The little engine that couldn't: A short saga of the Super Vee

Dec 21, 2016

When it comes to motorcycles, I like the odd ducks.

I’m no match, though, for Paul and Joel at American Cycle Fabrication. You might remember Paul as the man who had those $35 Harleys we wrote about. Recently, I meandered by to see what the boys were up to and what curiosities I could turn up. I walked in the door, and sitting on a bench was the mother lode: a Super Vee.

Nothing gets me going like an abstruse piece of motorcycle equipment, so when I saw this engine parked there, I started pushing people and parts out of my way so I could snap a few photos. You see, I’ve heard of Super Vees, but I’d never actually seen one live and in color. The particular one I saw was a third-generation, the final design ever offered for sale — and the rarest. Approximately 45 were ever sold.

Vee!
Behold the Super Vee, a powerplant with enormous promise that was never realized. Photo by Lemmy.

So what is a Super Vee?

In 1983, Harley was not selling whole engines to custom bike builders. Steve Iorio, who owned an outfit called Nostalgia Cycle, wasn’t really digging that situation, so the Super Vee concept was born. The idea was to create an engine using cheap, easily available small-block Chevy parts, that could power a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. By 1985, the engines were released for sale. Iorio was so bold as to suggest that he was going to unseat Harley and put them out of business. He felt Harley was putting the screws to the workin’ joe, and the Super Vee was the common man’s way to fight back: Engine parts could be had reliably and very affordably from any GM dealership or aftermarket auto parts house.

Vee literature
A factory advertisement for the Super Vee. This ad is fairly late, predating the demise of the company by just a few short years. Nostalgia Cycle image.

Articles published in Supercycle Magazine as early as 1983 helped get the project off the ground. The engine, though primitive, got rave reviews. Nostalgia Cycle even had a phone number customers could call and hear a Super Vee running! Heady stuff for the 1980s. Nostalgia put together a video (which is pretty funny) extolling the virtues of the new mill. Take a peek. (Bonus points for the first reader to count how many times the narrator says "American.")

Everything seemed hunky dory, but there were a few problems. First, did you notice in that video that you never hear the engine settle into an idle? That seems a bit strange, right? Secondly, Supercycle was published by the same guy who owned Nostalgia Cycle, Steve Iorio. Steve had dabbled quite a bit in the motorcycle industry. Those initials may be familiar to some — he used to produce springers under the company name SIE, and hung out with Dick Allen, a motorcycle legend in his own right.

Supercycle 1985
Feast your eyes on letters to the editor from the January 1985 issue of Supercycle Magazine. Seems like these readers were awfully enthusiastic about this new engine, doesn't it? I'm sure this is all on the up-and-up.

Ol' Steve also went by a few aliases, including “Steve Nelson.” In fact, you can read a lovely article the Los Angeles Times wrote about him — using his fake name! The biggest, most glaring problem with Iorio was his character. The biggest, most glaring problem about the Super Vee was its near-universal reputation of being a complete piece of shit.

For those of you who have never purchased a crate engine, let me fill you in on how the process works. You buy the engine, and sometimes you have to install an ignition and a carb. That’s about it. Install it, and hit the starter button.

The Super Vee was different. It did not run well, if at all. Mating Harley-esque cases to a General Motors rotating assembly presented problems. Critical engine parts didn’t always receive enough oil, yet most Super Vees puked plenty outside the engine. In many cases, engines required some disassembly and some additional machining. Many of the engines required an overhaul simply because of awful quality control during manufacture.

Remember, these were being sold to people comfortable pulling a motor. Customers were mechanically inclined and they still hated these things. Ask a few oldtimers who worked on one and they all tell the same tale: the Super Vee was junk. Dick Menke, owner of "The Hawgologist", had the pleasure of tearing one of these beauties down.

“The thing had used con rods in it!" he said. "But they sold ‘em as new.”

In spite of the shortcomings, some folks got their Super Vees up and runnin’. They’re said to be reasonably powerful. Engine size is uncertain. Claimed size is either 93 (painted on the tank of a Nostalgia-built bike) or 94 ci (claimed in their sales literature). If the engines truly use 350 small-block Chevy components and my math is correct, the displacement should be closer to 87 ci or so.

Feed Pumper
By the third iteration of this engine, the Chevy's in-sump oil pump was finally jettisoned, replaced by separate feed and return pumps. Here the feed pump is visible. It's a quick way to identify the very last version of Super Vee. It's estimated that fewer than 50 were produced, so this is a reasonably rare piece of equipment. Photo by Lemmy.

They were claimed to have a 7,000 rpm rev limit. Power output is unknown. Figures in sales literature ranged from 85 horsepower and 80 foot-pounds of torque up to 120 horsepower and 150 foot-pounds. Owner accounts are that the powerplants feel healthy, but they didn’t deliver the “furious power” Nostalgia pitched when the company was in its death throes. Of course, there are plenty of hop-up parts for a mouse motor, so the potential to soup one up certainly exists, though the rarity of the powerplant might preclude that.

