Wednesday, August 26, 2015


The 1927 H-D FHA racer, with its racing sidecar, little more than a padded platform.  A remarkable original-condition racer from the end of the first Golden Age of American racing
It happens every year; an ultra-rare motorcycle is loosed from the cold, dead hands of a collector, and the 'Net is abuzz with the certainty that THIS, finally, is the Million Dollar Baby.  Some odd mix of voyeurism and knowier-than-thou-ness compels us to excitedly proclaim the staggering rise in blue chip bike prices, while making a show of decrying the very same thing.  The truth is, very few people are savvy enough to know what a blue chip bike is, and fewer still combine that knowledge with a willingness to take a risk and open their wallet.  Prices have risen since the 1950s or the '80s or the 2000s, but the story remains the same - the folks who know and care and want important machines find where they're hiding and buy them.  The folks actually shelling out the big bucks today aren't complaining, because they've known for decades that ultra rare motorcycles are undervalued.  [For a little comparison shopping, check out my list of the World's Most Expensive Motorcycles]
A handsome and purposeful outfit.
The latest gem making the rounds of Instagram (and TheVintagent!) is this just unearthed, single-family for 50 years Harley-Davidson FHA 8-valve racer, which is documented and in as-last-raced condition.  Huzzah; a no-bull 1920s Class A racer which doesn't appear to have been messed with or faked up, like nearly all the others of its ilk.  Hilariously, some of the folks who've sold less than perfect American racers in the past few years have shown their hands with this machine, praising its originality and the importance thereof, while no such praise was possible for their own bikes!  But that's the reality of most old racers - they're usually compromised in the very areas collectors prize most; matching #s, original sheet metal, clear provenance.  When presented with a machine with all boxes ticked, the temperature rises.
The raised ring cast into the timing cover is the giveaway for a 4-cam timing chest.  The oil pump is the horizontal cylinder behind that ring.  Note the exhaust valve lifter emerging from the front of the case, operated by a small lever below the fuel tank.   Although there are no bicycle cranks, a bicycle foot pedal is still used - a rider's affectation or original to the machine?
This FHA is among the last of the factory 8-valves produced by Harley-Davidson, as they were already experimenting with more reliable ways of producing power, and more, the American Class A race series was about to vanish due to the Depression, in favor of Class C, which was production-based and therefore much cheaper for everyone, favoring 'mundane' sidevalve engines instead of 'exotic' OHVs.  Of course, factories across the pond had been producing fast and reliable OHV bikes in increasing numbers since the 'Teens for everyday use, but American buyers trusted valves on the side, but that's another story.
A nice engine shot showing the primary chain oiler, the ignition wires which thread between the barrels, and two further oil lines, one presumably to the rear of the front cylinder barrel, the other to the oil pump on the timing chest.  Note also the small strap keeping the manual advance cable away from the exhaust.  The carb is a racing Schebler - can one of my American racer experts fill in the type?
The FHA used a twin-camshaft timing chest, externally distinguished by the raised ring on the timing cover, which of course meant better valve control and thus higher revs and more power.  The revs were also made possible by the good airflow of the 4-valve cylinder heads, which took advantage of the gas-flow research of Sir Harry Ricardo, which proved many small valves pass more air than two big ones.  But without positive lubrication and the oil cooling it provides, a grease-lubed 4-valve cylinder head is a fragile thing, even with the rocker gear exposed to the airflow... plus dirt, cinders, and dust when raced on the Australian tracks this beast has seen.
This machine is coming up for auction at Shannon's auction house on Sept. 21st, and I'll keep an eye on the sale.
[Update: the FHA sold for A$600k, which was $423,700US on the day, making it the #10 most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction}

A good shot of the struts attached to the early H-D forks, which help prevent flexing under the huge side loads from a sliding sidecar. Note also the small steering damper and slotted plate just below the top fork clamps.  The handlebar bend is standar for board trackers.
Fantastic patina.
The FHA was delivered new to the Milledge Bros Harley-Davidson in Melbourne, Australia.
A period shot of the outfit, showing the braced forks, and the canted wheel angle for sliding on dirt tracks. 
The simple direct-drive system is clear, with a countershaft running in a robust casting at the bottom of the frame, which holds the clutch and final drive sprocket. One speed!
For moto-geeks; note the attachment of the sidecar to a U shaped late and the reinforced engine plates up front.  Plus the extensively ribbed drive-side crankcase.  There's a direct oil line to the (missing) primary chain.
The oval port of the late 8-valve motor is clear, as is the single-rocker system used on a simple, pent-roof combustion chamer.  All exposed, of course, to whatever dirt is thrown up by the track.  Also clear is the camshaft layout, with side-by-side pushrods emerging from the timing chest - a cam for each cylinder, plus the crankshaft oiling line emerging from the front of the motor.
1927 FHA #81...not that they built so many! 

Subscribe here to!


Anonymous said...

Hey Paul,

You know that the mentioned front oil line goes from the hand pump to the crankcase, correct? And the function
is to the initial oil fill (it is a wet sump engine) of the crank case and provide a supplemental oil as needed… The oiler,
mounted on the timing cover provides automatic, makeup of oil thrown out or burned… Your articles are
just the best.. Great detail and most interesting verbiage..

And I may have misread your comments. So, I won't be surprised if you know all this and I'm just late to the party….

Larry D.. a fan and AMCA member

The Vintagent said...

Thanks Larry!
Early bikes with total-loss oiling (like this racer, and most bikes before 1930) indeed keep a supply of oil in the crankcase for splashing around to the mains, big end, and cylinder walls. Good to note this is replenished by the hand pump and oil pump both. Also good to note that's a one-way oil pump which does not scavenge the crankcase! It just gets flung out and/or burned off - some of the racers omitted an oil control ring in an effort to keep the cylinders wet and prevent seizure. And some had 'ported' cylinders to keep the crankcase free of vacuum, which made a hell of a mess!

Stewart Farr said...

This makes modern Harley riders seem soft. I love it.

Greg Ess said...

it looks like the sidecar wheel is vertical in the first photo, the leaned left in the period shot.

is this outfit a leaning sidecar?

Anonymous said...

I am late to this one!
The Carb is a Schebler AM series, Look at the bottom of this page:

Anonymous said...

Probably the number "8" in that serial number on that 8-valve in Australia signifies that it's an 8-valve and the #1 denotes it as the first one of its sort. I don't believe it has anything to do with there having been "81" machines produced. Beautiful Velo, Paul; ride it in good health. To answer your question, I don't think H-D made more than one of those 8valve FHA racers that year; I've not seen any race results from that or subsequent years which indicate that these machines were in contention then. The board track era was over, attention was shifting and galvanizing around the hill climb venues and the Ntl. championship for those events was limited to 45 cubic inch motors for which Harley developed their DAH motor in 1928 after having discovered that simply reducing the cubic inches on their FH motor was not competitive with either Excelsior or Indian who were fielding special OHV 45" motors for those events. No, I can't imagine why H-D would gear up and make any quantity of 8-valves in 1927 or in the few years before the depression decimated motorcycle activity as well as much more across the globe. I look forward to when we might cross paths again, my friend.
- Daniel Statnekov

Anonymous said...

Sold at auction for 600,000 Australian Dollars

Laurie said...

the rider in the photo is Rex Smith & his younger brother (my dad) Doug Smith in the chair