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Common Tread

Rebirth of an American classic, part three

Jan 19, 2016

When I last wrote about my project to rebuild a 1933 Harley-Davidson VL and ride it across the country, I had yet to complete the first major hurdle in any motorcycle build: assembling the rolling chassis.

For something that is basically just bolting wheels and a front end to a frame, it quickly turned into months of work with my limited free time. Still, once it was done and I could roll my “motorcycle” around the shop, it really felt like I was finally making progress.

The frame shop removed some of the original paint so they could get accurate measurements to ensure everything was square and solid. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Thinking ahead, I had purchased a frame that had already been checked for straightness and overall integrity by a reputable frame shop. If you are building an old bike, I highly recommend having a professional check your frame before you get started.  There is nothing worse than completing a build only to find that your frame is tweaked and that the bike doesn’t track correctly, especially because the remedy always involves disassembling the entire bike! Starting with a straight frame meant all I had to do was drop it off to be sand-blasted and powder-coated, making it the easiest part of the build so far. I also powder-coated my handlebars and some front end parts so that everything had a nice gloss coating to match the frame.

In the meantime, I went back to my shop to tackle the brakes. Unlike modern brakes, which usually just bolt onto the wheel hub, VL brakes use splines to mate them to wheels.  This design was soon dropped by Harley because worn splines can cause a host of problems and are expensive to replace. Unfortunately, no one has stepped up to manufacture replacement hubs or brakes, so I had to hunt down a good used set for both the front and rear wheels.

The other unusual thing about VL brakes is they house the other half of the wheel bearings. Just like the hubs, they contain bearing cages with individual roller bearings along with spacers, retaining rings and felt seals (rubber seals weren’t used in the 1930s – instead, grease-impregnated felt was used to keep moisture out). This adds up to a bunch of extra parts, 42 per hub to be exact (yeah, I counted), and that doesn’t include any of the actual brake components.

brake parts
The 42 parts that make up the front brake hub. It took some hunting to track all of these down. Photo by Panhead Jim.

I went ahead and installed new bearings in both the front and rear brakes using the standard procedure of reassembling with stock bearings, checking runout, disassembling, reassembling with .0001-inch larger bearings, checking runout, etc., etc., until the desired “feel” was achieved. Once I had identified the correct bearings, I got to take everything apart again and do a final assembly with grease. The plus side of this labor-intensive process is you get pretty good at taking apart brake hubs.

Parkerizing a front end spring. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Not all of my parts came from the factory painted, so I also got to try my hand at a metal finishing process called Parkerizing. Similar to the black oxide coating you see on modern hardware, Parkerizing is an electrochemical phosphate conversion process. I’m not much of a chemist, but basically you dip clean metal parts into a solution heated to about 195 degrees and the result is a dark grey chemically bonded coating that prevents corrosion. Setting up your home Parkerizing system is pretty easy. All you really need is a hot plate, a stainless steel pot and a bottle of Parkerizing solution. One trip to Walmart and I had an entry-level Parkerizing setup for under $100. Then it was back to the blast cabinet to prep all the different brackets, springs, bolts and nuts for a hot bath.

Frame fresh from the oven with a smooth coating of black powder. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Removing the original lock mostly involved a drill and pliers, so installing a new one was inevitable. Photo by Panhead Jim.
When the frame came back from powder-coating, it only needed a few additions to be ready for assembly. First, I installed a new fork lock in the neck to provide a least a little bit of security when the bike was left unattended. Then, I cut out the worn bronze bushings for the seat post and brake cross shaft. These were replaced with new bushings, which then had to be reamed out to the correct inner diameter.

assembling front end
Using a threaded rod and a couple of custom aluminum dies I was able to press new bushings into the front end rockers. Photo by Panhead Jim.
Now it was on to assembling the front end, which just like the brakes consisted of a whole lot more parts than its modern equivalent. Since I don’t own a hydraulic floor press, the first step in rebuilding the front end was fabricating a set of dies for my benchtop vise to press out the worn rocker bushings and replace them with new units from Colony Machine. Once the bearings were replaced, the rockers were reassembled using all new hardware so that everything fit just like it did from the factory. The top half of the front end was a little tricky, since it consists of six heavy springs which must be compressed during assembly. Through a little trial and error, I managed to develop a process that used a combination of clamps and zip ties to hold the lightest of these springs fully compressed while the rest of the heavier (and more dangerous) springs were left in their unsprung position. Then the suspension could be assembled safely and easily.

front suspension
It took two heavy duty zip ties and a quick clamp to hold together one half of my springer front end while I put the top nuts on the spring rods. Photo by Panhead Jim.

With the front end complete, the last piece of the rolling chassis was ready and it was simply a matter of bolting everything together. The front end is held on by one large nut, so after replacing and greasing the neck bearings, it only took a couple more minutes to have the front end completely installed. Then the axles were installed and a rolling chassis was born!

rolling chassis
Finally, a complete rolling chassis with the engine and transmission added to complete the look. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Before I called it a day, I couldn’t resist placing the engine and transmission inside the frame, just to see how it would look. Finally, I’m starting to feel like I have another motorcycle in the garage and not just piles of parts.