Leatherballs XVII: People get ready

Spring has sprung, another Daytona Bike Week has come and gone, and in the northern climes, it’s past time to start thinking about prepping the scoot for the new riding season. For those of us in the sunny South, it’s not much of a concern; the hardier souls of us around here can count on riding pretty much year round, excepting maybe this past winter when “global warming” turned out to mean record cold, snow, and ice. But there are still periodic maintenance chores that are going to need doing, and I got to thinking about a few of these lately while wrenching, ironically enough, on my old lady’s car.
Resistant to it though some of us who think of ourselves as traditionalists are, modern technological advances have made some of those chores unnecessary. Here are just a few:

Batteries: the new generation of dry-cell batteries are dead reliable, long-lasting, and maintenance free. No more unscrewing those little plastic caps, burning your fingertips with spilled acid, and splashing distilled water all over the garage floor. They can enjoy a long winter’s nap and still be ready and able to turn over even a big-inch motor with no hassle. They ain’t cheap, but all in all, you gotta put these down as a real leap forward in terms of making the biker’s life a lot easier all around.

Points: For a good long time there, I was definitely one of those who resisted electronic ignitions on Harleys, even having gone so far as removing the stock electronics on a couple of my beloved Sportsters over the years and replacing them with points. But I’m not so stubborn a fool as to be incapable of admitting error and bowing to modernity when it’s warranted, and so it is with breakerless ignitions. Talk about trouble-free: they deliver a hotter spark, increase performance, and will give even the sleepiest old Shovelhead a snappy, crackling throttle response that will spread a grin over the face of the most obstinate old fart in nothing flat. And speaking of farts, there’ll be none of that with a good electronic ignition, nor burps, misfires, backfires, or engine-killing detonation either. If it’s set up right, an electronic ignition is maybe the most performance bang for your buck you can get for an older bike, and once it is set up, you can just forget about it entirely for a good long while.

The only drawback is that they tend to die all at once, rather than giving you warning by gradually fading away, which can add up to leaving you stranded at an inopportune time—not that there’s ever an opportune time—and there just ain’t no way to jerry-rig it enough to just get ya home like we’ve all done with points at one time or another (I once used a wooden match and some duct tape to get a friend’s points setup working well enough to get us to the nearest Autozone for a new set of small-block Chevy points, then installed ‘em in the parking lot and continued on to Myrtle Beach without further hassle). But for me, the trade-off is worth it: no more filing points, no more greasing the rubbing block and cam, no more gapping, no more replacing shot condensers; no more anything at all except replacing the module when it finally dies and, in the meantime, enjoying a precision-tuned, responsive sled.

Yeah, points are cheap, way cheaper than a nice Dyna or Crane will run. You get what you pay for.

Belts: Although I’ve run both primary and final belt drives on more than one bike, and liked ‘em, somehow I’m still kinda skeptical of ‘em, for reasons I can’t explain beyond just being a foolish old fuddy-duddy. They’re light, clean, quiet, and tough. They’re very nearly maintenance-free, and more bulletproof than you’d think an oversized rubber band could ever be. The same caveat seems to apply to all these technical marvels, now that I think about it: if set up correctly….

That one is probably nowhere more important than with a belt. If you get it slightly cocked, it’s going to tear itself to pieces in pretty short order. It can’t be too loose or too tight. It has to be dialed in but good, or you’re going to find yourself by the side of the road, using another one of those modern marvels—your cell phone—to call a friend with a pickup truck, then using yet another—your ATM card—to shell out big bucks for a new belt.

Still, belts have come a long, long way from the days when Primo and Karata were just about the only people making ‘em. In fact, since the earliest H-D’s were driven by belts, they’re more traditionally-correct than chains are. I’m getting ready to start building another bike soon, and I still can’t make up my mind between belt and chain. Chains are a lot cheaper, but again, you get what you pay for.

Rubber-mounted engines: Not so much a maintenance item, I guess, except for this: if you have one of these frames, you don’t have to worry so much anymore about having to go around tightening everything after you’ve ridden more than a couple of miles. So yeah, it kinda counts, I guess. Although for my money, rigids, 4-speed, and even Softail frames are still waaay prettier.

Fuel injection: I’ll never give in on this one, although I know a handful of people who swear by it. And I have to admit, if I could afford an injection set-up for my ‘56 Ford, I’d probably do it, so I’m not just being a complete curmudgeon here, I don’t think. But on a Harley? No. Just…no. Never. This far, no further. Real Harleys don’t have injectors. I’d much rather be blown, thanks.


