Exclusive test at the Broadford race track in Australia of Harley-Davidson’s rarest and most valuable motorcycle yet made, the 1916-29 Model 17 FHAC 998cc eight-valve racer
What goes around, comes around, and with the resumption of tribal warfare between Indian and Harley-Davidson in 2017 – not only in the showroom stakes, but with full-on factory race teams pitted against each other in the revitalised American Flat Track Championship – it’s yesterday once more.
For exactly a century ago the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, which had been hitherto hesitant about going racing [see History feature] took the fight to its dominant Indian and Excelsior rivals with its all-new Model 17 FHAC 61ci (998cc) eight-valve racer, which made its competition debut at the gruelling Dodge City 300-mile race in 1916 – and won! This was the equivalent of the Indianapolis 500-miler on two wheels, held on a two-mile oval track in the heart of the Midwest, and Harley’s Irving Jahnke won at a record average speed of 79.79 mph, including pit stops, with Ray Weisharr, a .fellow member of the Harley-Davidson’s factory team known as the Wrecking Crew, third. Incidentally, Indian’s purloining of that term to describe its present factory race squad sits right up there for impudence with Ducati stealing the Dirt Sled moniker for its new Street Scrambler from Triumph, which invented the term fifty years ago!
Jahnke’s victory ushered in several years of Harley-Davidson success in US racing, even after the company’s management discontinued running its official team after a totally dominant 1921, in which it swept the board by winning every single National Championship category. After Indian’s 1-2 finish at the opening round of the 2017 AFT series at Daytona on March 17 with its new FTR750 V-twin, Harley-Davidson fans will be hoping that their equally young XG750R eight-valve racer derived from the 750 Street roadbike will be able to improve on Jake Johnson’s fourth place in the Daytona TT, the only Harley in the top ten. But it’s early days yet, and the Milwaukee-based Motor Company knows just a little bit about how to win races and titles on dirt ovals, after nearly 50 years of dirt-track dominance with the legendary XR750.
Of all the racing motorcycles ever built, any place any time, the American V-twins of the ‘teens and 20s are unquestionably the most rakish. Lean but meaty, lithe but muscular, they simply exude speed and purpose. If ever a bike looked to be doing 100 mph standing still, it was the archetype American Racer from whose spindly frame, close-coupled wheelbase and brawny 61ci V-twin engine evolved a species of Superbike that gave almost incredible performance by the standards of the era. Yet at the same time these early Americans possessed a degree of mechanical sophistication quite unmatched by their European counterparts, save for a rare exception like France’s 1912 dohc Peugeot parallel-twin GP racer. Born to race on the numerous dirt ovals and board tracks of pre-WW1 America, nurtured in the intense competition between half a dozen rival factories, American motorcycles sported such innovations as countershaft gearboxes, all chain-drive transmissions, four-valve cylinder heads and pump-driven mechanical oiling long before these features gained acceptance on the other side of the Atlantic. Such novelties brought two attributes in their wake: speed and reliability, so that once the message had spread to Europe US-built bikes, especially Indian and Harley-Davidson, began to reap great success there too in the hands of such star riders as Freddie Dixon, Douglas Davidson (no relation), Claude Temple and Amedeo Ruggeri.
Nominally available to privateer riders in compliance with the then governing body FAM’s rules that any factory’s racing motorcycle had to be offered to the public, the 998cc V-twin eight-valve Harley Model 17 was listed for $1,500 in 1916 – a huge sum at that time that would buy a pretty nice house in Milwaukee, when even Indian’s most expensive racebikes sold for no more than $350. It was clearly an effort by Harley-Davidson to funnel these purpose-built racers exclusively to those who would put them to good use, while at the same time paying lip service to the FAM requirement. It’s not often that a company deliberately prices a product out of reach of the public, but that’s certainly what Harley-Davidson did here. This effectively restricted the eight-valve’s circulation to factory team riders and favoured privateers, and also accounts for the very small number of such bikes made between 1916 and 1928 – perhaps as few as 20 but certainly no more than 50, plus around 30 examples of the 500cc four-valve singles, which were effectively the twin minus one cylinder. Only five or six original examples of the V-twin still exist today, making it undoubtedly the rarest and most valuable Harley-Davidson model ever built – two of them in Italy, where they were raced with success. The last time one of these surfaced at auction was when a complete and original unrestored barn find sold in Australia for AUD 600,000 in September 2015 – equating to around US$ 425,000. Pricy!
