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Across America on pre-1916 bikes

Published: 17 January 2016

Updated: 12 January 2016

42 riders crossing America. A 3300-mile journey. 3 time zones. No, this wasn’t just another road trip. The bikes were all built before 1916. And they were ridden flat-out, with just 16 days to make the journey 


n the pier in Kitty Hawk, a mile or so from the hill where the Wright Brothers made their first flight, Pete Young was cautiously optimistic. Unlike some of the other bikes around him that had been basket cases a few months ago, Pete’s 500cc Premier single had notched up thousands of miles around his home in the San Francisco area. And unlike some of the other riders, he’d done several 1000-mile rallies on his 1930 Velocette. 

A couple of hours into the inaugural Cannonball Run he was rolling along at half-throttle, 30mph, a speed he reckoned would see him and his bike though the road-trip of a lifetime. 

Then suddenly: bang, bang, bang. Terrible noises from the bottom end. He pulled in the clutch, lifted the exhaust valve, and coasted to a stop somewhere in rural North Carolina; 67 miles down, 3227 to go. This didn’t look good. But Pete wasn’t about
to quit; he started tearing the motor apart at the roadside, before the sweeper truck even arrived to pick him up and take him to the first night’s motel. The race crew carefully deducted a point for each mile he was carried. 

In the motel parking lot, he discovered a broken crankpin. Two local cops stopped out of curiosity, and despite the fact that it was almost midnight, one of them flipped open his phone and called a local machinist. They turned a new one that night. Pete had to truck his bike and fully disassembled motor the full length of the next day’s leg, and reassemble it in another motel parking lot in his second consecutive all-nighter. But on the morning of the third day, his Cannonball Run was still on.

The Cannonball Run, or the Pre-1916 Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run to give it its full name, is the brainchild of Lonnie Isam. His inspiration was Erwin ‘Cannonball’ Baker, who set numerous records for point-to-point rides and drives (including coast to coast in 11 days on an Indian in 1914). But while he knows a thing or two about old bikes (he’s the proprietor of Jurassic Racing in Sturgis, South Dakota), Isam had never organised an epic ride like the Cannonball before. 

Fortunately he had the good sense to team up with John Classen, route master for the Great American Race, a similar event for vintage cars. Between them they came up with rules,
an itinerary and a route. They didn’t retrace any of Cannonball Baker’s transcontinental runs but plotted a course that promised temperate weather (although riders encountered a heat wave in the Midwest, and some heavy rain towards the Rockies). Their transcontinental challenge took in some relatively-easy mountain passes and as few multi-lane highways as possible. It was all paved, though some long stretches of the old Route 66 haven’t been resurfaced for decades (the original surface is a tourist draw in regions that have little else to offer). So some of the kicks on Route 66 included metal fatigue. Dieter Eckel, one of two German competitors, was cruising towards Gallup, New Mexico when the fork on his 1913 BSA broke in half. The fork needed welding and Dieter needed a few Band Aids – a satisfactory outcome considering that his crash left a 186-foot (yes, they measured it) skid mark on the tarmac.

There was only one serious injury on the event. On day five Matt Olsen hit a pothole on his 1913 Sears. The twin started to shimmy, then threw a full-on tankslapping fit, pitching Matt down the road. He broke both bones in his left forearm. That may have encouraged Isam to change the rules by which the event was scored. Initially bikes were divided into three classes. Class I was for single-cylinder, single-speed machines. Class II was for single-speed twins, and Class III was for multi-cylinder, multi-speed bikes. Each class was assigned an average speed target (35, 40, and 50mph respectively) but en route these targets were abolished. “These bikes are temperamental and so are these guys. You can’t put ’em on a schedule. As soon as we did away with that, it ran smooth,” says Isam. Not that anyone was dawdling. The stronger twins and fours cruised at 60mph or more, with some of those total-loss bikes consuming as much oil as gasoline. With the target speeds gone the finishing order was instead determined by miles covered. Two Class II machines and eight Class III machines covered every mile. Amongst those finishers, the order was determined by the age of the machine, using the age of the rider to break ties. Isam chose a pre-1916 cutoff because 1915 was a watershed year both technically and in the number
of manufacturers active in the US. There were 11 manufacturers represented, from three countries. There was one lone Militaire; and one each JAP, Premier, and BSA. 

Most of the riders were at least half as old as their bikes. Fifty were men; two were women. The heroine of the run was Katrin Boehner, who won Class I by covering 3002 miles on the oldest, most primitive, and smallest-displacement bike in the field. Her 1907 250cc JAP ‘Flying Broomstick’ cruised at 40mph and was first off the line most mornings; a resolutely cheerful tortoise that beat most of the hares. Her JAP had a direct belt drive. Every time the bike came to a stop, the motor also stopped. And on the last day’s run to the Santa Monica Pier, she had to tackle over 50 stop signs and traffic lights…

A few competitors had a professional interest in old bikes. There were serious collectors, like Dale Walksler who owns the Wheels Through Time museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, and Buddy Stubbs, who has about 150 vintage bikes
on display at his Harley-Davidson dealership in Phoenix. Shinya Kimura is a renowned customiser – he rode a 1915 Indian similar to one that had been in his family in Japan. And the winner, Brad Wilmarth, is one of the most respected restorers in America.

