I have discovered over the past few years that a big part of the enjoyment I get out of riding old Harley Shovelhead motorcycles is the satisfaction that comes from working on them and fixing them myself. There is nothing more satisfying to me than firing up an old Harley after successfully repairing it, no matter how small the job. Additionally, the more I learn about how different parts of these bikes actually work, the more confident I am when I ride them. Knowing that you have performed the correct maintenance or fixed a nagging problem, makes all the difference when you are riding down the road. That may sound simple, but these old Harley motorcycles can be intimidating. Working on them can be difficult, especially when you are new to all this or are still learning to “do it yourself” like I am.
I have had a lot of motorcycle riding experience and I am pretty handy with tools, but I have had very little motorcycle maintenance experience. My brother and I rode my Dad’s Harley Panheads while growing up, but they were maintained with the help of a nearby mechanic who would work on them whenever there was a problem. If I was personally ever “working on Dad’s bikes” it usually meant that I was in the garage cleaning them. I made those old Harleys shine, but I wasn’t about to do any experimental wrenching or take anything apart, as naturally I was afraid I would get in over my head and more importantly, get in big trouble.
Well, that was 15 years ago — Today, partly because I couldn’t find anyone I trusted to do it for me, partly because I have always wanted to, and partly because I knew it would enhance my whole experience with these old Harleys, I decided to try and become enough of a mechanic that I could fix many of the common Shovelhead motorcycle issues myself. So I dove in head first — I have since been inside the Linkert carburetor bowl (so thats what a float looks like!), changed oil, cleaned out and removed the motorcycle gas tanks, tested my Harley generators and electrical systems, replaced gas lines, replaced my motorcycle rear brakes, cleaned out brake lines, and adjusted the old Harley’s mousetrap clutch.
I have made many mistakes, had many do-overs, ordered the wrong motorcycle parts, and been stuck for days trying to figure out how to put something back together. I have felt frustrated, stupid and helpless — and at times ready to just give up. Despite all of that, I have actually managed to work through the challenges, and slowly but surely I am starting to feel like I actually know what I am doing. Most importantly, its rewarding and I am having fun.
So do not be afraid to get your hands dirty with your classic motorcycle. You will be happy you did. I only wish I hadn’t waited so long to try. I would recommend some key resources that have been very helpful to me:
1) A motorcycle owners manual for your specific model (absolute necessity)
2) An knowledgeable motorcycle person to call when your stuck. My friend Charlie Hudson, who is a very patient and talented vintage Harley mechanic at Charleston Harley Rebuilders, will always take a phone call from me and answer my questions. He also helps me get parts. If you can find someone like Charlie, it will save lots of time
3) The right motorcycle tools. Sometimes you need a certain tool to get the job done – go and get it if you don’t have it.
4) An online classic motorcycle forum to ask for help and guidance and pick up some helpful tips from other experts.
I look forward to sharing some of my wrenching experiences – the good, the not so good, and the just plain ugly. For anyone still learning, your not alone.