Aerodynamic Lessons

by bj max

In the late sixties I owned a ‘58 Harley-Davidson Duo Glide. 1958 was the year Harley finally put shocks on the rear of their flagship, thankfully ending the reign of the hard tail. The Duo moniker was, like the suspension, an upgrade from its predecessor, the Hydra-Glide. And there were two engine versions, the FL and the factory souped up FLH. The FLH was sort of like the Screaming Eagle kit of the day, and back then it’s claimed 60 horsepower was respected and feared by most two wheelers and all cagers. Even the new Corvette scraped and bowed in the presence of the mighty FLH.

I ran with a pack of motorcyclists back then that could best be described as a buncha’ nuts; me being the nuttiest. Maybe stupid would be a better word but whatever, we were seldom seen on the social pages of our local newspaper and as best I can remember we weren’t invited to any coming out parties. We were low lifes and the only thing that gave us any stature at all was our ability to ride and control motorcycles; something most folks in those days could not, or would not, attempt. Murder cycles was a popular term amongst the social elite of the day.

We spent most of our Saturdays bar hopping. Actually, there were no bars where we lived. They were road houses and juke joints and we rode from one to the other all weekend long ‘til we ran out of money and friends or got locked up. It was an exciting life, but not very productive and since the local police really frowned on robbing gas stations, we were eventually forced to find jobs to support our bad habits and this pretty much ruined our beloved grasshopper lifestyle.

I’ll never forget one particular Saturday back then and the science lesson I received in the theater of aerodynamics. Several of my heathen friends and I decided on a little ride over to the Cypress Hut, one of those road houses mentioned above. The Cypress Hut was located about half way between Mason and Brownsville on US 70. As a matter of fact, it still is. That old joint has been there for forty years or more. Most road houses have an extremely short life span. Their demise is usually by fire, burned down by the owner for insurance money, or by a neglected housewife. But for some reason, the Hut was spared and still exists.

After a couple hours of sipping beer and ironing out a few political problems with the regulars, we decided to head back to where we came from. We tried to slip out without a lot of commotion, but they were on to us and followed us outside to continue the conversation in the parking lot. We weren’t really interested and managed to get the bikes started just in time and said our goodbyes with a hail of gravel.

We hadn’t ridden far until I noticed my motorcycle was handling funny. Not ha-ha funny, but funny funny. It was all over the road as a matter of fact and I could hardly keep it in a straight line. I glanced over the headlight at the front tire, but it seemed to be inflated and running true. I examined everything I could from the saddle and all seemed well. In those days we rode two by two, side by side. None of that sissy staggered formation hogwash for us! We were way too cool and much too stupid for that. I yelled over the engine noise and got Charlie’s attention who was riding next to me and motioned to the shoulder. He nodded and we pulled over, as did the four bikes following us.

I cut the engine, dismounted and began to check the rear wheel and anything else I could think of while Charlie, who was an excellent Harley mechanic, looked over everything else. Back then, the rear axel on a Harley could be adjusted and if you set it up wrong or if an adjusting bolt got, loose then the wheel could slip forward on one side and throw the whole thing out of alignment. But after a thorough check, Charlie stood and declared everything to be OK. Said he couldn’t find anything wrong. He suggested that maybe the ruts in the pavement were throwing me around. Could be. So we decided to ride on at a moderate speed until we hit the glass smooth pavement of Highway 59, then see what happened.

A few minutes later, we peeled off on US 59, quickly went through the gears and were soon speeding through fifty MPH. The erratic behavior returned immediately. The bike was uncontrollable, all over the road and totally unpredictable with no rhyme or reason to its behavior. Not to mention, scary as hell.

Back on the shoulder again, we went over the bike repeatedly with everyone pitching in with suggestions. We checked the tires for knots, or chunked out tread, and the air pressure. We even lifted the front end up and placed a chunk of wood beneath the frame, then pulled and tugged on the fork, checking the play in the fork bearings. We found nothing wrong. I explained that it handled exactly like riding in gusting crosswinds, but it was a perfect day, not even the slightest breeze, so that was impossible

Frustrated, I hopped on the bike and took off. The rest followed at a distance giving me a little time to blow off steam. The handling problem began again at exactly fifty MPH, but in my anger I kept the throttle open and, not surprisingly, the erratic behavior got progressively worse. I let off the throttle in defeat and began coasting down. Just as I dropped below fifty, Charlie came alongside and motioned me over. I pulled to the shoulder once again and coasted to a stop and cut the engine. Charlie pulled alongside, smiled knowingly and yelled over the romping idle of his knucklehead engine, “Zip up your jacket.” I cupped my hand to my ear and leaned toward him. He flicked my open jacket and again, “Zip up your jacket.” So I did. He gave me a thumbs up, smiled and motioned me forward. I fired the Harley, dropped it in gear and took off, quickly pulling through fifty MPH, then sixty, then seventy. Smooth as silk. Nary a wobble. I grinned like a mule eatin’ briars, looked in my mirror and watched as the others gained on me. One by one, they pulled alongside grinning with thumbs up. This event deserved a more comprehensive oral exam, so we headed for the comfort of the Northside Pool Hall for a cool one and a spirited de-briefing.

My open jacket at speeds above fifty was like a sail. As it blew out behind me, the slip stream acted on it, whipping it back and forth and it was literally steering the motorcycle like a tiller on a boat. We sipped our beer and had a good laugh. Charlie and the boys made fun of my high-tech “aero jacket” for months, but I didn’t mind. I was just glad my bike wasn’t broke because I was, and would have been walkin’ if it had been.

M.M.M.

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