Journey to the Dark Sidecafelogo

by Gary Charpentier

Okay…okay, I think I get it now. It’s all about the torque. It’s about whacking the throttle and bruising your liver against the back of your ribcage. It’s about Shock and Awe™ in the neighborhood, when you take off like you just crapped a cluster bomb. If this is the essence of the Neo-Chopper ethos then yeah, I get it now.

I first laid eyes on this purposeful beast last Fall, parked outside of Bob’s Java Hut. Normally I tend to pan right past the cruisers and choppers, but there was something special about this one. I think it was the brutal, minimalist approach that caught my eye. There is nothing extraneous on this motorcycle. Every component is dedicated to loud, violent locomotion. I made it my business to track down the owner, and that was how I met chopper evangelist Dave Cowan.

Dave built the “Clown Bike” with part of a Custom Chrome kit and a bunch of help from his friends at Wizard’s Custom Studios in Blaine. Bruce Bush (Wizard hizzownself) did the paint and bodywork, Dave did the assembly and much of the molding, and the motor came from Rev-Tech. And what a motor it is: One-hundred cubic-inch displacement, with torque and horsepower at the century mark as well. Ten-to-one compression, six-speed transmission, open belt primary with dry clutch and belt final drive. Nice. The balance between flat black and chrome seems just about perfect to me.

cafe57The fuel tank was made by Wizard out of two sportster halves, welded together at the back, splayed towards the front with material added to make it wider and finished with a nice ridge up the center. After much hand beating and molding, the completed tank holds 4.2 gallons and still has that familiar sporty shape. It fits the lines of the bike much better than the fatbobs which came with the kit. The flames were sprayed in PPG “Prismatique”, and they show beautifully whenever the light hits them.

Anyway, Mr. Cowan and I parted company last Fall with a promise to keep in touch and maybe do a riding impression come Spring. True to his word, when I called him up in early April, Dave informed me that the bike was ready to roll and had already won second place in it’s class at the Donny Smith Invitational. We arranged to meet at St. Anthony Main, for the wonderful scenic backdrops, but found the cobblestone road there closed by the cops for some special event. Plan B found us seated in the sunroom at the end of the bar at the very posh Nicollet Island Inn. Safely isolated from the regular, genteel customers, we sat at a table topped by white linen, sipping coffee out of fine china cups, and conducted a brief, informal interview. We did NOT extend our little fingers…

Dave Cowan grew up in the suburbs of Kansas city, where he says the cool guys rode British bikes; Triumphs, BSAs, the occasional Norton. If you were really cool, maybe you had a Royal Enfield, something like that, he adds. Later, stationed with the Army in Hawaii, he raced motocross and rode quite a bit around the islands there. After his service, Dave decided he should have a career, and he stopped riding altogether until just a few years ago.

He purchased a 1980 ironhead Sportster to make his reentry into motorcycling. When that proved difficult to keep running, he bought a 2001 Sportster Sport and rode that for awhile before acquiring the kit from Custom Chrome which would eventually become the Clown Bike. The kit came in a nine-foot-tall box that weighed eight hundred pounds, with no instructions. Just parts. Dave says he swapped out half the parts from the kit for parts he liked better. Today, he says he could probably come up with a parts list off the top of his head, but that kit was the best way to go the first time. The discarded parts went into Wizard’s “swap meet bin” to be sold later.

So it finally came time to ride the beast. The starting procedure is arcane, to put it mildly. There are compression-release buttons on each cylinder which have to be pressed or the starter won’t turn against those huge, high-compression jugs. These release automatically after the motor lights off. The key turns one detent for start/run, and the second detent turns on the lights. The choke is the standard Harley-style knob, but the starter button is one seriously heavy-duty device. There is no need to prime the carb with a couple twists of the throttle, but just PUSH that starter button down on the right hand side HARD, and listen to the WHUMP of that first ignition stroke kicking the motor into a ground-shaking idle. The flat-black exhaust system looks like it houses some kind of vestigial mufflers, but it sure doesn’t sound like it.

After letting it warm up for almost a minute, I proceeded to get the feel of the thing around the parking lot. When this produced no mishaps, I turned left out of the lot… and scraped the sidestand when I leaned it past about 30 degrees from vertical. This thing is seriously LOW. I rumbled as quietly as possible around the peaceful little island, getting the right touch on the brakes and learning that neutral can only be engaged by shifting up from first. I was thankful Mr. Cowan had elected a standard foot-shift configuration over the trendy suicide-clutch/hand-shift setup currently in vogue on these things. That would have required quite a bit more getting-used to. When I was ready, I crossed the bridge and entered the “mainland” of Nordeast Minneapolis.

Roaming the streets on Clown Bike felt illegal in and of itself. With no speedo or even a tach to reference, I had no idea how fast I was going, and I feared that the riotous exhaust note would have the phone lines at police headquarters lit up any moment. But I rolled past a squad car on a radar trap without getting pulled-over, and that made me bold enough to try the freeway…

As soon as I had it straightened out on the entrance ramp to 94, I whacked the throttle in third gear, and experienced what I can only compare to a catapult launch off an aircraft carrier. From zero to Arrest-Me in about three seconds! I shifted up three more times and then slowed down to the pace of freeway traffic with that motor barely ticking over. Sixth gear is an overdrive, but any time I twisted the throttle, everything around me shifted into reverse. I slowed and down-shifted into fifth entering the Lowry Tunnel, and rolled on the power through the underground curve. What an incredible racket! I couldn’t hear anything but Rev-Tech Rumble at mega-decibels, and I felt a rush of antisocial glee as we burst back out into daylight like the Hounds of Hell arising. I was beginning to understand the appeal of these single-minded steeds. People cannot help but look at you, with revulsion or admiration, and it’s really the ultimate vehicle for those who crave attention. No wonder they’re so popular with rock stars and sports heroes.

We finally found our way back to 94 westbound and got off on Hennepin, to ride through the concrete canyons of downtown. Every time the light turned green, it sounded like I had lit-off a string of M-80s under my ass: BRAAAAAAAP! –and suddenly I was stopping for a red light again. The echo was awesome, there’s no other word for it. I could hear that sound bouncing between the buildings on the side streets even after I had stopped, like the roar of King Kong getting ready to ascend the Empire State. Way too soon we were crossing the bridge back onto NicolletIsland, and pulling into the lot next to my suddenly small and wimpy little Cafe Scrambler.

Sure, the ride was a bit rough, and it didn’t handle like a normal motorcycle, but once you’ve got it pointed where you want to go, LOOK OUT! The riding position was surprisingly comfortable, and the brakes worked a lot better than I expected them to. The key to handling bumps is not to try and miss them, because you can’t steer that fast. You just lean forward to get your tailbone off the seat, and let the twin pogo-sticks up front, and the big rubber donut out back deal with it. It’s a whole different style of riding, but it’s an awful lot of fun.

Thanks to Dave Cowan and Bruce Bush for giving me these unwholesome, deviant urges. The Clown Bike made such a strong impression that I spent a long time looking at my Yamaha 650 twin when I got home. Does anyone make a hardtail frame for that?



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