Biker's Choice
Nat'l Motorcycle Museum

The Perfect Restoration

(And What It Can Really Cost)

By Marty Marks

Only on the Web It was a beauty; a 1935 VLD Harley-Davidson. All the parts appeared original, and best of all ... it kicked over! This sweet rumble of success sent his adrenaline pumping.

He could be in love again. It was the closest feeling he could compare it to. He'd purchased his Harley in November of 1996. Things were cool, but dry, and he managed a few practice rides around the block. This was a whole new way to ride and he was looking forward to mastering it. When one rode a 1935, they knew they were "riding a motorcycle," they were an integral part of the machinery and, in this case, the caretaker to a piece of motorcycle history. With snow falling, time off work for the holidays, and the luxury of a heated garage, it didn't take long for the bike to become reduced to a skeletal state. The previously intact bike now became segregated piles; engine, frame, fenders, tanks, along with the "needs to be chromed, cadmium plated, parkerised, and painted" piles. Bolts, washers, and screws were strung on wire, tagged and labeled.

Steve Slocombe's Buying And Restoring A 1930-36 Harley-Davidson Big-Twin became his bible. Yellow highlighter was his tool of choice to decipher the details that would make his bike a totally correct showcase bike, right down to the smallest detail. Photos and correspondence with Mr. Slocombe were invaluable. Correct barrels and heads, the exact color of paint for that particular year, and the many intricate details that had to be right were gathered and logged into a spiral notebook bearing his greasy fingerprints. An occasional spot of red from a scraped knuckle was the trophy for his ongoing work.

Eventually the snow began to melt, leaving the roads clear and giving way to jarring potholes pitting the streets. Spring began introducing the deep, unmistakable throaty sound of the Harleys that were up and running. To him, the sound is a sign of spring, more so than the birds that were beginning to return to warmer weather, but much sweeter. Sweeter, except that there would be no rumbling from his '35. Where had the time gone? When did winter give way to spring? When did spring surrender to the heat of summer that gave riders a tan in the shape of a tank top?

His bike was still a work in progress. It was not at the stage he had anticipated. By now the garage door was open wide. The heat from the furnace had been replaced with the searing heat of summer. It sent beads of sweat sliding down his temples as he took a mental inventory of the work still ahead. This was fine. Summer would offer swap meets and gatherings of the antique motorcycle community. Information, expertise, and maybe a few of those elusive parts, like front and rear crash bars, and a center stand that would put him just a little closer to putting together that perfect, totally correct to the smallest detail, 1935 VLD "show-bike."

Summer did produce a few of those small increments of restoration. Unfortunately, summer did not offer an increase in finances to fund his project. Chrome was costly, a perfect paint job would be expensive, and yes, there were still parts and accessories needed to make this bike absolutely perfect.

With the responsibility of two daughters, one on the heels of college, and a wife, he conceded that this might not be happening any time soon. He pulled his ace out. "FOR SALE: 1971 FLH with Super-glide front end, fresh engine and transmission, all receipts, low mileage, runs great." This would be a small price to pay to reach his ultimate goal: a totally correct 1935 VLD show-bike. When, and just as soon, as his '71 sold he'd get things finished up. But, a flooded market hindered his solution.

Seven cold and blustery Indiana winters came and went. The '71 kept the disassembled '35 company in the garage. He kept the thermostat set just warm enough to keep cold and moisture away. Occasionally he would wander out, wipe the dust off, and check the charge on the FLH's battery. The love he once had for his first Harley had changed. He now viewed it as no more than a stumbling block to his plan for the 1935. He refused to put a much-needed rear tire on it, which kept him from riding at all. "The new owner can replace the tire," became his mantra.

If motorcycles were children, a sibling rivalry would have surely developed out in that garage. The '71 was being taken care of, not out of love, but to be sure it maintained a saleable state. The pieces of the '35 were stroked, handled, and praised for what they would grow up to be.

He knew in the spring of 2004 that this would be the year. The promise of warmer weather rejuvenated his optimism. His '71 would sell and he would finally be able to afford the correct restoration on his '35. He was ready to get the ball rolling once and for all. Hopes were high and the dream was once again on its way to that perfect, totally correct, 1935 VLD. All was good.

But all was not good. "You have cancer. These are your options, make a choice and don't wait too long to make it." The words from his doctor sent him reeling, the '35 was the last thing occupying his thoughts now.

The spring and summer consisted of surgery, recovery, relapse, and at last, a clean bill of health ... and along with that, a second chance. An opportunity to reevaluate life, its priorities, and the fragility of it.

Two thousand four was the year. It was the year that he stopped working 60 hours a week, the year that he let go of the compulsion that his '35 had to be perfect, that his '71 had to sell, and understood that life is now ... not when.

The fall started with parkerization of parts, forget the chrome, forget the cadmium plating, and all of a sudden he seemed to realize that the bike would run void of that perfect paint job. It gave way to a good primer and some spray paint. The self-imposed chains were gone. After eight years he was ready to move forward.

The snow returned and the furnace breathed heat into the garage once again. It became his second home. His work area became alive and animated. Friends, well versed in the antique motorcycle arena, filtered in and out. Some with sand blasted parts, others with needed tools and engine stands, some lending an extra pair of hands, and all bringing encouragement. He'd even seemed to lose his resentment towards his '71. It kept his '35 and him company as piece by piece life was coming back, not only to the '35, but in a way, also to him.

It's early winter, time off for the holidays once again, with 2005 waiting patiently. His spiral notebook lays open and his labor of love is announced each time he wipes off another bloody knuckle with a shop rag.

In the spring of 2005 he will hear that deep throaty rumble of his 1935 VLD as new potholes pepper the roads. It won't be that perfect, totally correct trophy winning restoration. But he will feel his heart keeping rhythm with the engine as he kicks it over. His first ride out into the moist spring air will make him feel alive, living in the moment, even without that expensive paint job. He's taking what life can offer him now, not when. Once again summer will grace him with a suntan in the shape of a tank top.

Summer turned fall, fall to winter, and winter to spring; and it came to pass that 2005 was not the year. But 2007 was. On July 14, 2007, family and friends caught glimpse of a flash of blue speeding past the driveway. The '35 VL was up and running, its proud owner beaming with a smile radiant enough to rival the shine of new chrome in the sunlight. Five days later both bike and owner were on the road to Wauseon to display what 10 years of hard work and determination had produced. Of course now, etched in the bright blue paint, shining from the antique headlight, and written in the old leather seat were stories. Stories that only a privileged few would ever know. These were stories of frustration and tears, triumph and satisfaction, stories of near-death and near-failure. The saddest of which was overshadowed by perseverance and tenacity. I remember listening to the laboring mechanics as they struggled with the engine laid out before them. "I don't know anything about engines, Wayne," his friend Mitch confessed, "but I do know you've got to do life before life does you." The complete 1935 VL in our garage today is testament to this, and other bits of wisdom that come from building a dream.