But let’s talk about some good old-fashioned shit here. Specifically, shops. Now, I’m not one of those that’s gonna bend your ear about how H-D dealerships all suck now, having been turned into boutiques and places where the mechanics spend most of their time bolting on tacky, overpriced chrome doodads and won’t work on anything that didn’t come from the factory longer ago than the last twenty minutes or so.

I may not agree with some of the decisions the Motor Company has made in recent years, but I do know they’re a corporation first, and Job One for them is to make money. Always has been, always will be, and bitching about it, to me, is a waste of effort I require for other purposes. I’ve also actually known a couple of those boutique joints that were owned and staffed by good, solid biker sorts who’d give an old road dog any kind of break they possibly could, and didn’t shy from sending out a truck in the middle of the night to go pick up a stranded rider and bring him someplace warm and dry. Like anything else, you take the good with the bad, and you can always find plenty of both.

But dealerships ain’t what I’m on about here. I’m talking those crusty old independent shops, usually run by crusty old traditionalists who may not keep the joint all that neat, organized, or even clean, but have forgotten more about getting and keeping bikers on the road than most of us will ever know, often using some pretty unconventional methods that would leave a factory-trained mechanic weeping all over his factory-authorized shop manual and throwing his tools around in horror, while his boss has a conniption fit and calls the cops.

You know the kind of place I mean. There’ll usually be a couple of other crusty old traditionalists hanging around drinking a beer and swapping lies. The business hours posted on one of those old signs where you fill in the blanks by hand might not be rigidly adhered to. There might not be any kind of fancy-schmancy blinking neon sign out front, or any sign at all. The keep-out notice separating the shop area from the counter area might not be rigidly adhered to, either. Or it might be; the rules are made by the owner, and are subject to change according to whim, or the day’s mood, or how hung over the boss is. But you better know that whatever the rules are that day, you better by God stick by ‘em. Because the guy or guys wrenching your scoot are gonna be damned good at it, and you don’t want to get 86’d and lose your access to ‘em; they’ll help you out with worthwhile advice if it’s something you can fix yourself, and if it ain’t, they’ll fix it right, not charge you so much as to suck up a month’s beer and cigarette money, and will stand behind their work and make good if it ain’t right. But it’ll almost always be right.

After hours, there’ll occasionally still be some work going on, and some folks hanging out for what will turn into a mellow, low-key little party. If there are chicks around, there will likely be some interesting goings-on that will simply never take place at the spiffy, spic-and-span dealership. There will almost certainly be exposed breasts involved, and perhaps lap-dancing. It won’t happen every time, but if you hang around long and often enough, sooner or later, it most likely will. Then the crusty old traditionalists hanging around regular-like will have something to discuss in the shop bull sessions that follow. For years, probably.

Now, mind, I ain’t talking about the shabby little fly-by-night clip joints here, the places whose work always ends up being redone properly by the good ‘uns: the guys who will happily use JB Weld to “fix” a badly cracked head or reattach a broken chunk of piston skirt (I’ve seen both, no lie), charge you an arm and a leg for the dog-tired “new” parts they dug out of the junk box in back and reused most likely for the umpteenth time, and offer only the taillight warranty (“warranty expires the moment we can no longer see your taillight when you ride away”) on their slipshod halfassery. They’re certainly out there, waiting to snare the unsuspecting, and they’re a curse for everybody involved. I fixed more than a few of their rolling abortions myself in the shop I used to work in, and believe me, it’s always more hassle than it’s worth to have to deal with the messes they make.

I’m going to be writing in an upcoming issue about one of the best of the truly good ‘uns around here, Dean Connell of Precious Metal Cycles. And I’m gonna be looking for more of them, too, as many as I can find. I think these guys deserve all the credit we can give ‘em, and if I can help them out in some small way by publicizing them in this here hogwallow, well, I’m more than glad to do it.

And that’s where y’all come in. I have a favor to ask, and I promise it won’t hurt a bit: if you know of one of these great independent shops, and you think they’d like ol’ Leatherballs to sing their praises and immortalize them forever in inky dead-tree bits and on the innernuts (, shoot me a kite and tell me about ‘em. Include contact information of some sort, so I can get hold of ‘em and get the skinny straight from the horse’s mouth. Send to: Shop tips, 1000 Seaboard St #B4, Charlotte, NC, 28206-2991, or e-mail ‘em to You’ll be glad you did, and so will I. Hopefully, so will they.

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