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Common Tread

There's no such thing as a suicide shifter

Jan 11, 2018

The pattern of hand and foot controls common to bikes sold in this country was standardized by the U.S. government (for better or worse) in 1975. 

Prior to that, though, manufacturers took a few different approaches to controls over the years, and creative individuals also had their say in things. You'll sometimes hear someone reference one of these setups as a “suicide shifter.” They are usually trying to convey the point that the motorcycle’s gears are changed with the rider’s hands rather than the left foot, but in my opinion the correct term is suicide clutch.

There are important distinctions between the two main approaches to hand-shifting: factory and hot-rod individual. The safety of either system could be debated, but understanding their differences explains the language… and the story and rationale are pretty interesting. Depending on who you ask, there are either two or three requirements to a setup for it to properly be called a suicide clutch. Let's start at the beginning (or close to it).

First requirement: modified clutch

We’ll use Harley-Davidson Big Twins as an example simply due to their relative longevity in the market. Early Harleys had no transmission — the engine drove the rear wheel directly via a leather belt. The earliest attempts at power interruption simply used a pulley as a crude form of a clutch to keep the motorcycle from stalling each time it was stopped. The pulley, controlled by a lever, was used to apply tension to the belt. In order to allow the engine to run free (instead of stalling when the bike was brought to a stop), the tension was released and the belt was permitted to simply slip. Since the drive side of the engine (and thus the wheel) were on the left side of the bike, the tensioning lever was placed on that side of the bike, near the fuel tank.

When Harley put the three-speed trans into use in 1915 (carrying through into the four-speeds), the tensioning lever morphed into a gear selector lever. Clutching duties were now handled by the left foot with a heel-toe pedal. Here’s where things get interesting. A factory Harley foot clutch pedal operates a bit differently than most riders would expect: the clutch pedal stays where it is left in its travel, due to its “over center” design (plus some friction discs and a spring of sufficient strength to overcome the strength of the clutch plate springs). Over center linkages are used to keep a mechanism at the extreme end of its travel — just like you’d need with a clutch.

'48 Pan
The heel-toe clutch and tank shifter and gate are visible on this 1948 Harley. Photo by Panhead Jim.

Thus, the clutch stays engaged when the foot is removed from the pedal, allowing the rider to subsequently use the left foot to hold up the motorcycle at a stop. Similarly, when the clutch is disengaged, the pedal stays disengaged when the foot is removed. Thus, a rider’s left hand was free to shift gears with the shifter, located in a notched “gate” up on the tank.

It’s not uncommon to hear a rider on an old Harley-Davidson yell “Toe to go!” to himself. (Toe down disengages the clutch.) Indians were flipsy-daisy; those are “heel to wheel.” (Toe down engages the clutch.) Note that the factory arrangement is generally referred to as a foot-clutch setup and the shifter is referred to as a tank-shift or handshift. A factory tank-shift bike is most certainly not suicidal!

Foot clutches and hand shifters were changed by hot-rod riders, but they were modified by different people in different times for different reasons. Let’s start with the foot clutch, as that was chronologically the item that got changed first. As parts wore in the clutch pedal assemblies, some riders would simply back the friction discs off entirely, because a worn clutch pedal could and would vibrate and “pop,” sending the rider into oncoming traffic. (Here’s where the “suicide” moniker comes into play.) Riders would simply fight the clutch spring tension instead and get the bike into neutral for stops, banging into gear only when ready to fly — much as you’d do nowadays in a manually shifted automobile.

Here's a good example of a suicide clutch. It's not a rocker clutch and it automatically returns to the engaged position. Photo by Lemmy.

Hot-rod riders also shitcanned the system to get off the line a bit quicker and to ensure that the clutch did not engage during a race. They’d rework the clutch, removing the friction discs and pedal “over center” spring that keeps the pedal engaged, as well as the pedal, generally keeping only half the setup and cutting the other half of the dual pedal off. There were a few different ways to go about this, but the commonality was snappier clutch action that allowed riders to get the bike rolling much more quickly for stoplight-to-stoplight fun. Thus, the spring-loaded clutch was born and put into use on a motorcycle.

