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Common Tread

Rebirth of an American classic, part two

May 29, 2014

Having decided to build a 1930s-era Harley-Davidson VL for a cross-country ride later this year, it was time to get to work.

The logical first step was to decide which year and model V-series to purchase. In my research, I found that the art deco tank design was only available for the 1933 model year. I also discovered that this was the lowest production year (just 2,671 Big Twins produced), making these harder to find, but potentially more valuable in the future. Of the models made in 1933, the model that is actually designated “VL” had the highest production number (886 total units), so it seemed like my best chance for finding a ’33 without having to pay the additional cost of an even rarer machine.

Starting with a set of engine cases and a title. Photo by Panhead Jim.
With the model narrowed down to a 1933 VL, I started my search for a suitable candidate. Ideally, I was hoping to find a fairly complete basket case, but in the end I had to settle for buying a set of matched cases with a title. This meant I would be going through the much longer and more expensive process of building the motorcycle piece by piece. Luckily, I found several sources for original parts, and, in the interest of building a reliable machine, I decided to use aftermarket parts if they were of equal or better quality than the originals. I may not end up with a 100 percent correct motorcycle, but it will be 100 percent rideable.

From the start of this project, I wanted to do as much of the work myself as possible, not just to have the satisfaction of building my own motorcycle, but also out of necessity. There are only a handful of VL experts around the country, and chances are if I run into a problem on my trip I will not be within walking distance of any of them. Even with the best preparation, there will certainly be times when I will find myself on the side of the road unpacking my tools, but that is what makes riding old iron a real adventure and a challenge. I consider this build and ride to be the ultimate test of my riding and wrenching ability and hope to prove that both are up to the task by completing this cross-country trip.

Another important aspect of this build is the complete documentation of each and every step needed to build a VL. In order to ensure that future generations can continue to enjoy these machines, I am capturing the entire process digitally and making it freely available online. By the time this project is complete, it will be the most well documented restoration on the web, totaling more than 50 articles spread across multiple websites.

Lots of time was spent blasting parts. Photo by Panhead Jim.

On Black Friday last November, I officially started building my VL when I picked up my engine cases. I soon found out that rebuilding an antique motorcycle means spending a lot of time cleaning parts. Practically every piece needed to be cleaned in a blasting cabinet, followed by wire brushing, a scrub down with lacquer thinner and sometimes even a warm, soapy bath. It didn’t matter whether it was going in the engine or transmission, it all needed to be thoroughly cleaned.

Rebuilding the transmission. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Cleaning also made it easier to spot damaged areas that may have been overlooked when they were covered with grease and grime. I made several repairs to my engine cases, cams, and heads to get them ready for rebuilding.

While the engine was off at the machine shop, I tackled rebuilding the transmission. The VLs use a basic three-speed transmission, and it was fairly easy to rebuild. While I was in there, I upgraded the main bearings with sealed bearings to reduce leaks and replaced the worn shafts and slider gear with new units.

A pro finished the job of truing the wheels. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Probably the most difficult parts I’ve tackled so far were the wheels. The hubs were easy enough to assemble, but when it came to spoking and truing the rims, I had to enlist the help of someone who had a lot of wheel-building experience. He let me try my hand at truing the wheels, but it only took a few minutes for me to realize that wheel truing is an art only learned through hours of practice.

My next step will be to build a rolling chassis. My frame has already been straightened and powder coated and just needs a few bushings replaced to make it complete. The springer front end will need to be rebuilt, after which I can mount it to the frame and bolt up the wheels. There is a lot more work to be done before this motorcycle can come alive again and hit the road across the United States this fall!

See Rebirth of an American classic, Part one.