The Bobbed-Out Harley Dresser
By Charley Charles photos by Siwer Ohlsson
We shot this bike nine years ago, but since it looks totally different today, we don’t mind showing it again. It’s hard to believe that Conny Johns’ bulky bobber once was a normal 1982 Super Glide FXE.
The first time we went to the Finnish archipelago of Åland in the middle of the Baltic Sea to photograph Johns’ Shovelhead was in 2008. Back then, Johns told us he considered the fat silver-and-blue bike completely finished. It was perfect, and he would never ever change anything. So what happened?
“What happened was I had two oxide batteries in a row catch fire. I was so pissed off I went and bought a stock Harley-Davidson battery. But it was slightly bigger so I would have to fabricate a new oil tank. That meant my exhaust system wouldn’t fit anymore so I had to make a new pair of pipes, and by then the whole process just started getting out of hand,” Johns says.
So even though the guy had started building a Sportster custom just to keep his eager hands off the Shovelhead, the Big Twin was torn to pieces. The Sporty was a real treat, too, with leaf spring rear suspension instead of the usual shocks.
Like many of his fellow Ålanders, Johns works in the tourism business during summer and, among other things, runs a paintball ranch. When vacations are over and all the tourists have gone home, he works in his own little shop where he mainly installs sound systems in cars and boats. His workshop is a chaos of stereo stuff and bike parts.
“I’m collecting parts for my next project, which I think will be an interesting mix of Husqvarna, Indian Scout, and BSA! But I’m going really slowly with that bike. I want everything perfect right from the start and think everything through several times before making a move.”
But Johns hasn’t always preferred old V-twins. At 16 he rode a Yamaha TZR 125— until a car pulled out right in front of him. Johns swerved and almost avoided the crash, but his right leg took the entire force of the collision and was pretty much turned to mush.
“The doctors almost had to amputate, but after six operations and four years of hopping around on crutches I could walk again, even though one leg is an inch shorter than the other and full of metal junk. I thought I’d better get a slow old Harley barge if I wanted to survive.”
Johns bought a 1982 FXE Super Glide, the E meaning it was an electric-start model. A kicker was out of the picture because of his bum right leg. He changed the rear suspension into a kind of upside-down version of Harley’s Softail.
This latest version of the Shovel was born at a bike show where Johns started shooting cellphone photos of lots of different springer forks. The idea of making his own springer from scratch started taking shape in his head. He analyzed the pictures, made some sketches, and asked himself, “How hard could it be?”
Another important factor was Johns got in touch with a Swedish aluminum casting shop where the owner said he wouldn’t mind making some unique parts if Johns just fabricated some casting plugs. “So I started designing stuff in 3-D, using big lumps of Plastic Padding bondo that I shaped with an angle grinder, files, and sandpaper. I used up several kilos of Plastic Padding.”
The casting shop has made the shifter stick, the fendertips, the license plate bracket, the battery cover, some brackets as well as the seat—which is a story in itself.
“Yeah, my wife Johanna has to deal with my madness. Like when I stripped naked and plopped my ass down in a bucket of plaster in front of the TV to make the casting plug for the seat. I wanted it tailor-made just for my ass. I had to sit like that for 15 minutes while the plaster hardened, getting really hot in the process. The shifter is made to fit my left hand exactly, using the same type of process.”
Another tricky detail was the metal strips running alongside the gas tank and oil tank. They are made out of five meters of 6mm aluminum rods that Johns has shaped and glued into place.
“I had guessed it would be an easy job, but it took me forever!”
Wherever you look there’s more to see. The bike doesn’t have a brake pedal; the tiny brake grip on the handlebars activates front and rear brakes simultaneously. But why? “Well, pretty much because in some situations I think it’s easier to use the foot clutch when I can keep the rear brake on with one foot on the ground.”
When a buddy bought an old Sportster, a pair of worn old saddlebags were part of the deal. Johns got one of them and has customized the bag to his personal taste. “I’ve stiffened it up underneath with some sheet magnesium! That means I’ll be able to make some neat fireworks in the left turns on dark evenings.”
About the paint job, Johns had a few different ideas but wanted a color that would make all the naked metal stand out as strongly as possible. “A friend who has studied industrial design suggested this matte dark red, and it was exactly what I had in mind—a complete contrast against the aluminum and chrome. Also it will look fantastic with the slightly yellowed sheepskin I put on the seat in cold weather.”
Just like nine years ago, Johns again claims that the bike has reached its ultimate version, the style is timeless and classic, and the bobbed-out dresser (as someone happened to name it) will remain untouched and sacred without any further modifications. Yeah, right. We’ve heard that one before. What makes it truer this time?
“Really, this time it’s for real! If I change the bike one more time it’s totally okay if you tell all the readers of your magazine that I’m a complete jerk.” AIM