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Common Tread

Interview with /r/harley's /u/silverfox762

Jan 14, 2019

I try to talk to interesting motorcycle people. We all do, I think.

For years at this point I have been lurking on /r/harley, a subreddit that welcomes all things bar-and-shield. Like every online community, it has, over time, developed its own “flavor.” I think the users tend to be younger, digitally savvy, and often /r/harley picks up fresh H-D acolytes, so things tend to swing very heavily to late-model machines. (The odd dinosaur does show up every now and again, however.)

There’s a guy I noticed seemed to pop up on every thread, /u/silverfox762. Always helping. Always giving good advice. Always chiming in on the threads that I knew an answer to, but would make an excuse to not type up an answer for. And after just a few of his posts, I realized that unlike a lotta keyboard commandos, this guy really knew his shit.

At this point, I’ve been following his posts for years. I messaged him, because I think many will find him to be a model motorcyclist, albeit a diehard traditionalist. You’ll understand him better in his own words, so I asked him a few questions this multifaceted, greasy, electronic angel was kind enough to answer.

Lemmy: What’s your favorite bike you own or built?

Silverfox: Ya know what? That question needs a lot of qualifiers. For bombing the hills, definitely my ’85 FXRP followed closely by my 2008 Road King. Harley touring bikes handle remarkably well considering they’re 800-pound crotch-Cadillacs, provided the fork stem bearings are set up correctly, the fluid in the forks is newish, and everything else is in proper trim. These are also my favorite bikes for covering 500+ mile distances.

Silverfox's Pan. Photo by silverfox762.

For staring at? My second ’48 Panhead, hands down. And for ease of maintenance? Any of them, since they’re put together correctly, but my Road King is a dream to work on, simply because everything is straightforward, provided you’ve got the factory service manual and the correct tools. I love the engineering and service manuals of the last 35 years.

And my favorite to listen to warming up? My first ’48 Pan, through upswept fishtail pipes. Curiously enough, the drum intro for Van Halen’s "Hot for Teacher" from the original studio recording sounds exactly like that Panhead with the S&S Super B with the enricher on, idling and warming up. Weird the first time I heard it on the radio and thought ‘Holy hell, is someone steali…. Wait, that’s the radio.’

Lemmy’s pointless editorial comment #1: I love that intro for the same reason, as well as another. When I was wooing my very attractive wife, she was (at that time) a schoolmarm, so I suppose I played the song slightly more than average. Also, insert requisite old-guy joke here about silverfox762 because I think Van Halen is from the '50s or something. And that bit about the manual? That’s sort of a theme.

L: Do you have any non-Harley stuff? If so, whatcha got?

SF: Nope, but I’ve ridden a bunch of other bikes, some just around the block, some for the afternoon or for the day. There was a BMW K 100 and an R65, a Honda Gold Wing, a Honda CB550 and a CB750, a Yamaha R1, and plenty of others. If I wanted to ride all day in the rain, I might buy an import, since plastic doesn’t rust, but after 35 years in the saddle, I’m happy taking the car when it’s raining. When I go cross country on a bike again, it’s gonna be a new Road Glide, and I’ll find a nice place to hole up when the rains interrupt my ride.

L: So why are you on Harley-Davidsons?

SF: I have a confession to make. I first fell in love with Harleys because somewhere a couple hundred years ago, William Harley and I are related. My folks mentioned something about that when I was eight or 10 years old. The bikers who taught me about bikes when I was in high school were actually the first adults who were friendly toward me as one adult is to another, rather than treating me like a kid.

From there, I fell in love with the bikes. After the first time I rode one that wasn’t about to fall apart (my first bike was as beat as can be), I knew this was where I belonged. The feedback loop between the bike and the rider with a Harley motor in it is unlike any other bike. Early Indians had a similar motor and sound and feel, but they ceased production in 1953 so it was Harleys I ended up on. Import bikes may perform better, be faster, and be as (or even more) reliable, but they’re sterile to me when I try to ride them. Something intangible is missing.

