By Victor Wanchena
There are some things you should do once in life. Hike the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, watch the sun rise over the pyramids in Egypt, and ride an Iron Barrel Sportster Chopper. This month’s road test crosses one of those things off the list.
It started like this. “Bruce whose motorcycle is this”, I asked? He replied, “It’s not a motorcycle. It’s a chopper.” “Okay, who’s chopper is this,” I asked? “Mine”, he replied. What I beheld was a vision in 70’s chopper mania. Long, low, loud, lewd, and the list of adjectives goes on as long as the stretched forks.
Most of us are familiar with the chopper craze of the late 1990’s and early 2000’s. That second golden age of chopperdom owes it all to the swanky era of the late 60’s and early 70’s. These machines were subtler and less over the top, but no less creative.
This month’s ride is a 1972 Harley-Davidson Sportster 1200 XLCH. But it’s no ordinary Sporty; it’s an original Smith Brothers & Fetrow custom chopper built on a 1972 Harley Davidson Sportster XLCH. It’s as traditional as they get. Raked out neck frame, chrome girder forks, rear spring struts, and minimalist everything else.
In traditional chopper ethos, this bike is stripped to the bare minimum all the way around. No gauges, no turn signals, no horn, no front brake, no front fender, no mufflers, and no warning stickers telling you to ride like a sissy. It does have a headlight, a minimal taillight, a stretched girder fork, sweet pin striping, and Grateful Dead artwork painted on the tank and fender.
Riding the chopper is, to say the least, an experience. First, you have to get it started, which requires patience, finesse, and a little luck. The ritual involves: turn the fuel on, turn the key to an unmarked seemingly random position, twist the throttle a couple times to prime it, lift the choke (maybe, maybe not, you never know), swing out the kick start pedal (el hombre es macho), gently kick the engine through a couple revolutions till you feel some compression, reset the kicker, give a little throttle, offer prayers to your deity of choice, and kick it like a rented mule. If it starts, great! If not, repeat the process for several minutes until sweating, swearing, and stymied.
The first time I tried it only took 5 minutes of kicking and I got it lit. Yeah! But then I turned my back for a minute to put on the jacket I had removed while kicking as the sweat poured off me and it died. Crap. Another 5 minutes of kicking and it came back to life. Not an ideal getaway vehicle for bank robberies.
I swung a leg over and instantly felt over dressed. Why was I wearing this gear when I would have been fine in Chuck Norris Action Jeans and a sleeveless Molly Hatchet t-shirt? The seat height was comfortably low measuring in at a short inseam friendly 22”.
With the bike running I hit the gear lever, or so I thought. I mashed the lever a couple more times with no luck. Looking down at the lever I realized one of the many charms of the Sporty; the rear brake and the gear change are reversed. A little history here. The Sportster was built to compete with the British bikes of the 50’s and thus wore the gear change on the right side until 1975. That technical oddity figured out, I got the bike in gear and moving under it’s own power.
The vibration in the motor at idle is heavy. As I accelerated away the vibration built to an epic instant hand numbing level. In keeping with the tradition of losing parts, the license plate vibrated off within ¾ of a mile from the garage.
Despite all the vibration the 1000 v-twin is a torquey motor. It happily lugs away from a stop in pretty much any gear. As mentioned, the original design harkened back to the 50’s and hadn’t changed much. It’s often referred to as an Iron Barrel Sportster because of the cast iron cylinder barrels. A single carb feeds both cylinders and the claimed horsepower output is a highly “optimistic” 61 hp. The gearbox has four speeds and power is fed to the rear wheel via chain. Based on engine vibration I would estimate (but couldn’t verify due to a lack of a speedo) that the chopper tops out around 140 or 150 mph.
Yes it did leak oil. They pretty much all do from that era and add 40+ years to its life and you get a machine that marks its territory like the alpha dog it is. It also started leaking fuel from the carb at one stop. It seems the float stuck in the carb. We pulled out the tool kit and hit it a few times with a hammer till it quit. That’s right, we fixed it with a hammer.
Approaching the first stop sign I remember no front brake. Yup, why does a sweet chopper need a stupid front brake when flat track racers do 100 mph in the corners without one? The rear brake is less than inspiring, so stopping becomes a think ahead sort of affair. At normal city street speeds I would begin the slowing process about ½ block before the stop. If I were on a highway I would plan several miles ahead for any stops. If you anticipated the stop you were fine. If you didn’t, or say the light turned red abruptly, you either blew the light completely or tried to stop but blew the light anyway.
The riding position was annoyingly comfortable. I expected a torture rack, but despite the lack of rear suspension, the springy seat was fine for around town riding. I would be whining after a day, but survived the couple hours I rode around. The bars were another story. They mercifully weren’t ape hangers, instead being narrow pullbacks. They didn’t offer much leverage and hit my admittedly long legs. I quickly learned to drop a knee when executing a turn.
The passenger accommodations are sparse, as in they don’t exist. You’re rolling solo on this chopper. The single mirror was ludicrously small and only worked if I raised my left arm. But, the large chrome headlight mounted high and directly in front of the rider has a bullet shape and acted as a nice stand-in for mirror duties.
As I wandered through Nordeast Minneapolis, I enjoyed the sheer difficulty of riding the Sporty. You had to think your way through everything. Starting, stopping, turning all required plenty of forethought. No mindlessly rolling along, 100% focus like a fighter pilot was required to stay upright and alive.
