The Life, Death, And Rebirth of a 1944 Harley-Davidson UL
This article was originally published in the April-May 1999 issue of Cycle World’s Big Twin magazine.
This is the story of a restoration. But not just any restoration. It’s more the story of a resurrection, the rebirth of a motorcycle that died a violent, ugly death nearly half a century ago and had been reclining comfortably in the afterlife ever since.
The 1944 civilian-model Harley-Davidson UL had been in a horrendous wreck near Gilroy, California, in 1951, then exiled to the owner’s backyard to lay beneath the sun and stars … and in the rain, sleet, snow, fog and dew. It was as though the bike were the culprit of the crash rather than the victim.
These decaying, cancer-ridden remains lay in state 28 years, waiting in vain for the laying on of loving hands to effect rebirth. But in 1979, the owner died, and as his widow was preparing to throw away the parts, she remembered one of her husband’s friends, a collector of antique cars and such. She called him and asked if he’d like the corpse and detached organs of the old metal mummy that was languishing in her yard. The friend said yes, then picked up the carcass and took it to his backyard in Downey, California, where they lay in the rain and pollution for 18 more years.
When that owner finally grew tired of the cadaver taking up yard space, he called one of his motorcycle-riding friends, Don Clark in Orange, California, and asked if he’d like to have the remains. Clark agreed, but what he saw on the ground when he first laid eyes on the UL made him heartsick. He reckoned he had come upon an archaeological find, for the bike was embedded in the earth and overgrown with entombing foliage, and various flora and fauna had taken up residence inside the motor. Thus, there is much sadness and capitulation in the “before” pictures, the recognition that in the end, nature will have its way; dust to dust.
But nature hadn’t counted on the talent and determination of Don Clark, who decided that he did indeed want those decaying parts. Despite their condition, he saw in them some glimmer of hope, a tiny spark of the glory the UL had embodied so many years ago. He could bring this bike back to life, he surmised. It would just take some time.
He quickly found he was alone in his faith. As he arrived home with 350 pounds of rust in the bed of his El Camino, his friends were standing in the driveway, eager to see what treasure he had uncovered. They took one look at the mangled, dirt-encrusted carrion and deemed Clark’s endeavor hopeless. One of his friends even dragged a trash can over to the pickup and suggested that Clark unload the dead bike in the receptacle rather than in his garage.
Although he had never before rebuilt a motorcycle, Clark was firm in his resolve. “This could be a really nice bike when I’m done with it,” he said. “I don’t know how much time it’s going to take, but I’m going to do it right.”
He started by removing everything that was still attached to the frame. As he worked on one part, he would spray the next one scheduled for removal with Liquid Wrench penetrating oil and let it soak overnight. That did the trick, and every nut and screw on the chassis came off intact.
Brackets and tubing are one thing, but a motor is quite another, and Clark despaired of getting into the engine without resorting to desperate measures such as torching off bolt heads and drilling out shafts. So, he turned once again to his old-faithful elixir, Liquid Wrench. “I’d spray it on,” he said, “then tap on the bolt lightly with a hammer, then go work on something else for a while, then come back and spray it again and tap it, then let it sit, then spray it once again before leaving for the night. Usually, the bolt would come out just like butter the next day.”
The sparkplug hole in one of the cylinders had been unoccupied for 46 years, so when Clark finally got the cylinder heads off, that particular bore looked like an entomology project. “Just about every bug imaginable was in there,” he says. Worse yet, the pistons were securely frozen to the cylinder walls. Clark fumigated the motor’s innards with—what else?—Liquid Wrench, then doused it with plain old motor oil. Eventually, he was able to work the pistons loose and disassemble the motor without the loss of a single bolt.
Clark wanted experts to handle the engine work, so he took all of the carefully cleaned and refurbished pieces to American Motorcycle & Machine for final assembly. “They used all the original parts except the pushrod covers and pistons,” says Clark. “And I also had to find a newer style of distributor because I didn’t want to mess with the manual spark retard.”
As bad as the motor was, the transmission was even worse. “When I pulled the transmission apart, it was full of yucky water,” he says, wrinkling his nose as he speaks. “It was a real mess in there.” After pouring out nearly half a century of sewage, Clark cleaned and polished the transmission pieces and took them to Neil Redfearn at Neil’s Cycles in Anaheim for final inspection and assembly.