L: You and I hung out at the same kind of shops with very gruff, crusty biker types showing us the ropes. Obviously, your modern-day Harley megadealer is not like that, and the mom-n-pop indies are dwindling. Is that good or bad?

SF: Those days are long gone. I grew up (as a young adult) in the SF Bay Area outlaw scene in the early '80s, “raised” by guys who’d been there for the bike club wars of the late '60s and '70s and who really did live a life of Brotherhood. They lived and breathed motorcycles. T-shirts saying “My wife? Yes. My dog? Maybe. My bike? Never!” were not uncommon. That upbringing was invaluable to me in life. They not only taught me about the bikes, how to work on them properly and more importantly how NOT to work on them, but also about life, love, and living, as well as what it means to have integrity. They also taught me that all you really have when the chips are down is your word and ability to love, so you gotta take those things uber-seriously. Gotta give a shout out to my dad on that, too. Rest in peace.

The mom-n-pop bike shop is quickly becoming a thing of the past. It costs too damned much just to keep the doors open — rent, insurance, business taxes, and so on. If you’re a small shop, as life gets more expensive, you gotta expand and it’s now impossible to do that unless you’re someplace with a huge economy and great weather and people who want to ride year ‘round. It worked in the Bay Area back then because it was pretty damned cheap to live there, although it’s now the most expensive place in the country to live. Also, the bikes today require way too much money invested in tools and diagnostic equipment to do things on the cheap. This eliminates a huge segment of people who might do this for a living. Back then, you could charge 30 or 40 bucks an hour out of your garage and pay all your bills and keep your bike on the road. Today? You gotta charge $100/hour and stay busy for 40 hours per week or better if you’re gonna make ends meet, cover your taxes, and be insured. (Working on $30,000 bikes means you need insurance or you’re out of business the first time a bike burns to the ground because the owner tried to install a new amplifier a week after you worked on something.)

Law enforcement infiltration broke many of the bonds that held that community together. It’s a bad thing in a way that there’s no longer the Brotherhood that I learned to love. You can’t pull into any old town, find a biker bar or a small bike shop and have a damned good idea what those people are all about.

On the positive side, I’m no longer living a life where I might actually have to kill or die for my Brothers, or spend my life in a cage. I haven’t lived an outlaw life since the late '90s, but I can’t knock the fact that I’m now completely invisible to the cops. There’s a shitload of money that I could have to shell out in speeding and loud pipes tickets if the cops paid any attention to me. To 99 percent of cops these days, I’m just another old fat guy on an expensive Harley, which is a good thing.

Lemmy’s editorial comment #2: I am less tough than silverfox762 is. I knew those outlaw guys, but they kept me pretty clean, and other than some pretty victimless crimes involving the contents of my tool roll and the validity of my tags and inspection stickers, I’ve always been pretty law-abiding. I guess maybe I’m an “inlaw.”

L: You help a ton of people on /r/harley. Does the lack of self-sufficiency bum you out?

SF: It did at first. This is actually how I got involved at /r/Harley. My wife (at the time) was a regular reddit user and I eventually gave in and started looking at things that interested me. Having spent a few days looking at the Harley subreddit, I looked at her and said "These people don’t know shit about their bikes. The advice people give here is bullshit and even dangerous or harmful to the bikes. What the fuck?!" She looked at me with that tolerant look women get when their man isn’t being too bright and said "Well, maybe it’s because it’s your turn. Maybe you’re supposed to be the one teaching them." It never occurred to me that the internet might be today’s analog for the biker community I grew up in, but as you mentioned earlier, those days of old gruff bikers teaching the youngsters about bikes and life in an outlaw shop are gone.

So I began getting involved in the subreddit more and more. Eventually, the moderators asked me to become part of the mod team. I have to honestly say I really don’t do much mod work except a bit of gatekeeping when folks violate the subreddit rules with spam. There’s one or two other mods who do just about all the technical work of maintaining the subreddit. But I do continue to offer as much of my knowledge and life experience as I can and that people will listen to. There are a bunch of people who offer good advice these days, whether mechanical or riding or gear or whatever. I felt pretty much alone when I started, but the subreddit had just been revived from obscurity and neglect by another redditor, and it took a while for people with great knowledge to aggregate there.