In spite of the constant focus required, the bike does roll in a straight line very well. Stability is an understatement. The chopper cruises with locomotive stability thanks to the monster rake angle of the extended forks. You could do acrobatics on the seat and not effect the ride. Unfortunately, this is a double-edged sword. Even small bends in the road require much lean, but you have no ground clearance to make any lean happen. Consequently you must slow down, but that’s all right because your hands need a break from the vibration. So in reality everything works together in a perverse harmony.
And in the end that’s why I kind of liked the chopper. It was loud, crude, ridiculously hard to ride, and probably even harder to live with. But that was also its charm. I have a soft spot in my heart for hard to ride machines. They require dedication, perseverance, and commitment. They will likely break your heart multiple times, but there is joy in conquering the bike that fights you. I imagine it’s similar to the devotees of steam locomotives or hot air balloons. There are better ways to do the same job, but this does it for you.
Damn it. I like a chopper.
By Bruce Mike
This particular chopper is built on a Smith Brothers and Fetrow chassis with their signature girder front end and rear spring struts. The motor is a 1972 Harley-Davidson, 1000 cc ironhead. It has a right side shift and forward controls. The current owner of this bike, me, purchased it in 2002 as a project. I bought it at a consignment shop after a friend told me it was there. I didn’t get a whole lot of history on the bike other than it had spent the last few years in a shed at a trailer park. It had a black snow blower headlight and a beautiful rattle-can red paint job. On it’s maiden voyage from the consignment shop, it died about two miles from my destination. The coil fell off and the carburetor came loose. I didn’t have enough hands to hold everything in place. The night ended with me having my first ride on an ironhead chopper and my first tow with a rope behind a pickup truck. I was laughing then and it makes me laugh now.
Ten years later it got put together into the bike you see here. I had never been involved in a custom bike build so with the mechanical expertise of my brother and nephew, I got to do this one. My involvement in the build consisted of the aesthetics, parts purchases and handing them wrenches. We must have done something right because it took third place in it’s class at the Donnie Smith Show. I’m not sure how many bikes were in it’s class, but I got a plaque none the less.
Putting together a chopper was something I always wanted to do. I changed this bike dramatically from what it was originally. It had mid controls, a full rear fender and a king-queen seat. In retrospect, I probably should have restored it instead of changing it but I had an idea of what I wanted it to look like from the moment I saw it, and that’s what I went with. Being an old deadhead and the bike being a ‘72 is what inspired the paint scheme. The only mechanical changes that were made were electronic ignition, a gel battery and some slight cylinder honing to accommodate new rings.
When putting this bike together I learned that better planning will save you money. I purchased a lot of parts that I didn’t end up using and I then had to sell. This could have been avoided if I had a detailed plan rather than just an idea. Nevertheless, the whole project was still a lot of fun.
Now that I’ve given you the background on the bike, I’ll get to the review.
Riding this bike is like going back in time. There are no gauges, no front brake and the right side shift takes a conscious effort to operate. Starting this bike takes a lot of patience. If you are in hurry to get somewhere, ride something else. It’s kick only and you have to go through a bit of a ritual to get it running. After achieving this somewhat miraculous feat, you take a moment to catch your breath, it’s not easy kicking. Then you take another moment to calm the neighbors, it’s pretty loud. Throw a leg over and you’re ready to go.
Every time I’ve ridden this bike one of my first thoughts is always, how the hell did people ride these things every day? In 1972, when choppers were popular, there were folks who rode this type of bike to work every day and took trips on them when they weren’t working. I ride it five miles to the coffee shop and I need a break. The longest distance I did on it was about 40 miles without stopping. At the end of this ride stopping was an issue. The rear drum brake adjuster had come loose and it being the only brake, I had to “Flintstone” it to a final stop. We fixed the brake adjuster with some duct tape and I continued the last couple of miles to our destination. The return trip was uneventful other than after 40 miles of highway riding my hands were completely numb. This bike vibrates like nothing I’ve ever ridden. It’s fairly smooth at 40 mph but 65-70 your teeth start coming loose. I always wondered if it would smooth out again at 80. I’ve never had the guts to push it that fast.
Running around town is a whole different kind of adventure. It has a 4-speed transmission, and it being an old harley, you can pretty much leave it in any gear you want. It’s basically a tractor motor so it has a whole lot of torque. When driving on city streets you need to give yourself plenty of room for stopping (about a half a block) and turning around (a three lane road or an empty convenience store parking lot). There is also very limited clearance so any kind of twist in the road can produce a shower of sparks from a variety of places. It kind of adds to the overall “cool” of the chopper riding experience. My final summation of the “road test” of this bike would be — It is, what it is.
Since the the writing of this review, the bike has moved on to new ownership. The dream that was inspired by my first time seeing Easy Rider has been fulfilled. The thing I will remember the most about this bike was the feeling I had the first time I rode it. A lot of time and a bit of cash went into this project. If I were to do it over I would do it differently but I would definitely do it. There is a great feeling of accomplishment in taking a 40+ year-old motorcycle and getting it back on the road. I definitely have a better understanding of why custom bike builders and the guys who restore old bikes do what they do. I also know now, without a doubt, I’m a rider and not a builder.
I hope the next owner of this bike has even more fun with it than I did.