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OLD YELLER: Still A Viable Street Machine

This little Yellow Bobber sold for above $15,000 dollars at a recent Mecums auction

by Buck Lovell with photos from Buck Lovell

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Way back when men were men and sheep were afraid and political correctness had yet to rear its ugly head, motorcycle riding was the venue of a select crowd of rough and ready men and even few rough and ready, excitement craving women. Most motorcycles in America in the early 1950s were no nonsense, kick-start only iron with few if any frills or comfort features as we have today. America’s modern super-speed interstate highway system wasn’t even a twinkle in President Eisenhower’s eye, and gasoline was less than 15 cents per gallon almost everywhere across the Unites States. Two wheeled motorcycles were economic, fair-weather transportation for those men and women who loved the sun on their face and the wind in their hair!

No one can possibly ever know exactly when the first Harley-Davidson or Indian motorcycle became a custom chopper or bobbed street machine, but it is most likely that the stripped street bike trend started during the 1950s, at least that’s the most popular theoretical consensus.

Young, boisterous, motorcycle riding men who had recently returned from wartime duty in either the European Theatre or Pacific Theater were riding American war surplus machines that were both inexpensive and plentiful, those two adjectives almost always appearing in the same descriptive zone. Local small town motorcycle race tracks with dirt or clay surfaces attracted hundreds of thrill seeking spectators like flies to the proverbial dog poop, and those young men were eager and unafraid to risk their necks for a few dollars and small, dinky but shiny trophy on any weekend they weren’t required to be at their place of employment.

Most of the motorcycles competing in these local events were actually ridden to the racetrack in street form, then laboriously stripped of all unnecessary equipment. They were then ridden in competition rounds on dry dusty dirt tracks, only to have that same street equipment reinstalled for the ride home. My personal theory is that on many occasions that street equipment somehow did not get re-installed, with the owner rider deciding that the stripped (chopped or bobbed) version was just plain faster and more fun to ride without all that extra weight. Just a theory but it works for me.

The motorcycle seen here is a 1942 Harley-Davidson WLA was purchased sometime in the early part of this millennium. Historical facts about the origin of this machine are scarce, but I discovered this machine was purchased from an unknown seller who offered it for sale on E-Bay. That being said, it is not known who actually customized the motorcycle, but whoever did, seemed to want to emulate the kind of machine that would probably have been seen in the mid 1950s.

Take a long, studious look at this two-wheeler. If you’ve been riding motorcycles for more than 30 years you might just think, “that’s just a Harley-Davidson flathead 45. No power, I’d rather ride an overhead valve machine.” At least you might have thought that way back then. My mind-set was exactly like that 30 years ago when I was just starting my riding career. Times have changed and so has my thinking and opinion when it comes to two-wheeled things.

When I look at this motorcycle with my now somewhat experienced and mellowed riding perspective, I see a machine I would love to ride almost anywhere just for fun. At first glance it looks to be a genuine example of one of the early chopper, bobber motorcycles of the early 1950s, but a longer look reveals the modern electrical equipped installed contradicts that initial assessment.

This Harley-Davidson motorcycle is either a Chopper or Bobber depending upon your point of view. You say tomato, I say toe-motto. Bobber or chopper….I like it!

World War II surplus Harley-Davidson WLs and WLA model 45 cubic inch motorcycles were very reliable when not abused and when subjected to a regular maintenance routine including oil changes, tappet adjustments, and wheel/frame greasing routine.

The machine pictured here has had aluminum alloy cylinder heads installed, which results in a much cooler running motor when compared the standard cast iron cylinder heads. That rear wheel foot brake is mechanically actuated, as is the front brake (cable). A modern solid-state voltage regulator receives charging voltage from a late style two brush generator and delivers it to the battery. That tungsten filament headlight is OEM Harley-Davidson, no L.E.D. thingy here. An unmodified Harley-Davidson single down-tube rigid frame keeps everything organized. The three speed gear-box was/is standard with an optional 3-speed with reverse available for the three-wheeled 45 used by parking enforcement personnel of many municipal police departments. The foot clutch is of the “toe down engaged variety” whereas Indian motorcycles were exactly the opposite as stock being functioning as toe down disengaged units.

Harley-Davidson WLs were/are perfect for Black Hills South Dakota riding out on the miles and miles of unpaved county roads. The fat 5:00 X 16 wheels and tires have a large contact patch. The Springer front fork is perfect for dirt riding not being afflicted with the “sticktion” characteristics of a hydraulic-tube front ends. Smooth comfortable riding is supplied by that big butt tractor seat common to rigid frame machine as stock. Oh yeah, I almost forgot, that taillight is a Crocker manufactured component that looks awesome here, putting out plenty of light given the twelve conversion the electrical system has experienced.

This little Yellow Bobber sold for above $15,000 dollars at a recent Mecums auction. I considered this an astounding amount of money for a motorcycle that may have purchased for less than $50.00 when originally sold to the public. It is what it is, and the buyer here got his money’s worth.

If you’re looking to build a motorcycle resembling a vehicle of the late 1950s or early 1960s this may be a good machine to use a reference. Good luck in your search for early Harley-Davidson WLA or WL parts, they are becoming scarce as hens' teeth!

Chance of a lifetime. Click and join.
Chance of a lifetime. Click and join.


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Reader Comments

Kool, (quintessential) 'Bobber'

el Waggs
San Luis rey, CA
Tuesday, July 18, 2023

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