As you may have guessed, the fact that these expensive engines ($9,499 was the price near the end of the engine’s life in 1998) were not ready to simply bolt in and run was the kiss of death. Iorio was not moving too many of these engines. (The Los Angeles Times article reported sales of 100 per year. Super Vees appeared to be available from 1985-1998, which is probably consistent with estimates I’ve seen of 250 of these engines surviving in the world.) But the Super Vee had its strong points.

The venerable small-block is liquid-cooled, but the Super Vee was meant to power Harleys. The air-cooled Super Vee dissipated the engine's heat through a large number of fins on the jugs and heads. Removing a liquid cooling system kept the design simple and the wrenching easy. The Super Vee design made use of commonly available parts to keep development and operating costs low. The Chevy (and thus Super Vee) are a 90-degree V, as opposed to a Harley’s 45-degree splay between the jugs, so they run a little smoother due to their inherent perfect primary balance. Because the motor was so long, optional frames (rigid and swingarm) were sold alongside for those who did not want to cut their Harley frame. Interestingly, the mounting bolt footprint for the Super Vee was the same as any Evo-or-earlier Big Twin. The jugs split horizontally from the engine cases that strongly resemble a wet-sump Harley unit.

Chevy rockers and roller lifters were used in Super Vees, as were pistons, rings, and connecting rods. Note that like a Chevy, cylinders are offset from another, not inline. Thus, the Super Vee does not used a “knife-and-fork” conrod arrangement like a Harley. The camshaft was claimed to be designed by racing great Ed Iskenderian (of Isky Cams). Generation I Super Vees used a Chevrolet timing cover.

Stator side of Vee
Some interesting things can be seen here. First, note the Shovel-style left case. This Super Vee will gladly use the whole electrical system from any Big Twin Harley from 1970 through 1999. Note also how rough and inconsistent the casting quality is in the intake manifold runners. Photo by Lemmy.

The Generation III engine you see here is significantly different from the first-gen motors. It was designed to accept a Shovel-style ignition in a custom timing cover. The ignition was specially made by Dynatek to deal with the different firing needs of the 90-degree splay. (Kind of seems silly to use one-off parts, doesn’t it? Avoiding them was the whole point of the engine!) The case is machined to use standard Shovel or Evolution stators and rotors for electrical power. The Gen III engine was the final form ever sold.

Jim Fedor
Jim Fedor shows off his Super Vee-powered motorcycle. Years after his death, Jim is still acknowledged as the man who tamed the Super Vee. Photo by Bobby Fedor.

Jim Fedor, the man who made the Super Vee run

The outfit probably would have folded far sooner if not for a knight in shining armor. Jim Fedor, a machinist who called Ohio home, became a dealer for Nostalgia Cycle, initially ordering three Super Vees. Fedor was one of the few wrenches who identified and repaired the Super Vee’s defects from rushed design and less-than-careful assembly. Everyone seemed to think a running Super Vee was like Bigfoot — no more than legend — until Fedor took a crack at them.

Owners beat a path to Fedor’s door. Jim has since died, but his wife Louella was deeply involved with her husband’s business and is well aware her spouse was probably the foremost authority on the Super Vee in the world.

“Oh, they all sent him the engines," she recalls. "We got them from the West Coast, from Oregon... from British Columbia and one showed up from Sweden!”

No matter what shape they were in, Jim would get them sorted out. He attempted to work with Iorio to fix some of the design flaws, but Louella recalls there being a lot of friction between the two men, no matter how passive Jim was when broaching the topic.

“He never wanted to offend Steve, but Jim knew there were big problems with the Super Vee,” she says.

Finally, Iorio terminated Fedor as a dealer, but by then it didn’t matter. Jim was the recognized King of the Super Vee, the guy who could reliably fix ‘em up and make ‘em run. And Iorio? He got out of the game in 2001 and sold to a fellow named John Olevich, who produced a fourth generation of the engine with revisions strictly for internal testing purposes. A fifth-gen engine was in the works, but never got off the ground. By 2002, the operation was belly-up.

Super Vee pamphlet.
Jim Fedor's booklet is still available for those eccentric enough to tackle a SuperVee. Photo by Spurgeon Dunbar.

The story reads almost like a fiction novel, but the end of the Super Vee's production isn’t the end of the story. When I was talking to Louella, she told me something interesting.

“I get calls now and then about the Super Vee and I always try to help the owners, because that’s what Jim would have had me do,” she says.

And the biggest help is probably the piece Jim wrote and printed, with diagrams and notes for other machinists to use when putting a Super Vee together. It's probably a cross between a very short book or a really long pamphlet, but it's well written, funny, and has technical drawings that should prove to be really, really helpful to a Vee rebuilder. Jim outlines his trials and tribulations, and couples that with the type of fix-it knowledge that only could come from a man who spent his life as a machinist.

Louella still has copies left, and sells them for $20. I’m putting mine on my bookshelf, because I believe in owning a well-rounded moto-library, and these books won't be available forever. Jim's hard-won information might be all that's left to help a hapless owner get a bike on the road.

Louella asked I post her address so people searching for help can obtain a booklet, a request I am happy to comply with.

Louella Fedor
10555 Peck Rd.
Mantua, OH 44255

Once Paul over at American Cycle Fabrication gets to work, a Super Vee will live. Because of Jim’s dedication, all of them can.