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Common Tread

Stuff that doesn't suck: Little Man, a labor of love from Nanjing

Nov 23, 2015

Look at the picture gallery before you read any of my words.

Looks like any home-built Sportster, right? Sure, it’s cool, but nothing about it stands out as truly amazing. The oldtimers say nothing new has been done on a Harley, and normally I agree.

But this bike is special.

It's called Little Man and it was built by a fellow who goes only by "Mr. Duan." He's a resident of Nanjing, which is located in the Jiangsu province of China. That’s sort of the crux of this whole story.

“I know build a motorcycle is not a big deal for you living in USA, but that's a complex story here in China.”

I don’t speak Chinese, and Mr. Duan’s English is shaky, but we both speak bike, and I was able to follow along as he explained how this whole project went down. The bike began with just an engine, a 1978 Ironhead, sourced from a buddy.

“PRC didn't import H-D before 2006. Because Ironhead parts are barely appear in China, he decide to sell this engine to me for 20,000RMB.”

That’s about $3,200 American simoleons.

Hack off the rear and make it a rigid - that's the starting point for most people who want to chop up a bike, no matter where in the world they are. Photo by Mr. Duan.

Mr. Duan then set out to build a motorcycle. He found himself a stock 1973 Ironhead frame on eBay and somehow got it into the country, which is a difficult process. He broke out the saw, and then bolted on a hardtail from Sporty Specialties.

“I knew the ‘73 frame is different from ‘78s, so I took the frame and engine to my friend's workshop, after cut a cross beam, we put the engine into the frame.”

Guess what, Mr. Duan? That’s exactly how we do it here, too!

Mr. Duan applies a little love to his Sporty's clutch. Photo supplied by Mr. Duan.

After that, he set out to really tackle the engine.

“The engine inside looks worse than the outside. Do some replacement. All parts are from eBay, the postage is [more] expensive than the part itself.”

There are no AMCA swap meets in China that either of us know about, so this guy’s ID’ing parts on a screen and sneaking them in China’s back door, it looks like.

“Any motorcycle older than 13 years or modified motorcycle or self-made motorcycle like this one I build, is prohibited on the road here in China. This is the grim situation facing me, but HD bobber is my hobby, I decide to do and I will keep doing.”

Preach, Brother Duan, preach! When asked about how he plans to ride this mutt of questionable legal origins, you’d think his response came straight from an American biker bar.

“I will ride around but not in downtown, cops rarely appear in the suburbs. I think cops won't distinguish I'm riding a ironhead or a junk Chinese motorcycle.”

I have a few steeds of questionable legal merit myself, Mr. Duan. I love it.

A KR oil bag! Sweet! Photo by Mr. Duan.

“I did not expect build a motorcycle is so difficult. I never do such work, it is challenging but fun. Gather parts, 41mm wide-glide front end and 18” drum brake front wheel from eBay; 16” drum brake rear wheel from Japan; KR-style oil tank from eBay. There was a small episode, the oil tank seller refused my purchase. He said he don't sell outside USA, then the procurement service help me to get the tank. They send tons of goods to China from USA every day.”

By hook or by crook! As a side note, that KR tank is a sweet piece to have.

He got it one piece at a time, and it didn't cost him a dime. You'll know it's him when he comes through your town. He's gonna ride around in style, he's gonna drive everybody wild, 'cause he'll have the only one there is around. Words by Johnny Cash. Butchering by Lemmy. Photo by Mr. Duan.

Oh yeah, I forgot to mention sumpin'. Apparently Mr. Duan knows a thing about solid modeling, too. He couldn’t find a set of narrowed WG trees like we have available here in the States, so he just designed his own set. Please take a moment to appreciate how friggin’ long that takes! To assist in giving Little Man the right stance, he slammed the front end down a bit. Next came the tail section.

“I order this handmade iron seat from a friend, he never touched my XLH but the seat fit well.”

Apparently there are a few crafty craftsmen over there in the ol’ PRC, eh?

The guy designed his own triple trees. Way to make me feel like a scrub, buddy. Photo by Mr. Duan.

“Before I started the engine, I had struggled with ignition and cam timing. Without plugs, the kick was freely, e-start is also very heavy, always run out of battery, after hundreds attempts, the engine started. After many times repair and part replacement, it runs.”

Photo provided by Mr. Duan.

And now Mr. Duan is riding his creation. I got into chopping Harleys because they were easy — the interchangeability was not bad, and a lot of people know about them in our country. The swap meets make finding parts cheap and easy. This guy had none of that available to him, and even after all his work, he’s rolling dirty with no paperwork. That’s as chopper as it gets right there, folks.

There’s not an ounce of suck in that story. We may have to trot the globe to find the good stuff in motorcycling, but we’ll ferret it out. Not by ourselves, of course. Turn us on to the stuff we’re missing: