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VANISHING BREED

In a few years if a collector wants to keep the old stuff running he may have problems

Photos and text by Bill May
11/6/2021


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I am basically a gear head. I have always been in love with the internal combustion engine. They fascinate me, especially old ones. My dad taught me four cycle theory when I was about 7. I watched him overhaul his flathead Ford in 1952. The truck was only two years old and ran fine. I don’t know why he wanted to overhaul it. He had to pull it with the tractor to get it started because it was so tight. It ran fine after that though. Dad was a natural mechanic and I guess I got it from him. He was trained on tanks and other military hardware in the army.

Corp Andrew May on right somewhere in Europe.
Corp Andrew May on right somewhere in Europe.



He landed at Normandy and fought all the way to Berlin with Patton. I found out years after he passed away he had to clean bodies out of tanks and salvage parts to keep them running at the Battle of the Bulge. He never talked about that stuff to me.


He got dysentery that winter (1944). Colon cancer killed him in 1961. I’m pretty sure that affected the cancer.

Calif 1948, I was born in Coalinga. I think that is the ocean in the far background.
Calif 1948, I was born in Coalinga. I think that is the ocean in the far background.



I had two years of auto mechanics and one year of welding and general metals in high school so when I graduated, I had some basic skills which have carried me my whole life.

I joined the Navy as soon as I graduated and they trained me in aviation electronics. I had an aptitude for that, but I didn’t like it as well as working on cars and motorcycles.

My first job after the Navy was working on utility trucks the electric companies use. I perfected my welding skills and built some custom springer front ends and about four girder front ends from scratch in 1969 and 1970.

1977. I was driving this when my daughter was born. I gave 1800 for what you see. It is the same car that used to sit in a backyard by the junior high that I went to in 1961.
1977. I was driving this when my daughter was born. I gave 1800 for what you see. It is the same car that used to sit in a backyard by the junior high that I went to in 1961.



Over the years I have been an oil field welder, a heavy truck mechanic and I’ve worked for Chevy dealers and Ford dealers as a heavy line technician and an automatic transmission technician.

For fun I built hot rods and choppers. I should have stayed with the aviation electronics. I could have retired from Lockheed Martin. Oh well, hindsight’s a bitch.



I have had the opportunity to work on some classic car engines. I assisted with some work on a Duisenberg and a V12 Packard when living in Reno in the 1980s. The Duisenberg brothers had a race car engine in the mid 1920s that had dual overhead cams, four valves per cylinder and superchargers. They incorporated all that in the great passenger cars they built for E.L. Cord.
 
 
1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton
1937 Cord 812 Supercharged Phaeton


 

In 1929 they had a 420 cubic inch straight-eight with 325 horsepower. It was big and heavy but would outrun anything on the road then. All those old engines had compression ratios of around 6 to 1. If they were brought up to around 10 to 1 and we installed modern carburetors, they would make serious power.



In 1917 Nash had an overhead valve six that was about like Chevrolet’s in the thirties. Chevrolet had a V8 based on the Curtiss aircraft engine in 1918. They only produced them for one year. Nearly all the design used in today’s engines was actually developed from 1915-1930. Much of it came about because of war.



The Liberty motor originally developed for heavy WW1 bombers is a 1100 cubic inch V12 that looks like 6 Harley-Davidsons staked together. It had 12 individual cylinders on a long common case, single overhead cams driven by shafts and bevel gears, rocker arms and hemi heads and was running strong in 1917. As soon as the war was over, they were sold as surplus and most found their way in boats. It was the rum runner engine of choice. There were still a lot of them running in the late 1940s.



In 1932 Ford decided to build a V8 for the common man. Cadillac ran Flathead V8s for years in their Lasalles. They had overhead V12s and V16s in their big cars. Those cars were for the rich only.



With the advent of the depression no one could afford cars like that. The Ford V8 is a horrible design, but by installing 2 water pumps and huge radiators on them, they would run for years. It was only 221 cubic inches and had 85 horsepower, but the cars were so light they were fast. That is why they made such great hot rods. I have a full fendered ‘34 right now with a 350 Chevy in it and it only weighs about 2500 pounds.

Had the firebird from 95-2001
Had the firebird from 95-2001



The problem with the Ford engine included the exhaust ports all the way around the cylinders through the water jacket and out the bottom side of the block. This really heated the water and was prone to cracking exhaust ports. It’s hard to find a good flathead Ford block. Because they were so cheap, they were everywhere in the ‘50s and started a huge aftermarket industry of speed equipment. Thanks to nostalgia this stuff is still being made today.

My son in Vegas 1996. I’m living with him in Nashville now.
My son in Vegas 1996. I’m living with him in Nashville now.



Cadillac had a much better flathead V8 that came out in 1937. It was 346 cubic inches and had 150 horsepower at 3600 RPM. Not bad for the times.

They are very reliable and durable engines. Many are still running without ever being apart. They had the exhaust ports come out the top right beside the intake ports. They had beautiful black porcelain coated exhaust manifolds right beside the carburetor. They also had hydraulic lifters. They are very quiet and smooth.



The trouble is they weigh over 800 pounds. Hot rodders were not interested until the new overhead valve Cadillac V8 came out in 1949. They and the ‘49 Olds were the engines of choice for hot rods everywhere. They were stuffed into ‘49-‘51 Fords that ran moonshine. Norm Grabovski put one in a bucket-T and it became the Kookie car on 77 Sunset strip. All that stuff fascinated me and still does. I want to build a rod with a nail-head Buick right now.

The last incarnation of the new FXR I bought in 1985. This was '96. I sold it to a friend who was moving to Texas. He died. His son has it now, still running in Austin.
The last incarnation of the new FXR I bought in 1985. This was '96. I sold it to a friend who was moving to Texas. He died. His son has it now, still running in Austin.



The cars and motorcycles of today run awesome and last a long time, but they do nothing for me. People who can work on those old engines are few and far between. We are a vanishing breed. In a few years if a collector wants to keep the old stuff running, he will have to get out the old manuals and train some young guy with an aptitude for it.

I have the same addiction to women. 
This is the current one and my friend Dean Kraft. Dean is a great guitar player and a good mechanic. The orange bike has a 124 inch S&S motor.
I have the same addiction to women. This is the current one and my friend Dean Kraft. Dean is a great guitar player and a good mechanic. The orange bike has a 124 inch S&S motor.



Me, I’m just going to keep flying down the road on my old bikes and my ‘34 Ford.
 
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Reader Comments


Really Great Story, thanks for sharing it.

Marshall
Mount Juliet, TN
Tuesday, November 9, 2021
Editor Response Thanks for the note. You'll make Bill's day.
--Bandit
Thanks everyone, glad you liked it. Classic Indian in Aroura
Illinois, had everything for Indians in the eighties. So did Sam Pierce.

Bill May
Nashville , TN
Tuesday, November 9, 2021
Editor Response Thanks for this, brother.
--Bandit
The vanishing breed, where parts availability makes the difference between an old bike or car being a survivor or scrap. Lack of Indian parts in the 1960s cost me the opportunity to carry on with the war surplus US Navy Indian my dad rode after getting home from the war. It had been handed down from dad to an uncle who kept it running into the '60s, but he could never find brake parts for it and that forced him to park the bike for good.

When I started making noises about wanting a bike dad said we'd look into getting the Indian for me. Sadly after not being able to find brake parts my uncle gave up and sold the Indian to a collector who would use it for parts if nothing else. One more of the old breed had vanished.

I keep thinking what could have been if I'd gotten that bike as a 15-year-old and some day I'll build a battleship gray bobber as a tribute of sorts to dad and my uncles who rode that bike after serving in the war.

Vern Moore
Kingsley, PA
Sunday, November 7, 2021
Editor Response Great story. Thanks for sharing.
--Bandit

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