Hooptie Harley Adventures: Hell Project Shovelhead Hauls LeMons Judge To Road America In Style

Murilee Martin
by Murilee Martin
hooptie harley adventures hell project shovelhead hauls lemons judge to road america

When we speak of hoopties, we generally mean the four-wheeled variety. However, persuading a nowhere-near-complete Malaise Era Project Hell Bike to transport you to a race track 350 miles distant should, in my opinion, stretch the definition to include two-wheelers as well. My cousin Sam, aka Judge Sam of the 24 Hours of LeMons Supreme Court, decided that he needed to hit the fast-forward button on his ’74 Shovelhead project in order to get from his home in Minnesota to the Chubba Cheddar Enduro in proper fashion. The bike wasn’t quite ready and the journey was an extremely arduous one, but it was worth it.

A little background is in order here. Sam was born about the time my parents decided to ditch Minnesota for California, and so I missed out on the biker culture of my relatives who stayed behind. Sam’s father/my uncle was the legendary Dirty Duck, shown here in his early 20s with the ’57 Plymouth Savoy that he used for the very lucrative Mexico-to-Los-Angeles reefer-smuggling trade in the early 1960s. The Duck taught me much of what I know about wrenching on cars, but I never did pick up any interest in motorcycles.

Dirty Duck died in 1989, but I was able to capture one his his thousands of biker tales on tape. Here’s The Legend of Hoot’s Panhead, circa 1967.

Sam, meanwhile, stayed true to old-time biker traditions, but a lengthy stint working as a roughneck in the Wyoming gas fields led to him forsaking two-cylinder Milwaukee machines for various cars and trucks. Finally, back in Minnesota, he picked up this very rough Shovelhead, built during the AMF era.

These days, many of the grizzled outlaw bikers who came up in the 1960s and 1970s have switched to German and British machines, because Harleys have become toys ridden by office-cubicle types who feel like they’re experiencing “freedom” when they trade the Dockers for leathers and go for weekend rides with “Born To Be Wild” on an endless loop in their heads. The younger guys with self-applied tatts who rebuild motorcycle engines on the kitchen counter and think nothing of riding a 50-buck bike across the country tend to pick beater Japanese bikes, because they’re cheap and reliable. There’s not much place for a beater Harley that’s used for everyday transportation these days, but that’s what Sam had in mind for his Shovelhead project.

So, he’d been pecking away at the project for a few years, but decided a couple of months back that he would ride the thing from Savage to Elkhart Lake when it came time for him to judge the Chubba Cheddar Enduro, whatever it took. It has a lot of nice custom touches, influenced by his irony-laden Generation X background. For example, this railroad-style lantern has a light-up skull inside and serves as a taillight. No prairie-dogging cubicle slave ever took a break from his PowerPoint slideshow and imagined putting this sort of thing on his $30,000 bike.

The diamond-plate seat looks uncomfortable, but works fine for the first hundred miles or so. Then it’s very uncomfortable.

With time running out, a lot of the linkages ended up being rigged up with hose clamps, zip-ties, and worse. Sam had to be at the track by Sunday night, and left Savage Saturday afternoon. Things started going wrong right away; the bike developed an intermittent power-loss problem that no amount of carburetor and timing tinkering could fix. Every few miles, something would rattle loose.

Sam feels that motorcycle saddlebags are a sign of irreversible moral decay, which means all his tools had to share space with his other supplies in this bungee’d-down milk crate. It took him about six hours to traverse the first 50 miles. When darkness fell, he would park beneath a lone streetlight in tiny Wisconsin towns in order to spin some wrenches, which meant that he kept getting sweated by citizens unhappy with the appearance of what appeared to be the Lone Biker of the Apocalypse.

This nightmare journey continued through the night, with the Shovelhead continuing to sputter, crap out, and shed parts at regular intervals. Naturally, Sam had no GPS, no smartphone, and no light with which to read his paper map, so he ended up lost in a maze of tiny rural roads in western Wisconsin.

Some of the problems seemed to be electrical in nature, but Sam finally figured out that the carb’s super-rich condition was being caused by his knee blocking the air-cleaner-less carburetor’s intake. Once he adjusted his riding position to put some space between his leg and the carb, the bike ran somewhat better.

Even with all the problems, he kept inching southeast. After spending hours trying to find a cup of coffee in Eau Claire, he rolled into Elkhart Lake at 4:00 AM Monday… about five hours prior to the green flag at the race.

When he wasn’t disciplining miscreant drivers over the course of the weekend, Sam worked at fixing the fritzy wiring harness. Here we see him finding the source of his ignition-system problems.

Eventually, he tore out most of the wiring and started over. LeMons racers were very helpful, loaning tools and expertise, and the racers who knew Harleys— that is, the ones who rode relatively modern bikes— just shook their heads in awe at Sam’s accomplishment on a funky AMF-era Shovelhead.

Back in Savage, the surviving greybeards of Dirty Duck’s generation approve of Sam’s customizing touches, as do the 20-year-old rat-rod types with their primer-black Kawasakis.

When the race was almost finished and I got into the usual huddle with Chief Perp Jay Lamm to decide which team got what trophy, we had a helluva time figuring out who most deserved the Most Heroic Fix award. There were the usual engine swaps and suspension repairs, but nothing that really knocked us out. Then we took a look at Sam’s Shovelhead and decided to give him the Most Heroic Fix.

After the awards ceremony, of course, Sam had to get ready to ride back to Minnesota. The primary drive belt had a pretty bad nick and was making an ominous noise, but nothing could be done about that. He buttoned up the rejuvenated wiring harness and did what adjustments he could.

His new trophy got bungee’d onto the handlebars.

Wednesday morning and time to head west. The trip home was far easier, with most of the bugs having been worked out on the ride out and during further tinkering at the track. Sam made it home in about seven hours, and now he feels confident that the Shovelhead can take him anywhere. Say, for example, to a California LeMons race!

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2 of 17 comments
  • Aristurtle Aristurtle on Aug 29, 2012

    That's not black primer on my Kawasaki, it's ABS cement. You'll find it in the plumbing section; it fixes fairings no matter how badly they're damaged.

  • Junebug Junebug on Aug 29, 2012

    When I was a kid living out in the boonies, my Dad got up in the middle of the night to help a biker, the guy ran out of gas and where we lived, it would have been morning before any country store was open. Dad gave him gas we used for the lawn mower, filled the tank and refused to take any money from him. In turn, the guy pushed the Harley down the road a bit so as not wake the rest of the family. Dad told me about it the next morning and for a 9 year old, I was pretty pissed at missing meeting a real Hell's Angel.