I don’t get bummed when I find myself repeating things I’ve been stating over and over and over for three or four years now, simply because I know there’s a ton of brand new Harley owners every year and while it might be easy to get pissed and stop helping, nobody looked at me and said "You don’t know shit, so fuck you. Figure it out for yourself," back in late 1982 or early 1983. So I offer my calm, non-degrading input as often as I can. Finally, in the last year or so, I have seen others chime in to noobs, clearly mimicking things I’ve said in previous posts.

Service manuals
A reading from the Gospel of Bill and Art. Photo by silverfox762.

L: I say "RTFM" a lot. You also emphasize the importance of the manual. I know between the two of us, we probably own a few grand's worth of books. I think people think using a book is a sign of weakness or it's ‘not manly’ to not know. Can you offer some thoughts on that?

SF: Ya know, I think it’s just people thinking "How hard can it be?" and never once considering that the manual has something critical to offer…until they’ve fucked something up and the show up at /r/Harley asking how to un-fuck whatever they did wrong. I really think most people are looking at the bike, thinking "Well, lots of other people work on their bikes, and things look pretty straightforward. I wonder what YouTube has to say," and that’s the most they think about it. When was the last time a YouTube video said "RTFM?!" They don’t. Most are guys with some limited mechanical experience, but I almost never see a service manual except when it’s time to apply torque settings. I don’t really think anyone is trying to be more "manly" by not buying the manual, but there’s a ton of people out there riding motorcycles costing $25,000 who piss and moan that they might have to spend $100 on a service manual from the dealer.

Add to this the number of people who have an issue come up or who decide to modify something who don’t feel like waiting for a manual to arrive in the mail, and we’re quickly returning to the days of owner-maintained bikes being less reliable than those professionally maintained.

Also way too many people treat their 5,000-mile service interval as an oil and filter change, completely ignoring the other 50 or so steps the service manual calls for in the service schedule. This leads to fuel-injected bikes with clogged fuel filters, forks with ancient fork oil in them, clutch cables fighting crud inside dry cable housings, and a dozen other things that can make riding less enjoyable and leave you on the side of the road eventually. 

Tools are important. Oh, yeah, manuals are tools, too. Did we mention you should have a service manual? Photo by silverfox762.

It’s not just a few grand of books by the way, but I have probably $5,000 in Harley-specific tools just to work on the bikes I own or I’ve owned over the years. From rear rocker box wrenches for Evo and Twin Cam bikes to intake manifold wrenches and seal installers and bearing pullers, it’s rare I don’t have the tool I need to do anything on any of my or my friends’ bikes. But you can pretty much do anything to your bike short of electrical diagnostics with about $1,500 in tools, and that’s if you wanna pull the engine and replace cam bearings and fork seals and whatnot. Several good torque wrenches, proper socket and allen and Torx sockets, a bottle of blue LocTite, and a belt tension gauge should help most people handle about anything short of major repairs. But there’s ways to improvise. You can use Schedule 40 PVC for fork seal installers on 39, 41, and 49 mm forks, for example.

Lemmy’s editorial comment #3: I know a guy who recommended this at some point. Great minds and all that jazz.

L: What are some of your favorite Harley parts in terms of design, aesthetic, or function?

SF: Hmm, there’s nothing as beautiful as a 1948-1957 Panhead to me. They are the epitome of late Art Deco styling. The Knucklehead comes close in my personal taste, and they’re perfect early Art Deco styling too.

As for parts? I love that Harley has switched to everything being belt driven in back. I used to go through chains every 10,000 miles. My Road King has close to 70,000 miles on it and my FXR has 50,000+ and they’re both on their original belts. Perfect design and engineering, provided you’re not doing burnouts with a monster motor and breaking belts.

