This is Our Family: Steve’s Sporty Story
The Essence of 23 Years.
By Steve Walker.
I bought my new Harley from Morgan & Wacker on 20/4/1990. Today I rode it to work. And yesterday. And the day before that.
Last year I rode it out to Come By Chance. A few years ago to Cape Tribulation, then up to Cooktown then out to Laura and home.
It was the bike I lusted after as a young man in the 1970’s; a couple of my mates had Ironhead Sportsters while I rode around on a BSA. I got there when I was 37, after riding Nortons for a dozen years.
I drove down to Morgan & Wacker with a couple of mates and ten grand in my pocket. Pre-delivery had not been finished so I shouted them lunch at the Breakfast Creek Hotel and they tried to convince me to spend the cash in other interesting ways.
I rode it out of the shop and put in on the highway home to Obi Obi and yes, I admit it, “Get your motor running, head out on the highway” was running through my head as I reached up to the bars and opened the throttle.
Twenty-three years and over three hundred and eighty thousand kilometres and it still puts a smile on my face every time I fire it up. It has been a constant presence in my life during that time, wrapped around the memories of all the good and bad times of a life.
Winning the top street bike class at the eighth mile Aratula Dirt Drags in 1990, standing on stage holding up the trophy and shouting “Sportsters Rule” to a big crowd of mostly committed big twin owners, six of whom I had beaten on the strip, one of them twice. First on his Panhead, then when he went and got his Softail, shutting him down again. The shout was greeted by stony silence. The brass plate from the trophy is riveted to my air cleaner still.
Or on the road at midnight on those times when the black dog seems to be chewing at your life and soul, with the words of every sad song that Ben Nichols ever wrote and sang sounding in your brain until the lazy rhythm of the motor and the road and the glory of a full moon over a peaceful country landscape oozes into your heart. And while life has not changed, you can make peace with it and turn for home again.
The quiet times of taking my daughter Jess on the school run every day, after her legs grew long enough to reach pillion pegs and she graduated from being a sidecar passenger in the old Honda four outfit I also had then, singing along with her as we covered the country back roads to school or home.
Or on now rare trips to the city, playing in the traffic with 1200 cc of torque to make everything easy, while the high bars and flame paint and manic grin improve all round presence in the traffic stream, bellowing along with long dead Jim: “Driving down your freeways, midnight alleys roam….. LA woman.”
Did I mention that I had a wonderful time in the seventies?
Or the memories of the long trips and the many miles, the anthill country along the road to Laura, the looming rainforest on the Daintree to Bloomfield road, the golden afternoon light as Jess and I followed the path of the Ben Hall gang, from Ben’s burial plot at Forbes to the quiet village then full of ripe plums on the street trees where Flash Johnny Gilbert rests in the grounds of the derelict police barracks; the sand country along the Darling near Louth where every metre was a struggle to hold the bike up, almost as much of a struggle as the trip to Fraser Island was.
The flame paint job arrived for my fortieth birthday and has acquired a lot of patina in the twenty years since. A hefty dose of patina arrived in February this year when I miscalculated crossing a local flooded causeway on Kidaman Creek at night in heavy rain and was washed off. I have crossed that road with water over it every summer for the last thirty years, but forgot that since last time I had fitted a Fatboy solid wheel to the back, vastly increasing the water pressure against it. It is a metre drop off the edge of the crossing onto jagged rocks so I kicked clear as we went over the edge, bidding the old friend good-bye as I bounced off the bottom of the creek, laughing under water thinking “A bloke could drown doing this”, coming to the surface and swimming for the bank. Boots, leather jacket, waterproofs, oilskin coat, helmet and backpack do make swimming at night difficult. After climbing out into overhanging tree branches and making my way back upstream to the road, I stood in the dark looking at the creek and wondering just how far the bike would be dragged.
Then walked the three kilometres home in the dark and rain.
Three days later the creek had dropped far enough to see the tip of a handlebar peeping up bravely above the water. It was half buried under a gravel bank that had built up around it. See the rescue photos taken by Dennis Woodford. A crew of good mates assembled and got it out and back home for me and three frantic days of work followed, flushing out the crankcase, primary and gearbox, hosing out the switches, solenoid and speedo, drying everything out with compressed air. I put 4 litres of WD40 through the spray gun and three days after it emerged from the water, the engine roared in defiance again, followed by four oil and filter changes in quick succession.
So many memories. Some of them are highpoints of a life; some of them are just the everyday background. But all intense, owning a Harley Sportster is about intensity after all. There is nothing bland about them.
By now it is like an old dog you can’t bear to have put down; it needs me to take care of it as no one else would bother. It has bent me to suit its needs. After reaching to the one bend of handlebars for 23 years, for at least an hour most days, my arms don’t hang straight by my sides anymore, the rotator cuffs in the shoulders and the tendons hold them bent.
I live down five kilometres of dirt road, with a steep dirt track a kilometre and a half long for a driveway, so it’s always covered in mud or dust. I live on tank water, so it doesn’t get washed a lot. I can live with that. I generally put a big Superglide front mudguard on in summer when the mud is around, and a smaller one for winter. The twenty-one inch front wheel makes it steadier on dirt roads.
Morgan & Wacker did a full engine rebuild on it in 1999 at 220,000 kilometres. I stripped the gearbox out of the cases, carried the engine into the workshop and said “Fix whatever needs fixing, send me the bill”. The engine they built was a screamer, with hot cams, and enough power to cause clutch slip as the revs rose.
By now it’s getting tired again. I could throw a thousand dollars at it without seeing any difference. A couple of lifters are a bit rattly when hot, there is more piston slap than I like. The top end rebuild to fix these will cure a couple of oil leaks, and tell me if the cams are worn. If they are, throw more money at it for cams and cam bearings and bushes.
After so many years the aftermarket has a firm grip on it, S and S this, Barnett that, Andrews, Vulcan Engineering, Crane, Willbrook Racing, they all own a piece of it, but the soul of it is still pure Harley Sportster.
Sportsters got better and better as the years passed. The latest ones are brilliant. The 72 is the distillation of everything I wanted mine to evolve towards.
A big motor, small tank, small seat, a couple of wheels and not much else. All loud and proud. This is all cliché that has been said since 1956, but is still true. If you want a knuckleduster engine, the art and science of making Sportsters go faster is well established, starting with Screaming Eagle and going up to almost 100 horsepower if you pour in the money.
Sixteen inch rear wheel, twenty one front, high bars, I’ll have one like that thanks. Supersize it to 1200cc, a side serve of flame paint or big metalflake and chrome. No, I don’t want fries with that, only the lean meat.
Take a test ride on one. If you don’t like it, make a medical appointment and have them check for signs of life.