There’s one more such bike Down Under, however – although Melbourne property developer Peter Arundel’s eight-valve Harley-Davidson Model 17 was built in 2012 by himself and local vintage American bike guru Lindsay Urquhart from a blend of replica parts and 1924 period components. But there’s an added twist to this particular tale – for Peter Arundel is widely recognised to own the finest collection of Indian motorcycles in the world today! Basically, the Melbourne-based property developer has at least one example of every single model Indian ever built – so how come the Harley, Peter? “Well, I’d been collecting Harley eight-valve parts for the last 25 years,” came the reply. “It started when I bought a lot of gear off Steven Rudd in America back in the mid-‘90s, and then I got hold of an original frame here in Australia, as well as the forks, the wheels and the transmission, which all came from here. The flywheels, the crankcases and the cylinders all came from Steve, so that’s how the bones of the bike came together. Because I’ve always been involved with Indian motorcycles for the last 40 years, it’s taken me 40 years to finally ride a Harley-Davidson! But I like eight-valve motorcycles, so I thought – right, let’s build an eight-valve Harley as a counterpoint to the Indian eight-valve we’ve been racing pretty successfully here in Australia, and which I did 158 mph on at the Lake Gairdner Salt Flats. So here we are!”
As a change from exercising his stable of Indian models, Peter kindly brought the Harley along to the Broadford track just north of Melbourne for me to experience once again the delights of a bike capable of more than 100mph – but which has no front brake, and no rear suspension! In fact, it was a refresher ride after the one I had 30 years ago at the Misano Historic race event in Italy, when I was allowed by Italian collector Renzo Battilani to ride his original 1922 eight-valve Harley, a former holder of the Italian speed record for bikes. Yesterday once more for me, this time!
Milwaukee may not be in cowboy country, but the first sight of the eight-valver tells you it’s a two-wheeled version of a Texan cow-wrangler: lean, mean and packing a punch. I was pretty nervous as I clambered gingerly on to its surprisingly comfortable, broad leather seat. After all, most bikes that can do the ton nowadays actually have brakes, whereas all that this fire-breathing monster had was a pretty ineffectual expanding band rear stopper, and an ignition control in the left twist grip. At least the Wrecking Crew had magneto cutouts to help them to slow for turns, and anyway I bet they didn’t have to get round corners like Broadford’s uphill tight Turn One, or the off-camber left-hander leading onto pit straight. Plus, I had to grapple with that great American invention, The Foot Clutch, though Peter Arundel had made one inconspicuous concession to modern times. The steeply dropped handlebars have a twist grip at each end, as original, except that back then the throttle would have been on the left and the ignition control on the right. But he’s reversed them so as not to get confused, and I was rather glad he’d done that…!
So, time to engage brain and get rolling, for moving off the mark on the Harley requires finesse and application. Press down on the left foot lever to engage the clutch, which locks in place, then select ‘Low’ gear on the vertical hand-shifter lever mounted on the left of the tank, by pushing the metal knob away from you. Next, retard the ignition with the left twist grip, then release the clutch pedal keeper and try to fiddle the throttle in the right twistgrip in unison with the actions of your left foot to produce a smooth takeoff. The wonder is that I only stalled it once, since at the same time if you want to REALLY accelerate you have to advance the ignition with the left hand. There’s never a chance of getting bored riding one of these bikes.
Having barely avoided flunking a getaway at the second time of asking, I briefly considered opting out of trying to get second gear at all, and shoving it straight into top (‘High’). At this point the unwritten ethics of track testing intervened, so after shutting down the throttle, I grappled again with the clutch pedal while moving the gear lever through the neutral slot to second. As the gear engaged with a lurch, thanks to an insensitive boot on the clutch, I was almost shoved off the back of the seat as the Harley leapt forward while I had just a single hand on the steeply dropped ‘bars. Fortunately, the track was empty, so the ensuing wobble that almost took me from one side of it to the other didn’t result in a collision, and having gathered myself up I gingerly repeated the process to get into top, but this time managed to avoid any swerve. Whew!
