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The Nickle and Dime Express: a Not Really 1946 Harley UL Big Twin Flathead

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  • The Nickle and Dime Express: a Not Really 1946 Harley UL Big Twin Flathead

    Lurking in the back of a garage, shed, or basement of many motorbike enthusiasts is a pile of cast off or spare parts. These parts build up over time – and one day you have to ask yourself the question: What am I doing with this stuff?

    Some people vend, some people trade, and others build Frankenbikes (aka as Bitsas). And that is how the Nickle and Dime Express came to be. The Man says it is a 1946 Harley Davidson UL – but there’s not a lot of 1946 to the bike. Pretty much only the left case and the transmission case are 1946. The rest, well, it’s a story.

    Several years ago, I ran across a screaming deal on a 1958-64 Big Twin frame, swing arm, and a bunch of random parts. The frame was not pristine. Someone had started to cut it up, but thankfully stopped before they got to the rake job. They thoughtfully tacked the cut off brackets back on and then left it for a good long time. So, it was possible to use it on a restoration, but I really bought it to build a rider. When I was done selling the other parts that came with the chassis on fleabay the cost of the frame was zero.

    My initial thought was to track down a complete Panhead motor and build a somewhat correct rider. About the same time, the price of good Pan motors with clean titles went through the roof. I started thinking about what big twin motor I could stuff in the frame on the cheap and a light bulb went on. What about a big twin side valve?

    I made a few phone calls and learned that indeed, it’s not terribly difficult to drop a U series flathead into most post 1936 big twin frames. There’s some tricks, but they do fit fairly well. V series motors present more challenges (and are harder to find complete anyways). So, we had a plan – a cheap big twin flathead in a duoglide chassis.

    Now, at the time, big twin flatties were getting no love and complete motors with paper were going for less than $3000. Today, the story is different and suddenly flatties are worth something to custom builders. I wound up buying a set of mismatched cases from David Sarafan. The left is a clean 1946 UL case that was a snap to get a title for. The right case is a 1939 case and needed some minor motor mount repair. Those of you in the know will say: wait, you can’t match a blind race case to an open race case. Sure you can . . . it just takes some tooling and patience. We’ll talk more about that later.

    I now had a frame and swing arm, cases, and a title. And about now is when I learned that it is much harder to find all the parts to build up a UL motor than you might think. The main challenge at the time was finding cylinders. I lucked into a pair of 1939 ULH cylinders in nearly pristine condition. In another one of those AMCA created moments, Grant Peterson took mercy on me at Wauseon and sold me the cylinders for a very fair price. I now suddenly had a rarity – good, original, 80” cylinders! Yippee!!!

    However, by now I was pushing my budget and decided to raid the spare parts bin. Besides my own lot, I started stalking the $5 and $10 tarps at AMCA meets for beat up and discarded parts. I didn’t have to look for specific years – just parts that would fit and work together. Not dead parts, just ugly parts. By the end of summer I had collected enough parts to start building a custom bike. Everything, including the cases, needed some type of repair. It was clear this was never going to be anything but a rider – so let’s do a custom. Not a chopper, not a bobber – not any of the “kewl” stuff you see too often on TV today. Just a custom bike made out of HD parts left for dead.

    Here’s the initial pile of parts . . .

    46 UL 2.jpg

    46 UL 3.jpg

    46 UL 4.jpg

    46 ULH 1.jpg

    What comes out of the pile is pretty different.

    flat head 80 logo.jpg

  • #2
    bitsa bikes are way easier & tons cheaper to build & just as much fun to ride.
    iv'e got lots of random parts available if you need anything.


    • #3
      I agree. When you have a pile of parts; sometimes a bike just needs to emerge.

      Thanks for the offer. I'm actually finishing up a few details right now whilst stuck on "lock down." Some folks are going to cringe like mad when they read further.


      • #4
        One of the things I've gotten bit on before with assembling a bitsa bike is the straightness of the chassis -- and specifically the motor to transmission alignment. Usually there is a reason a frame wound up as a bare frame.

        I also had to do a lot of work on the frame. The head stock was cut, but not bent for a rake job, tabs were cut off but rough tacked back into place, etc.

        Before I started assembling other parts, I decided to sort these things out first.