Jack Jackson on his '49 Pan.
Jack Jackson aboard his 1949 Pan. Photo courtesy of Jackson family.

I asked rider Jack Jackson about it. When Jack was in the Navy, he bought a 1949 Panhead… in 1949! He ran that bike with a suicide clutch pedal for a little bit. “Well, when you’re 19, you try everything,” he told me. “The problem was when you came to a stop, you could use your right foot to hold up the bike. But if you had to suddenly use your left foot, you could pop into traffic if you were in gear! I didn’t keep it that way for long.” (Jack didn’t cut his pedal. Perhaps he was a bit more prudent than some others.)

Second requirement: hand-shifter

The go-fast solution for blazing-fast shifts is familiar to you: footshift. By 1952, all Harley Ks were foot-shift, and it was an option on Big Twins. Suspiciously, the factory setups bore some resemblance to aftermarket products that had been used for years to convert bikes to this way of changing gears. 

Aftermarket speed parts are hardly a new invention. Manufacturer advertisement.

The B&H Footshift, the Thoro Speed Shift, and the Speed-E-Shift were probably some of the best known units. (The Speed-E-Shift was cool because it also took care of actuating the clutch. There was a little lever that went to the handlebars that would be held down for downshifting, allowing the mechanism to operate in reverse, after the race was over.) 

“The Speed-E-Shift was mainly for drag bikes," says Harley-Davidson historian and former dealership owner Chris Haynes. "It didn't perform well for street use. My old friend Andy Verrone, who owned Santa Monica Harley-Davidson, told me the B&H appeared in the post-war Knuckle era.”

(The H-D “clutch booster,” or mousetrap, that came on the early footshift bikes, looks a lot like the unit found on a B&H.)

Now, getting back to suicide: the classic suicide setup is a jockey shift, which came into vogue years after footshifting. Converting to jockey shift (from tankshift) involves removal of the tank shifter and all associated linkage, and then fabricating a shifter arm that attached directly to the transmission’s top. The name came about because in order to select a different gear, the rider must reach down and back, behind the left leg to reach the lever. This gives a similar appearance to a jockey flogging his horse. It also gave rise to the colorful and descriptive term “ass-scratcher,” which you’ll hear from the old-timers now and again.

Shifting directly off the trans top did not come about at the same time as the clutch modification. I asked Jack about the dates, and he said, “Had to be later. Either real late '50s or even the early '60s.” At this stage, racers would definitely not have been using a foot clutch.

So if racers had moved on, why did some riders make this change? Choppers. Removal of the big fat bob tanks was part of building a chopper, usually replaced with a smaller unit. Haynes says, “Aftermarket ‘peanut’ tanks made in England were used,” he says. Small tanks from the 125 (colloquially, the Hummer) were also pressed into chopper service. 

Here's a nice factory tankshift setup, but there's no way this would have lasted in the hands of a chopper pilot. All that stuff would have been binned, including the somewhat complex linkages that allow the gears to be selected from the side of the left fuel tank. Photo by Lemmy.

Recall that the left-side fat bob had the bungs to hold the shift gate and shifter in place. The replacement tiny tanks had no provision to retain the shifter linkage. The simple and cheap method to make the transmission function once again was to attach a handle to the transmission’s top, where the shift arm was located. Interestingly, some bikes, like an Indian Scout, came this way from the factory.

Before we progress, a little side note. There are actually a few flavors of Harley Big Twin four-speed transmission. The ones we’ve been talking about up to this point have been handshift units, referred to as “jockey” tops. 

Josh's 45
This isn't dangerous, is it? Photo by Panhead Jim.

In 1952, when footshift was offered by the factory, the transmission top was also produced in a variant known colloquially as the “ratchet lid.” Jockey top transmissions, meant to be actuated through a hand-actuated mechanism, stay where they are placed. First gear and fourth gear locate the shift arm at opposite ends of an arc. Footshift bikes have a ratcheting mechanism that allows the shifter to “ratchet,” or return to the same position every time, just like a modern bike. (And that ratcheting mechanism again bears suspicious resemblance to an aftermarket piece, this time the Thoro unit mentioned earlier. Harley-Davidson wasn’t above lifting a little intellectual property from time to time back then.)

