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Bike of the Month

December 2017

1921 Harley-Davidson

J Model Custom

by Montana Albitre

From time to time, I've stumbled upon great little finds while looking for something completely different, such is the case with this motorbike. It must have been 2012 or so, while scouring across the internet, trying to find antique bicycles and the like, when I came across the heart of this little gem you see here. There was a Craigslist ad for an estate sale in Cleveland, listing all sorts of junk and trinkets that I had no interest in. There was however a mention of "old bicycles and parts" that I thought could materialize into something of value. I called the gal posting the sale to find out her father had recently passed and had amassed all manner of clutter and garbage and no apparent focus or specific interest in the "collection". Just stuff accumulated over a life time and all she wanted to do was to clear it out as quickly and painlessly as possible. We had a brief telephone conversation, and the bikes and parts she described seemed to be more modern than anything I would typically want.. A bust. I did however ask about any old automotive or motorcycle junk her father may have had. "Let me check", and a few days later I got an email. Photos of hubcaps, old tires, and engine parts. Among them was this Harley J engine. I wanted it, for no good reason, and with no knowledge of these prewar Harleys, but it looked so cool, maybe just as a display piece or paper weight. We made a deal and I was able to find a bike shop in Ohio that was willing to crate the hunk of iron and ship it out to me. I think I payed nearly as much for the shipping as I did for the motor itself! (I did score a pretty good deal I believe!)


When the thing finally arrived at my doorstep, I grabbed a hammer and cracked open the crate and really couldn't be happier with it. Immediately I took it out back and turned the pressure washer on it, got all the grime, grease and dirt off to reveal that nice rusty top coating that's all too familiar to us. However, the insides seemed to be in great shape considering what the outside looked like. It has compression, the valves and springs operated, and it still had oil in it. Much better than I imagined it would be, so much so that it seemed more fitting to throw it into a bike rather than let it sit on a shelf. Again, not knowing these bikes, I had no idea how difficult it would be to build a somewhat restored 1921 Harley Davidson.


After a few months of searching websites, swap meets and AMCA club meets, it was settled. There was no way I was going to build even a remotely original bike out of this. I've clearly got CB350 finances with Brough Superior tastes.  A custom it would become.


I am an Ironworker by trade, and old cars and bikes have been my primary hobby since I was 15 or so. I have the tools and partial fabricators skill set to make what I want so the welders and torches came out. I found a bent Triumph pre-unit frame here locally and was able to use the front portion of it. I made up the rear "hardtail" section, welded the two together, and started on the front end. Looking through some my old moto books, I decided to build a leaf spring fork rather than the old HD style springers they had in the 20's. I got a hold of Paul Brodie in Vancouver, who was building gorgeous replica Excelsior boardtrack racers, and bought a set of fork blades off him that he was using on these racers. A little tweeking, cutting and grinding, a few arc strikes, and I had the bike on two wheels. The spring steel I was able to source from a wrecked Jeep Wagoneer, taken to a spring shop off 2nd st. where they were able to form them to my template and properly heat treat them to bring back that bounce that was lost in the annealing.


The tanks I built out of 16ga mild steel to emulate something between the flat sided tanks and the more common teardrop style. This is still a total oil loss bike, so the tanks are actually three chambered. Fuel, reserve, and oil. I'm still on the fence about the material though, they are heavy, and I've been considering redoing them in polished aluminum instead.


The bars and triple clamps are CroMo as well, adjustable from the more upright drag angle, down to that wrist breaking boardtrack crouch. I haven't ridden the bike yet, so I'm not sure at which position I'll be able to find comfort, so adjustability should be useful. The gearbox is a 4 speed out of Commando I believe, another swap meet find with an attractive sticker price. I think I've got the sprockets, chains, primary and angles all figured out, just not completely fabricated yet. The motor sprocket is a one off to fit the tapered HD crank but with an English chain. The clutch is a combination of Norton Atlas and Triumph pieces, necessary to ditch the Commando triplex and run a single chain instead. Wheels and tires are old clincher style rims wrapped with 28x3 white rubber bands.


That's about where we're at this moment. I worked pretty steadily on it for a year or so, but other projects bumped in and this has been put on the back burner for some time now. I'm currently finishing up one of my automotive projects, so hopefully I can give some attention to the J model Harley again soon.

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