        The frame wound up taking about 20 hours of work. It was slightly tweaked from the head stock cut and welding. I didn't have a frame table available . . . so I bolted the frame down to a level concrete floor, heated the neck and twisted it to straight. Then everything got welded back together. Because it was a mess and a half, I decided to mold the frame. Not mold with bondo. Mold with weld and lead. That took awhile and consumed quite a bit of argon and mig wire. I learned three things: 1) I really need to learn to Tig weld; 2) my el cheapo mig welder was barely up to the task; 3) cold welds are bad welds.

        With the frame mostly straightened out, I moved on to checking the case fit. There's a lot of mythology about whether you can easily match non-matching cases. Basically, it comes down to three primary things: 1) do the bores align; 2) do the mount pads align? and 3) do the Cylinder Decks align? It is much more challenging to match two different series of cases. In the case of these cases (all puns intended) we were dealing with a right case that has a blind insert and a left case that has an open. What this means is that in the earlier series, HD used a mandrel to align the main bores. The cases were then put together around the mandrel. These cases also have a master case "stud" at the center and two other precision fit studs in the lower corners. Later cases have open main bores and aligned differently. In theory, it's a mother to make two totally different series align.

        Thankfully, prewar Harley machinists were top notch. The dimensions of the cases are the same -- so centers of bores didn't change, just how they are assembled. But, there's a bit more to it. The two case halves use different diameter bolts/studs. If you ram the wrong size through . . . well, you can crack things. So, I made all the connecting hardware out of 4140 rod and hex stock to match each case half. We then bolted it all together around the right case dowel studs. Surprisingly, the cylinder decks were in .0005 alignment - the motor pads were out .001 and the bore center line was almost spot on. Yeah, HD.

        So, I welded up the cracked mount and decided to go old fashion and hand file it flat. It is better to mill this sort of stuff; but for some reason I can't remember, I wasn't able to use the mill. Anyways, just took our time dressing the mounts. Filing can be enjoyable.




        To mount up the motor, we also had to make up a front spacer plate. With the introduction of the hydra glide -- and in prep for the Panhead motor -- the front motor mount is .380 lower on later big twin frames than earlier ones. So, the flatty requires a spacer plate. HD sold these for retrofitting - and VTwin does a repo. I just made one out of 6160 alloy.

        The motor fit up to the frame nicely and so we focused on making sure the main bores would align with out issue.

        They were quite close. But, it's hard to hone them because of the blind race. You simply can't stroke the hone. So, I decided to go low tech, low budget and slow -- I made custom lapping heads. I bought an ARCO lap in nearly the correct size and then copied the design.

        I made up a tapered insert for the left case half that exactly fit the shank of the lapping head. It was then a matter of slowly revolving the lap for more turns than I care to remember. It was very little material -- but lapping is not fast.




        • #5
          From there, I started sorting through the parts pile and figuring out what I'd use. For several reasons, I decided we'd mix and match parts from the 1930s through the 50s, but as much as possible had to be HD parts. As I went through stuff, I discovered that I had mid-star hub stuff. This meant I could use a later hydraulic brake in the rear and a later hydra fork in the front with the right side drum. Nobody seems to be after right side hydra legs -- so a pair came to me for basically free. Beat up, but mostly free.

          I also scored a seat for .99 cents on fleabay. It was from an early 80s bike and a dual seat. I cut that into a large solo. You can't pass up seats for less than a buck.

          With that decided, I started mocking up different configurations of parts.

          Here are a few first trials:





          • #6
            It may not be so apparent in those mock up photos, but a big twin flathead is actually a pretty trim and compact motor. There's a lot of room in that duoglide chassis. As I added more and more parts, I felt the bike started to look too "heavy" in comparison to the motor.

            I also realized that because I bought "junk" parts of the $5 and $10 tarps, plus my own collection of cast off garbage, that every single part needed some serious attention.

            At this stage, I said to myself: "why not just make the bike light and tight?" Not chopped, just light and tight.

            So, I grabbed a sportster tank off the shelf and started messing with some other sportster parts. Most guys try to make sportster look like big twins by adding fat bobs -- I went the opposite, I wanted to slim down the big twin by using a sporty tank and rear fender.

            Here's a couple of very early fit ups.







            • #7
              I like what you're doing, thanks for bringing us along for the ride!
              Pisten Bulley is Harry Roberts in Vermont.


