on the block. AIM