We use the terms “cleaning” and “polishing” rather casually here, but they represent hours and hours—actually, more like days and weeks—of tedious labor by Clark. He painstakingly turned every piece of an entire motorcycle from a grungy, rusty mess into something that could be repainted, replated or repolished.
When Clark finally got all the muck and mire off of the frame, he could see that the 1951 crash had been severe. “The frame was doing a right turn,” he laughs. “It was coming all apart because of the accident, and the welds had broken loose. It was really bad.” So, he took it to a frame expert, Dr. John in Anaheim, for some surgery. The Doc assured Clark that fixing the damage was no problem and he could have it done in three days.
A week later, the Doc called back and said he needed more time; this had turned out to be the toughest repair he’d ever attempted. Clark gave him that extra time, and the Doc got it right. “That frame is now straight as an arrow,” says Clark. “It’s better than new. Not only did he straighten it out, but he rewelded every tab on it, then sent it out to Orange County Plating for powder coating. When I got it back, I couldn’t believe it was the same frame. It was beautiful.”
Clark did have to replace some components badly damaged in the crash, including the springer front end. He scoured the swap meets and eventually found a springer fork, circa 1944, and immediately began the refurbishing and polishing process. Meanwhile, perishables such as brake shoes, tires, light bulbs, a leather seat and a clutch had to be located and matched. And he converted the electrical system to 12 volts so he could use a modern battery.
Clark admits that breathing new life into the UL would have been much easier if he had merely tracked down some newer and cleaner components. But he wanted the finished machine to be as close to the original as possible, so he kept the stock ’44 pieces wherever possible and either reconditioned them himself or had it done by experts.
Although not exactly an “expert,” Greg Wilcox, one of Clark’s buddies, had dabbled in auto body and paint work, and he volunteered to do the grinding and smoothing on the bike’s sheetmetal in preparation for the paintwork. And for the actual painting itself, Clark took a decidedly unusual approach: He and Wilcox would paint the bike themselves—in the open air of Clark’s driveway! So, on a sunny Labor Day morning, Wilcox donned his painter’s mask and laid on a first coat of black. He was just about to spray on the second coat when a neighbor across the street fired up his lawnmower, spewing dust, grass and dirt into the air.
The two restorers ran across the street and frantically pleaded with the neighbor to set aside his arboreal duties while the painting was going on. He relented, and the paint, amazingly enough, turned out great.
All tolled, it took Clark about two years to resurrect his 1944 Harley and transform it into the beautiful machine it now is. Where before there had been only rust and dirt, now there was beauty and life.
Well, maybe. When he began the project, Clark avowed that he wouldn’t attempt to start the bike—indeed, wouldn’t even place his foot on the kick pedal—until every last little detail was perfect and complete. In his experience with model airplanes, guitars, banjos and other motorcycles, he’d seen too many projects end half-assed then abandoned. So, not until the bike was completely finished would he ride it.
“That bike hadn’t run since 1951,” laughs Clark, “and I was pretty anxious to see what it would do. So, on the big day, I wheeled it out to the curb, and all of my friends were there, too. The pressure was on. The guys at American Motorcycle & Machine had told me that the bike would start on the first kick if I followed the procedure they taught me: Open the choke, open up the throttle all the way and give it three primer kicks with the switch off, then close the choke, turn on the ignition and kick it for real with the throttle cracked open about a quarter-turn. I did all that, and when I jumped on it with the ignition on, boy, that thing came to life.” Clark grins widely, and he obviously loves telling this part of the story the most. “Man, it started just like that, and it purred like a kitten.”
We’ve experienced the recalcitrance of early-model Harleys to start easily, and that made us rather skeptical about the one-kick aspect of Clark’s story. So, we asked if he would demonstrate his black-and-red progeny’s willingness to fire up. Sure enough, after giving the engine three primer strokes, he turned on the key and with just one firm kick, his 1944 Model UL Harley-Davidson roared to life. Resurrection complete.
We were impressed, but not as impressed as Clark’s friends, who two years earlier had suggested he deposit his newfound motorcycle in the trash. “They don’t laugh anymore,” he says. “Now, when we all go to a custom or classic show, I just stand back and they do all the bragging for me.”
As well they should. Purists and collectors will no doubt criticize the bike’s somewhat over-restored state, what with the unauthentic chrome-plating and other detail upgrades that its builder has implemented. But there’s no denying that Don Clark, a man with no previous experience as a restorer of classic motorcycles, took on the most daunting of reclamation projects and wound up with a beautiful finished product.