              • #8
                I was now happy with the more slimmed down tank, but the front end still seemed too wide for the bike. I also have never been particularly impressed with the front drum on big twins. About now, another light bulb went on -- a Triumph twin leading shoe hub uses the same spacing for the brake anchor as HD. It's a different type of anchor, but nonetheless in the right spot. And, we have right side anchor because we went with the later hydra legs. Yippee.

                The width of the forks was dealt with by buying a set of "narrow glide" 39mm trees from a late 1980s Dyna. To make it work, I made up a boring table and a through boring bore for the lathe. It was then just a matter of slowly boring out the 2mm. Well, a little tougher than that, but basically, just opening them up.


                The lower sliders were beat up pretty badly. Lots out gouges and just a mess. BUT -- and it's a big BUT -- the bushings were phenomenal. To deal with the cosmetics would have required some serious, serious sanding before repolishing. Or, filler and paint -- but I just don't like painting alloy fork bits if I don't have to.

                Instead, I decided to commit a mortal sin and shave the legs. Yep, they got mounted in the lathe and whittled down before being repolished.



                I then cut down and rethreaded a standard axle to fit the now narrower profile and spacers to adapt the Triumph hub. I also swapped out the bearings in the hub to fit the HD axle and made up a new inner spacer to suit. The backing plate got a nipple welded onto the brake anchor, which was then drilled and tapped for the anchor bolt. I wound up using a 1968-69 style TLS backing plate because it actuates in a slightly different way from the later series (straight vs. bent linkage) and fits the bike better.




                • #9
                  We also raided the parts bin for a discarded XLCH rear fender, which we used to make a rear fender for the flatty. Mrs. Chuck found an old Mack truck marker lamp at Davenport years ago, which we modified into the rear lamp. I added an 1157 bulb holder so we could have stop and tail light functions -- and made up a reflector to give it some juice.

                  We also decided to use a set of rear shocks/air bags off a later HD, add square floor boards, and some other junk. The front head lamp holder and fork covers were to try an idea; not for the final product. We also beat together a 2:1 exhaust -- the repo exhaust systems don't fit a duo glide chassis. You'll also spot a magneto -- we decided to keep this one minimal, well that and we had a magneto on the shelf.






                  • #10
                    It was then time to start cracking into various details.

                    Because I wound up making more than 2/3rds of the hardware on this bike and almost all of the bracketry, I had a lot of parkerizing to do.


                    I also decided to lace the hubs to borrani-style alloy rims.


                    My late pooch always liked to steal stuff when I was lacing wheels -- the flatty lost a whole wheel to her for a few days.


                    With these little things done, I turned my attention to the chassis. I molded the poor, beat up chassis using lead. Yep, lead. I used Johnson Products lead free body solder (sold commercially through Eastwood). It has a tensile strength MUCH higher body filler. It was a good few weeks of work to mold and finish each joint on the frame. I did use some finishing filler to top off the lead filling and smooth all the transitions. I also added the left rear down tube gusset upgrade and added a second gusset to the right rear down tube. The later DOES interfere a bit with the oil feed line . . . more on that later.

                    I also media blasted everything and prepped it for some outdoor fun in the sun.




                    • #11
                      Most of the bike got sprayed in House of Kolor Jet Black with Kosmic Klear. Two coats of KoSeal (black); 3-4 coats of base; 3 coats of clear.

                      I did spray this chassis outside . . . and only got a few stray things in the rear fender. Sometimes shade tree really does mean shade tree.







                      • #12
                        The chassis went together with almost no trouble. I was unhappy with how low the front end rode; so I added 1 inch longer fork tubes with made the big difference. Like the rest of the bike, I got the tubes on scratch and dent sale for 25% of their original cost. The downside was scratching in the chrome. I can live with scratches for how little I paid for the tubes!

                        I also sent the seat off to a local upholsterer. I asked them to build what amounts to an orthotic seat for me with several different layers of foam and a long nose to support my inner things. In combo with the rectangular floor boards it will better support me when I am working the rocker clutch in traffic. Oh, yeah, I decided to go with a foot clutch -- mostly because it is a flatty and because I haven't had a hand shift bike in quite sometime and don't want to lose what skill I have left! It is not a "suicide" shift -- that's some bogus garbage. This is a true HD rocker clutch. I'm initially going to break the bike in on a ratchet top, jockey lever, but plan to add a police style frame shift and a true hand shift lid in the near future for smoother shifting. Gotta find one for the right price,though!

