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Common Tread

Rebirth of an American classic, part one

May 27, 2014

This time last year, the only two things I knew about Harley-Davidson VLs were that they were made in the 1930s and one model had a cool art deco tank design. It's hard to believe that just one year later I'm halfway through building my own 1933 Harley-Davidson VL from the ground up, in preparation for riding it across the country.

Sure, I’d seen a few VLs over the years, but I never really thought too much about them. Like most vintage motorcycle enthusiasts who are relatively new to the scene (I bought my first vintage motorcycle in 2010), I was more focused on Panheads and Knuckleheads, because I assumed anything older was too slow and unreliable to do any real riding. I probably would have never even considered owning a VL if not for a chance encounter with Tom Feeser at an Antique Motorcycle Club of America swap meet.

You see, Tom is an expert on VLs and owns a company called Replicant Metals, which specializes in manufacturing replacement parts for VLs as well as older Harley-Davidson models, such as JDs, DLs and RLs. After stumbling into his booth completely by accident and getting a brief education on VLs, I soon found myself back home eagerly researching the Harley-Davidson V series.

The first V-series Harley-Davidson rolled off the assembly line in 1930 and featured a newly designed side-valve engine replacing the F-head engine that had powered Harleys for the previous 15 years. Unlike modern overhead-valve engines, which position the intake and exhaust valves above the piston, the side-valve engine’s valves are located next to the piston. At the time, this was an improvement over the F-head engines, which used an intake-over-exhaust valve arrangement.

The VL also featured a front brake, a three-speed transmission, six-volt electrical system and drop-center rims. It was also relatively fast. In 1933, a VLE set a stock production top speed record of 104 mph, and in 1935 the California Highway Patrol performed tests in which VLHs were ridden at sustained speeds over 100 mph. All this adds up to a very street-worthy machine. So why aren’t VLs more popular?

It turns out the one feature that discourages most people from considering a VL is the lack of recirculating oil. Unlike Harley-Davidsons built after 1936, the V-series engine did not have a system for filtering oil and returning it to the engine. Instead, the oil goes from the engine into the primary to lube the primary chain. From there it leaves the primary and lubes the rear drive chain before ultimately ending up as a puddle on the ground. This actually can be considered an advantage, since the engine always has fresh oil. You just have to make sure you don’t run out!

Panhead Jim.
Now at the same time I was beginning to learn more about VLs, rumors began to circulate about another Cannonball ride across the country. This time, motorcycles manufactured up until 1936 would be allowed to participate, meaning the VL would be a perfect choice. Of course, the limited number of slots quickly filled and I was put on the waitlist, but that didn’t matter as I decided to do my own cross-country ride.

The basic plan is to ship the completed motorcycle out to California and then ride it back to my home state of North Carolina, traveling most of the way on U.S. 50, which will allow me to ride at a more reasonable speed for a motorcycle built in the 1930s. Historically speaking, Route 50 was organized from existing highways in 1926, so it’s safe to say that I will not be the first person to ride its length on a Harley-Davidson VL, but I may very well be the last. I’ve also found one other rider to join me who will be riding a 1934 Harley-Davidson VLD. I figure between the two of us we should be able to carry enough spare parts to make the trip.

The plan was set. It was time to start the build.

Part two: Building a 1933 VL from a pile of parts