Brad has owned his 1913 Excelsior for 20 years. He’s added
a very discrete brake, a spoon-shaped lever that drags directly on the front tire, concealed by the front fender. Other than that, the only concession he made was to fit aluminium pistons with an oil ring (the motor originally had iron pistons with compression rings only). He relied on the original connecting rods, but had to make a new crankpin to account for big-end wear. 

The Excelsior had a more advanced oiling system than that of the Harley-Davidsons making up most of the field. The crankcase only held about two ounces of oil. With the engine running and up to temperature the oil was essentially vaporised. A dripper delivered several drops a minute to the main bearings. Wilmarth drained his crankcase every other fuel stop. “The goal,” he told me, “is to regulate the dripper so that when you drain it, you’re removing the same amount you started with.” He also added an ounce of two-stroke oil to each gallon of gasoline. On average, he used about a quart of oil per day, less than many of the Harleys. 

“To prepare for the run, we balanced the motor twice,” he told me. “The first time we balanced it, it had a vibration right at the speed I wanted to ride. So we took it apart and tried a different balance factor, so it was smooth at 47-50 mph.” The only problems he encountered were a leaking fuel tank (a larger capacity unit that he built specially for the event, and which was replaced with the original at the half-way point) and a cracked copper fuel line – “I’d anticipated that, and had a spare in my toolbox on the bike. I took the cylinders to my machinist, to have them bored out a little and honed for the new pistons,” Brad said. “He called me up and asked, ‘What are these things made of?’ I think the Excelsior was just a really good bike.”

Typical of the Harley-Davidsons taking part was Joe Gardella’s 1914 single-speed, built with a mix of period performance parts and some decidedly modern touches. The frame was welded together from the best bits of a couple of frames. Parts were sourced from far and wide – New Zealand, Canada, and anywhere in between. What Joe couldn’t source he manufactured, like the flywheels, connecting rods, crankpin, pinion shaft and sprocket shaft. The flywheel assembly was set up for 61 cubic inches, so Joe stroked the engine mildly to 66 inches, letting him run a larger crankpin for a more durable bottom end. The Schebler carb was modified to house a bigger throttle body, the cylinders were modified to take the bigger manifold and Joe made titanium intake valves and installed high-compression pistons. The rocker-arm ratio was changed to the ratio Harley used in 1914 on its race bikes. In 1915 they adopted that ratio for the street bikes, too. The valve pockets are made of copper-nickel alloy to fit the hard-coated titanium valves. They’re flowed, with
a four-angle grind. The bike used a Honda dirt bike brake, and modern rims and tyres. The lower frame rails were fabricated from chrome-moly tubing to deal with the increased stresses brought about by the upgraded wheels, tyres and brakes. The front fork is off a 1916-1923 bike, so they’re a little bit newer, and the fork has booster springs, which were an option in ’23. “I’ve had it close to 70mph,” said Joe, “and it had plenty more. I’ve never opened it up; I haven’t even hit the stop on the throttle yet.” The machine covered all but eight miles of the run, but that was enough to push him down to third in Class II, and 12th overall. If it had been an outright race things would have been different. 

The Cannonball Run must have set some kind of record for the longest motorcycle rally for the oldest bikes. As Dale Walksler noted, “Sure these bikes would go 55mph when they were made, but in 1915 there wasn’t a road in the United States where you could ride that fast for more than a few minutes.” Arthur Davidson, Bill Harley, Oscar Hedstrom and Bill Henderson never envisioned their creations hammering across the US at 55mph for hundreds of miles at a stretch. And yet the majority of the 42 machines covered more than half the distance under their own power (10 of the ‘finishers’ were actually trailered most of the way.) By the time they reached the Rockies, the most fragile bikes had dropped out, and the bikes that had been put together at the last minute had finally been shaken down. Sitgreaves Pass, in Arizona, is reckoned to be the most dangerous stretch of Route 66. Riders were offered the opportunity to trailer their machines down to the flats, but none took it.

The run passed through countless small towns – an impromptu and ragged parade on faded Main Streets. It avoided strip malls and Wal-Marts. They didn’t just travel across the country, they also travelled back in time. For 3294 miles a group of guys who were young – compared to their motorcycles – crashed and caught fire; fixed innumerable flat tires (including one caused by a total-loss motor spraying so much oil onto the rear tire that it just slipped off the rim); overcame an epidemic of bad magnetos; and more than once banded together to rebuild bikes from the crank up. It was, flat out, the coolest vintage event ever held in the US.

As for Pete Young, he had a few more problems: a blown clincher tyre, a screw that backed out and punched a small hole through the cases – he fixed that at the roadside with duct tape. But there was only one more ‘zero score’ day when his drive pulley broke and, again, a nearby machinist came to the rescue.

Most days he put in all the miles, riding 2173 miles in 16 days on a 97-year-old bike. His motor seized 10 miles into the last leg, but he refused a lift; he poured a quart of oil into the top end and rocked the back wheel back and forth until it loosened. Yes, he was one of the last to arrive at Santa Monica pier, but he finished under his own power. As he put it in his blog, “There was a reason that no pre-’16 rallies had been done this way. It was damn hard.” 

Lonnie Isam was as sunburned and exhausted as the riders. “It’s been better, even, than I hoped,” he said. “The riding’s been great, the roads have been beautiful, and the camaraderie – people getting together to work on each others’ bikes – that’s the best.”

Words Mark Gardiner Photography Michael Lichter

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