Ever since I’ve been collecting bikes I’ve always wanted the not so ubiquitous ‘36 knucklehead. It has been the year and model that has eluded me. I am not sure why this year and model is so esteemed by collectors but it may have to do with aesthetics. It may have to do with form. It may have to do with function. 5,000 of these ‘36 models were produced by the Milwaukee factory but today, not 1 could I find on eBay, Craig’s List or Bike Trader.com. If I had $500,000.00 sitting in my gym bag right now I couldn’t buy one. Such is the rarity of this piece. I’ve owned flatheads and shovelheads and panheads galore but the knuckle has escaped me throughout my life, mostly by price and sometimes by availability. The ‘36 is, in fact the hardest to find. I have seen a couple go through the auction blocks in the 50 to 75 thousand range. Always tastefully restored, sometimes not, seemingly more for gawking by an investor than riding by an enthusiast. Patina, I am told, is money.
In pursuit of such treasure, I have crept through barns, straddled and rummaged boxes, mulled through junk piles and labored over rusted heaps of metal so high and wide they could forge an aircraft carrier. So there I find myself in the waning daylight last January, with my buddy Moondog staring into the bed of a dimly lit pickup truck owned by my wheeler dealer pal Willie Prather. What appeared to be a rusted motorcycle frame laid betwixed expired beer cans, empty anti freeze bottles and dried leaves. It looked not much different than the back of my Dad’s pickup with some plumbing supplies tossed around the remnant of perhaps someone’s faulty furnace. However, THESE pipes were purported to be those which connect wheel to motor and seat to frame. A “‘36 knuck frame” we are told. Not a whole bike, just a frame. It sparked my interest enough to rummage through the truck bed in the darknes with a light drizzle my cousins in Ireland would call a “fine” rain. The assertion was that it was the skeleton of the transcendental 1936 Harley Davidson Knucklehead.
We heaved the rusted hulk from the bed and carefully placed it upon the wet pavement, preposterously to prevent further scratches. Like gently placing a broken lawn chair in the dumpster. It makes no sense. It is relayed to us that the farmer who plucked it from his pea patch had hit it with his tractor over the years and was sick of bumping into the old relic. To him, an impediment to a straight line of peas, to us, perhaps a treasure for the taking. Excited like a kid, Moondog knelt on the ground peering closely at very specific places on the frame for reasons unknown to me. He extracts his trusty mini mag light squinting at the path of its beam with laser like interest. He exclaims “nope, a ‘37!” A year off. Close nonetheless.
One side of the rusted tank is there, along with the art deco trim still shiny and clean, clearly stainless. Seat frame and springs, brackets and tabs, a few rusted appendages but no front end. I can see through the down tube in some places the rust is so advanced. I am advised that the frame is restorable, ‘about 5 grand’. Of course I’d need a motor. I’d need a front end. I’d need to score some wheels and some handlebars. The tins are hard to come by. Front and rear fenders, if you can find them, cost several thousand dollars each in rough shape. The cat eye Speedo, a few thou; a hand shifter, foot clutch, pogo seat post, grips, sprockets, cables, etc… All, if found, are rare and expensive details to an ever complex puzzle of parts made before most people I know were born. It gives me that food for thought about what I would do with such a bike once restored. Would I dare to ride it freshly painted after investing the cost of a new condo?
Form over Function is my dilemma. What is the purpose of the painstaking investment of 1,500 expensive man hours and 40 or 50 thousand dollars in parts when the machine is relegated to a pedestal? Did not Mr. Harley and Mr. Davidson foresee this problem? Is this not why the metals are all heavy cast iron, not aluminum or pot metals? To be restored and used OVER and OVER again. To be RIDDEN. To be USED and REUSED as GOD intended. Not an investment to be pampered and pushed up a ramp. Secured in an enclosed trailer to be white gloved from bike show to bike show. $75,000.00 invested to garner a few $20 plastic trophies. I’ve been down this road before. The conundrum of preserving the piece or enjoying it. Displaying such a bike earns the owner that same feeling as when your 7 year old belts one to the outfield. The other parents whisper to each other and ones chest swells with pride. A “That’s my boy!” kind of pride.
The find is scored for $200.00. Cash is exchanged and the heap is tossed into my truck bed. It sat on a dolly in front of my desk for 6 months taunting me. In the end I’ve decided to save the trouble (and money). I’ve decided to take the $49,800.00 saved from NOT restoring it and top off the college funds. Both kids are doing great in school and maybe they’ll get academic scholarships! Then I could blow that money on a nice Ferrari or a small Pacific island. Even though not restored, I still get to see the ‘37 every day. It’s FORM over FUNCTION this time. Stop by the office and check out the FORM. It now hangs on the wall in my Law Office. A reminder that a little creativity can not only please the senses, but save a whole lot of headache and money! A ‘37 knuck, unrestored, up on the wall in a big museum frame. Artists like Jasper Johns and Andy Warhol made millions with plain old American flags and Campbell soup cans. Anyone want to invest in ‘37 knucklehead art? Bidding starts at $500,000.00
Remember, ride strong, ride safe, and in the end, make sure you ride home.
Written by Steve Murrin, the ‘Original Biker Lawyer’