COAL: Cycles Of A Lifetime — A Harley-Davidson… at Last!

It certainly mirrored the Frisco Look. All photos by the author.


There is an old saying, “You can always tell a Harley rider, but you can’t tell them much!”

I had wanted to make the move up to Harley-Davidson for years. Now that I was making some real money, I started looking for a likely candidate. Growing up in the late ’60s there was one bike with a magic name, “Harley-Davidson Sportster XLCH.”

At this time, the hot setup was a chopped Harley Sportster. There were numerous well known custom shops that had set a certain style. Arlen Ness was the most famous of the Bay Area builders. His bikes defined what was known as the “Frisco or Bay Area Style.” It consisted of a Sportster with an extended front end, either the stock hydraulic fork or a custom springer. Buckhorn type handlebars, combined with a raised Sportster gas tank. The frame remained stock, and the bike had a jacked up look to the front. A small contoured “cobra” style seat and short sissy bar handled the seating arrangements. Usually the rear fender was chopped short, and the rear wheel rim was replaced by a 5.00 x 16 inch full dresser tire. A set of staggered dual exhaust pipes looked sharp and sounded great. Nothing has ever sounded as good as an HD twin breathing through these shorty pipes.  This configuration became an iconic Sportster look.

Unfortunately, the mirror was cracked.


I looked at a couple of stock Sportsters, but decided on an already chopped ’70 model. It had a customized, raked, and molded frame, with a ten inch over stock girder style front fork. The front wheel was a 21 inch spool hub. This meant that there was no front brake, but, Man, did it look good! The bike followed the typical Frisco template. It was also a kick start model, the vaunted XLCH. I knew that these could be hard to start, “But quien es mas macho?”

I suppose that I thought that buying a pre-chopped bike was a better idea than starting with a stock unit. It could have been. Provided the bike was styled and equipped the way that I wanted. It also could have been a good idea if the bike had low mileage and had been properly maintained, or in this case, maintained at all. Wrong on all points! I could see that this example was set up in a manner that wasn’t exactly what I wanted or needed. The front, brake-less “spool hub” was quite a difference compared to the big disc brakes that had been on the front of my previous bikes. But I thought that it looked pretty cool. And choppers are all about the looks!

I never had a Sportster before and was quite unfamiliar with them.  On initial view, the bike looked quite sharp, but it was in very poor shape, with a worn out engine and poor wiring. It was much worse than I had anticipated, I later found that the tail lamp was wired with a length of lamp cord!

These Sportster motors weren’t very long lasting, even new, in stock form. The top end would usually need to be refreshed at 15,-20,000 miles. This meant a complete valve job and a new set of piston rings. At twice that mileage, the bottom end would need to be rebuilt along with the top end. Of course, the motor in my bike was completely thrashed and would need a complete rebuild.

I won’t go into any great detail about the rebuild as there isn’t enough time for that. Suffice it to say, that if ANY component could be worn beyond a useful condition, IT WAS!

This was another example of a poor choice that I insisted on making. I still hadn’t learned my lesson! At this time, I could afford to buy a much better example or even a brand new bike!

But I thought that I knew better.

More was changed than just the color.


Despite its poor condition, I performed a complete rebuild of the entire motorcycle. Once it was completed the bike was restored to a pretty reliable state, and I rode it quite a bit. I used it in the same manner that I had used my earlier bikes.

Ready to Ride.


After I finished rebuilding the Sportster I took an inaugural trip up the Coast to Mendocino. I’d been making this trip yearly up to this point. It garnered a lot of attention along the way, as most choppers like this were used only for around town “putting.” I initially thought that I could live without a front brake. The girder front end looked really clean, but as you might guess, stopping the bike was a real problem. The first time that I had to stop abruptly for a red light, I locked up the rear wheel and skidded into the middle of the intersection! Another time I was behind a car that stopped abruptly and had to skid and swerve over to the side of the street to avoid rear-ending the car. This wasn’t going to work for me. A lot of Harley choppers ran with only a rear brake at this time. Both of my cousins had Panhead choppers that ran spool hubs when they got out of the Service.

A much better setup.


There were various mini brake setups for choppers, but those really didn’t work that well. I decided to switch over to a ’73 OEM telescopic front end, which was the first year that HD had fitted disc front brakes. I had the original 19 in. rim replaced by a narrow 21 in. unit. Avon Speed masters rule! The back of the brake caliper had to be machined to provide clearance for the spokes. A set of ten inch extended fork tubes replaced the stock units. Combined with the raked frame the bike sat level. There weren’t any extended brake hose kits available yet. A length of plastic tubing, usually used to hook up aftermarket oil pressure gauges, was pressed into service, along with the stock handlebar master cylinder.

Once the brake was settled in, the bike actually steered and stopped quite well. It was very stable on the highway, though there was the expected low speed flop due to the suspension geometry. Combined with the extended wheelbase, the bike rode pretty smoothly. Believe it or not, a properly set up chopper was not a death trap, or an accident waiting to happen. The rear suspension was stock except for the rear wheel which was now shod with the latest Uniroyal tire.

I rode the bike extensively and every trip could be considered a “shakedown” run. I had always ridden Japanese machines, and I had never used Loctite, though I had heard about it. I had assembled the bike without using any. The result was that many components came loose, and even a couple fell off on the highway! All of those problems were alleviated over time.

The 21 replaced the stock 19 rim.


A few more additions were made. A stock speedo and tach set was added, a motocross style fork brace tied the lower fork legs together, and a fiberglass cafe racer fender fit over the fork brace for a tidy setup. No more having my face sprayed with rain water!

Now I had a touring bike!

My buddy Rick and I planned a trip up through British Columbia, all the way to Alaska. At least that was the plan.

We rode up US101 to the Canadian border. Then we took the Yellow Head Highway all the way to Prince Rupert British Columbia. Our plan was to take a ferry to Alaska itself and continue on to the AlCan Highway.

Hard to see, but our bikes wait for the ferry.


There were many problems and challenges along the way, but they were overcome. Unfortunately, we didn’t make it all the way to Alaska. A shortage of funds and time saw to that. I may detail my trip in a further post if there is any interest.

After the chopper, I wanted something with more performance and better handling. Despite all my problems I still felt that the Sportster was the Harley model for me. Someone at Harley must have read my mind, as the next year they debuted the XLCR. I had to have one!