Fortunately, the big V-twin engine is so flexible that it forgave my lack of dexterity in matching foot to hand, and that could probably have remained the sum total of gear-changing I’d had to do during my dozen laps or so on the eight-valve Harley, if I hadn’t opted to get extra practice by shifting down to second (‘Intermediate’) for that tight uphill right-hander after the pits, as well as the tighter, slower turn at the end of the top straight. I also tried taking both of these in in top, with the ignition backed right off and the engine seemingly firing about once every two seconds. Then if you advance the ignition via the left twist grip and wind the throttle gradually open, the acceleration in top gear from almost walking pace is pretty incredible by the standards of a hundred years ago. It was also terrifying to begin with, because with the knowledge at the back of your mind all the time that there are practically no brakes, you inevitably develop a sudden paranoia about stopping this runaway two-wheeled train. In fact, provided you don’t attempt to emulate Marc Marquez in becoming the last of the late brakers, things work out just fine so long as you shut off the throttle soon enough – though I must admit to begin with I was practically closing down for the next corner as soon as I’d exited the one before…..
After a handful of laps I’d discovered the approved technique for getting this potent but primeval package round a turn, so that I was able to speed up gradually, and start using the considerable reserves of performance on tap from that lovely engine. Simply retard the ignition, then shut off while at the same time applying the pretty useless foot brake, give 'er a brief crack of throttle to get set up nicely for the corner, then swing into the turn. Care must be taken not to lean too far over, for although the 28 x 3 four-ply Commander tyres are of modern compound and manufacture, using the grip they offer to anything like its potential quickly results in grounding the low-slung footboards which are unfortunately not hinged to prevent disaster, should this happen. Once round the turn, accelerate smartly away while advancing the ignition: with the throttle cracked full open the engine fluttered under acceleration, indicating the carburation was a bit too rich. Otherwise the engine ran very well and was very oil-tight, a credit to Peter Arundel and Lindsay Urquhart who restored it to this delectable state.
Well before the days of their current telephone number values, I owned a Brough Superior SS100 with a Harley-type Castle fork which I rode quite a bit, and I’ve always contended that this was the best front end design available until the advent of telescopic forks. My ride on the eight-valve Harley confirmed this, for although Broadford’s relatively smooth surface is a long way from the unmade roads of 1920s America, or the dirt tracks of the Midwest County Fair racing circus, the eight-valve Harley steered slowly but positively, with the Springer fork smoothing out the few bumps I was able to find. The bottom link front end design apparently took some time for Harley designer Bill Ottaway to get right, and according to Floyd Clymer who was one of the first Harley factory riders to race such a bike, he shortened the compression springs to lower the position of the pivot in order to limit fork travel, and improve high speed handling. Accelerating hard round Broadford’s long left hander leading on to the straight, I found the Harley tracking even and true. The wheelbase looks to be longer too than on the board racers of the time, which would have improved high speed stability, and along with the 28-inch front wheel, would explain the slow steering.
But that fabulous engine is the real gem. Pumping out a good 60 bhp in a bike weighing 122 kg/268 lb dry, it's not surprising that the Harley proved to have enticing performance under acceleration. But the Harley was almost too effective for its own good, and the Wrecking Crew's dominance of US competition such that, after a clean sweep in the 1921 season, the factory soft-pedalled on its involvement with racing. The eight-valve was eventually phased out, and instead of employing this sophisticated and effective design in future years, especially for a spinoff road model, Milwaukee opted instead for the less complicated but also slower pocket-valve machines, later superseded by the relatively humble WR and KR side-valvers. In time the XR750 ohv design restored some degree of engineering modernisation to the Harley fold, albeit with just two valves per cylinder. We had to wait until the 1994 advent of the liquid-cooled dohc VR1000 Superbike for the reappearance of an eight-valve V-twin in Harley colours, this time with double overhead cams rather than pushrods. But although its troubled eight-year competition career did end up siring the V-Rod family of street bikes which debuted in 2001, the lack of acceptance of this non-traditional platform by the Harley faithful characterised this as merely a sideshow to Harley-Davidson’s mainstream motorcycle lineup, powered by its trademark 45-degree air-cooled engine format. It’s taken until the advent for the 2017 model year of the Milwaukee-Eight – Harley’s first all-new motorcycle engine in fifteen years, and the ninth motor in the Motor Company's Big Twin lineage – to finally bring eight-valve technology to its volume production air-cooled range of pushrod models.
But in the competition arena, after the venerable Harley XR750's iron grip on US Flat Track title success was finally loosened by the eight-valve Kawasaki’s victory in the 2016 AMA Championship series courtesy of Bryan Smith, its domination of this category of racing is now under further threat from its bitter showroom rival Indian and its new FTR750 eight-valver. So it was inevitable that Harley's race department should have turned once again exactly 100 years later to the technical format that set them on the path to competition glory back at the start of the last century – hence the eight-valve V-twin XG750 derived from the 750 Street road bike. History repeats itself!