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Harley Flathead Class C Racer

Custom Motorcycle Feature

Harley Flathead Class C Racer


Class C Racing, first introduced by the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) in 1937, was a production motorcycle class of competition based on the idea that if the racers used stock factory machines, in this case 750cc motorcycles, which were available for purchase at local Indian and Harley-Davidson dealerships. The series would have great popularity, gain traction, and be accessible to the common man.

This turned out to be an excellent theory, as the new competitions helped sell many motorcycles at a time when the country was just coming out of the Great Depression. As the years progressed, faster versions of the 45″ (750cc) machines emerged. With designations like WLDR, WR, and WRTT, these powerful motorcycles were piloted by many famous racers of the ’30s, ’40s, ’50s, and Harley, along with many shops and dealerships, spent a lot of time making these machines go faster and faster. A break during World War II did nothing to dampen the enthusiasm for Class C racing, and it came back stronger than ever after the war ended.

Enter Joe Leonard, a fascinating character in the realm of Harley-Davidson racing. Born in 1932 in San Diego, California, his home bordered a large, open valley where motorcycle meets and races were staged. Naturally, as a kid he and his friends hung around this oasis of cycling, and a love of all things two-wheeled developed—and the racing seeds were planted! After hanging around Guy Urguhart’s motorcycle shop, he eventually wore the mechanics down, and they entrusted him with performing odd jobs. This proximity to the power of motorcycles had an indelible effect on him. He moved to San Francisco at 19 to pursue a racing career. His racing career started on Triumph motorcycles, but local successes brought him to the attention of Tom Sifton, a Bay Area Harley-Davidson dealer who had a reputation for tuning Harleys and churning out machines that won races. Owning a Harley dealership and funding racers had its advantages, as Tom and his team spent countless hours perfecting race machines and race-specific parts, including cams, and dominated the era on many tracks locally and nationally. In the early 1950s, Sifton had a racer named Larry Headrick who was his go-to guy, but a broken leg took him out of racing and opened the door for Leonard to get his shot with Sifton. He took full advantage of the opportunity and went on to ride for Sifton from 1951-56. Along the way he won many races and three AMA Grand National Championship titles in 1954, 1956, and 1957. He won the Daytona 200 twice: once in 1957 and again in 1958. He rode in TTs, half miles, miles, and road races and did it all with his hard-charging style, which many have described as “wild.”

In the 1960s he turned his attention to car racing and went on to have a very successful auto racing career. He drove in the United States Auto Club Series, NASCAR series, raced in the Indianapolis 500, won two US Auto Club championships, and was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame of America and the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame as well.

Our feature bike this month is a tribute to Joe Leonard and his riding exploits. Owned and built by Frederick Fortune, a graphic designer in the San Francisco Bay area, Fred is a true enthusiast who spends his nights and weekends enjoying his motorcycle addiction and has built several award-winning motorcycles, both American and British. At one point, Fred worked for Larry Headrick, mentioned above, and befriended his son Jerry, with whom he shared a passion for motorcycling. Unaware of Larry’s racing past, the story was finally pieced together and a chance meeting of Joe Leonard, Larry’s former teammate, fueled Fred’s love of Class C Racing and the WR motorcycle.

An opportunity arose for Fred to buy “a derelict WL from a friend,” and the bones of our feature bike began to take shape. The goal was “to build a ridable and street-legal version of a WR as a tribute to these local legends, specifically Joe Leonard’s Sifton number 98x.” Fred describes it as a “brutally chopped and raked 45 WL Solo model” in need of lots of love and attention. After an intense hunt for images of the Sifton WRs, including Joe’s original racer, and several interviews with Joe Leonard himself, he received Joe’s approval for the project, the bike was disassembled entirely, and the work began. The motor (a 1953 G) and transmission were pulled and gone through and pronounced alive by flathead guru Paul Hudson. He spruced up the powerplant with new rings, lapped valves, and high-compression aluminum heads added. The transmission required new clutch pressure plates and springs, but other than a deep clean, both components were serviceable and ready to run.

The frame was sent to Puccio’s (of Bonneville record holder Ack Attack fame) frame shop for straightening, and drilled holes were welded shut and missing tank mounts and centerstand tabs were repaired.

Doug Feinsod of Santa Cruz
Vintage Cycles was a great help in supplying parts and helping move the project ahead. “Besides supplying technical advice to a vintage newbie, Doug supplied the correct-year forks, both brake assemblies, hubs, bearings, exhaust header, pillion pad, and a later-year but usable set of tanks to replace the mangled, mismatched bondo-slathered tanks that came with the bike.”

This bike came with an appropriately narrow saddle for the narrow width of a WR. It was sent out for expert recovering by Antique Motosmith in Oregon. The frame and forks were powdercoated by Spray Technology, “Trailer Steve” painted the tins in the Harley-Davidson factory black and orange color scheme, and Joe’s number plates, 98x, were recreated exactly from found photos signed by Joe and mounted when the tins returned. The machine has enjoyed lots of attention at numerous shows and gatherings, and Fred will soon begin riding it on the street, as originally planned. All in all, a beautiful recreation of a Class C Racer and done as a fitting tribute to a great racer and motorcycle icon. Congratulations to Fred and all the craftsmen who brought this beauty back to life! AIM