Pan tanks
Factory three-fives seriously are so nice. Photo by Lemmy.

Aesthetic? The 3.5-gallon split gas tanks and the Cat Eye or Two Light dashboards on the Knuckleheads and Panheads. Gorgeous. I just wish people learned how to install these gas tanks correctly so all the used ones on the market didn’t have repairs where at the mounting studs from improper assembly.

Lemmy’s editorial comment #4: This is a pet peeve of mine as well, because I too think the three-and-a-halfs are one of the most beautiful parts of an old Harley. One of my best friends is an old-timer (75, and still riding and wrenching like mad!), and we often argue over whether the tabs should be bent to make the tanks mount solidly (his method) or spaced (my method). The fact we argue about it, though, shows attention to prevention, the key to keeping new stuff running long enough to become old stuff.

L: Stock or modified?

SF: Depends. Until the last 10 years or so, stock Harleys just can’t get out of their own way. Meeting EPA standards means the bikes were just slow, simply because the pushrod-and-flywheel V-twin is never gonna breathe right if it’s gotta meet EPA standards. This is why the M8 motor with four valves per head puts out almost twice the power that the early Twin Cams did. The early motors, from 1903 until 2017, just plain don’t breathe well enough or run efficiently enough to produce power and run clean at the same time. The later Twin Cams, at 103 ci, finally started putting out some better power numbers, but that was the limit, really, on what a stock two-valve-per-head motor was going to do.

Definitely stock or near stock on pre-1970 bikes for styling. Harley builds a really good looking bike these days. I just want to go faster than most bikes built from 1970-2017 will go stock.

Gremlin bell
Accident magnet? Photo by silverfox762.

L: I think gremlin bells are stupid. Just wanted to say that.

SF: I have a writeup on the origin of gremlin bells. You know. I agree. For me they make no sense, but they’re a nice cheap gift for someone who has no clue what to get their biker friend for Christmas or birthdays. I went 30 years and close to half a million miles on two wheels without a gremlin bell and without putting a bike on the ground. A friend from reddit sent me a gremlin bell three years ago. I politely put it on my FXR and two weeks later a guy cut me off and I took his sideview mirror off with my ribs at 30 mph! Even before then, it was annoying trying to figure out what was loose on my bike. But once I got home from the emergency room where they taped my broken ribs, I took that gremlin bell off the bike and set it on my mantle piece instead.

Train tattoo
Hey, that's not a chopper. Photo by silverfox762.

L: What's your day gig like?

SF: I’ve been a tattooer for almost 35 years. I used to own my own shop, but the last 20 years I’ve been happy working for people. Fewer headaches, doncha know. Yeah, I make less money than if I owned a busy shop, but I prefer the lower stress. I met both of my ex-wives tattooing them, and some of my best friends are people I’ve worked with or on in the last 15 years. I specialize in portraiture and realistic wildlife, as well as landscapes, and most of it in black and gray. I love doing color work, and neo-traditional stuff is a blast, but mostly I’m doing black and gray realism or semi-realism.

L: What's next for silverfox762? Are you just an artist toiling away in obscurity, or is there more?

SF: Dunno. I’d love to write for a living, but there’s only so many stories I can tell before I get into some codes of silence I’m not gonna break. I wish I could monetize my online presence, and did do some blogging a year or two ago, but life got in the way. I’ve been in my regular job field for almost 35 years now, and it requires a good economy to make a lot of money. There’s almost no economy up here now that marijuana is legal. There was a ton of cash business until about two years ago when the wholesale price of pot dropped to below $1,000 per pound. All the small growers are out of business, and the big growers are more efficient and can produce a lot more with fewer employees these days. If I wanted to move back to somewhere with traffic (the nearest traffic to me is 150 miles away!), I could maybe do the vintage bike shop thing, but that’s not in the cards. I like living in the middle of nowhere, and I love riding the hills and coast up here.

L: Any last words?

SF: Put down your fucking phone and pay attention to driving, dammit!