Some riders make a distinction between the two. Bikes set up to shift by hand with a ratcheting trans top are sometimes called “slap” shifters, because a rider can simply whack the shifter with his hand and return it to the handlebars. Chris Haynes mentions that this variety is also known as a “ratchet jockey.”  Either type can be accurately referred to as a hand-shifter or hand-jammer.

Optional third characteristic: no front brake

Now we can get to the heart of the matter. “Suicide” can’t really be applied to a shifter, because shifting with one’s hand ain’t dangerous… the other hand is free to do stuff. The third requirement, no front brake, is thought by many to be the real icing on the cake, because it requires the use of both feet, which presents a balance issue. This part of the recipe is contested, which is why I'm calling it a characteristic, rather than a requirement. (To me, it's a requirement.)

In the chopper’s first heyday, front brakes were often tossed into the scrap heap. Riders began raising handlebar height and extending front ends for better ground clearance. As equipment was modified, the control cables weren’t long enough to bridge the gap between wheel and handlebars. Longer aftermarket versions were not readily available, so simply removing the front brakes was the easiest option.

Squatty 16-inch wheels were often jettisoned to achieve a slimmer look. Tossing the front brake helped dial this look in, and later, spool hubs achieved an even spindlier look because a brake mounting flange doesn’t even exist! Harley front drum brakes were never known for their power or potency, and on a longer wheelbase, the wheel has a tendency to try to “fold up” when front brakes are applied hard. Skinnier wheels exacerbated the problem. Of course, the massive rearward weight bias of the average chopper also contributed to a lack of front brake function.

No brakes!
Hey, wait a minute...where's the brake flange? Photo by Dan Venditto.

Tossing front brakes was so common that as time wore on into the 1960s, commercially available long front ends didn’t generally bother even offering provisions for a brake. Plus, of course, there was the cool factor of being a daredevil.

For many riders, this is a true suicide bike: hand-shifted, with a spring-loaded clutch, and only a rear brake. This precarious arrangement leaves a rider unable to deal with a stop on a grade: It’s not possible to engage the clutch with the left foot, brake with the right, and somehow keep the bike upright as the bike rolls to a stop.

On flat ground, when coming to a stop on this type of bike, one will downshift into neutral coming to the stop, make the stop, put the right foot down and bear the weight of the bike, engage the clutch with the left foot, bang into gear, and then release the clutch. This can get hairy, though, on steeper grades. Many a chopper rider would roll slowly to the stop, keep an eye out for traffic while staying in low gear, then shoot across the intersection if the coast was clear.

Of course, if performing that trick at a red light with oncoming traffic, the result was predictably detrimental. Voluntary installation of such an arrangement was — and often still is — seen as a self-administered death sentence.

One man's favorite setup

I think you need all three to truly be a "suicide" bike. Me? I like bikes when they are set up with any two of these three attributes. All three is a little too hard to ride in close quarters. I personally ride in the city sometimes, where there is a lot of traffic. I like handshift, so I usually don’t compromise on that aspect.

I have set up bikes with handshifters and brakes. Alternatively, I did a motorcycle with a suicide-style clutch and just a rear brake, but controlled it from the handlebar. This allowed me to use my right foot to balance the bike when my left clodhopper was doing clutch stuff, and I simply used my hand to hold the bike from rolling away. There is no denying how clean bare handlebars look, though.

Give it a whirl! It's a little challenging and fun to control a bike in a manner different from what you are accustomed to. Photo by Panhead Jim.

If you have never ridden a handshift or tankshift bike, try it! It’s great fun — provided you are willing to keep your head on a swivel and take a few risks. Just remember to tell yourself “Toe to go!” (Assuming you’re on a bar-and-shield bike, of course.)

Hand-shifting can be suicidal… but it doesn’t have to be.