                        In the mean time, I had to sort out the fuel tank. The sporty tank does not fit directly on the big twin frame. The front does lay over well -- but the rear is too "pinched." The solution was to cut the rear part of the tank off, remove the tabs, and reweld it. I didn't mind doing that to this tank. Longstory made short, I bought it for the original emblems which I used on my 59 sportster. The tank was crushed on the right side all the way into the tunnel and pretty dented on the left. I pulled the dents relatively level, but it was impossible to restore the tank economically. I really should have just cut the tank in half and beaten out the crush damage, but that's another lesson.

                        Instead, I pulled the metal by first silver soldering washers all over the tank. I did that so I would be heating up and cooling the tank a lot to help the metal stretch back into shape. I got about 80 percent of the crush out before the metal started to tear. I then had to weld up all the tears, grind, weld pin holes, etc. The end result was a mostly level but really, really ugly tank. To really seal the heck out of the work, I media blasted the tank and then flowed brass all over the welded up areas. This then got media blasted again to remove any and all slag from the brass flux -- and then a layer of lead was used to seal the brass and provide the main leveling. This DOES make the tank heavy -- but I felt it was a good way to save an otherwise dead tank (well, short of making a whole new side) for a gain of a few ounces of weight. Not to mention, I had all the materials on the shelf so the cost to save the tank was zero dollars. Who has a 59 sporty tank on a big twin swing arm frame with a flathead motor?



                        A smear of body filler finished it off and to paint we went.

                        I "stole" the idea for the paint scheme . . .





                        • #13
                          One thing I didn't take good photos of was the rear fender and struts.

                          It's bad enough I cut the front fender bungs off (still thinking I might weld some one and add a front fender) but there's no way I go for the no rear fender look. Instead, I rotated an XLCH fender forward and made a set of "hidden" struts out of 3/8 rod. I bent the rod around the ID of a standard 16 inch Harley rim -- and it fit the fender curve perfectly. I made up two 1/2" stand offs on each end and bolted them into place to support the fender.

                          To fit the Mack truck lamp to the fender, I screwed the base plate into place and fit the upper unit. One of the cool things is that body solder doesn't stick to alloy. So, I was able to create a custom filler to match the Mack truck lamp countours. The base plate and the lamp now "flow" into the fender in a v-shape that looks like a stamping. It's not -- it's lead. Carefully sanded to shape over many hours!

                          And with that, we assembled a roller.






                          Keep in mind, every part you see here started out as a cast off at a swap meet or acquired in trade. No "good" parts were harmed. The new parts are things like the rims and spokes. Everything but the front hub, head lamp, and tail lamp are HD. If the hardware isn't HD, it means I made it. It's sorta fun what you can make out of garbage :-)


                          • #14
                            In the roller photos, you can see the transmission.

                            This is a standard 4 speed, nothing special. I got the case for almost nothing. It had the adjusting boss busted up and a couple of cracks around the mounting bolts. The gears were trashed from water infiltration and low oil. The vendor tossed in a ratchet top and a box of NOS parts. I think I paid $200 or $250 because it was so ugly. Anyways, I welded up all the damage and when I was done dressing the welds, I decided to polish the case. Spent a winter hand sanding the thing and then buffing it out. We also did the motor cases. Remember, these are not resto cases and had many gouges and dings all over them from decades of neglect. They were also stained enough that you could see the cases didn't match. And the timing cover -- holy beat up batman. It is still kinda ugly after polishing -- but remember that part about using cheap, neglected parts and rebuilding them?

                            Anyways, cases all got polished, cleaned, repaired correctly, glyptaled, and readied for service.







                            • #15
                              And, here's one to make many, many people cringe.

                              Whilst wandering around Davenport, I spotted a gent with an old tool box filled with beat to hell Linkerts. They looked like they lit on fire and someone tried to put it out with a chain whip. Gouges, scratches, burnt paint, and MUD. Old dude knew an M51 was a flatty carb -- looked at me and said, "oh heck no one wants those -- gimme $100." I think I talked him down to $80.

                              Anyways, they should be painted. I suppose I could have filled the gouges and scratches and then painted the body. Instead, I polished out the disease.

                              Yeah, I know . . .





                              The carb was rebuilt using an M51L venturi. Not a repo -- a NOS one I was gifted. Sometimes little miracles happen.

                              The downside is that I polished a carb :-(