Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Teenage Mechanics

In 1939, when I was 15 years old and my best buddy was 16 years of age we graduated from fixing bicycles to full-size toys -- motorcycles and vintage cars.
One of our early ventures was a 1910 Indian motorcycle, in pieces, in a woman’s shed. It had belonged to her son who went off to war and never returned. He had purchased the bike new but it had little use before he left. We gave the woman some boxes of berries and hauled parts of it away on a large red wagon. and wheeled the bike home.
My friend, Bud Rice, also had a car, a 1928 Ford roadster, which required a lot of our mechanical skills during the time he owned it but that’s for later in the story.
After much head scratching and perseverance we eventually got that motorcycle all put together and ready for riding, except for one thing. It wouldn’t start! It had twist grip rod and universal connections to the valve lifters and the throttle. Yeah, valve lifters! By twisting the grip we could lift the valves so there was no compression to fight against. One rider would stand alongside the bike with hands on the handlebars and run alongside while a partner pushed on the fender from the rear. Pushing until we were up to a running speed the rider would hop on the bike and drop the valve lifter to give the motor compression. The other guy kept pushing until the compression brought him to a halt. I don’t know how many miles we pushed that stubborn bike around the city without luck. Originally the bike had pedals and a stand to hold the rear wheel off the ground but the pedals and stand were missing.
Next try was towing it behind the Ford convertible and that was a bit dangerous with about 15 or 20 feet of tow rope. That didn’t cause it to make any pops.
Finally, at a motorcycle junk yard we found a bike shop that re-charged the magnets for us. The. Magneto would then work on that Indian. With it in place, one short push and the motor started. It had a clutch lever that came up alongside the gas tank and let the motor run without moving the bike. By one of us sitting on the back fender it would easily handle two people.

On one of our more exciting rides, going at full speed, Bud’s mother pulled alongside us in her automobile and announced we were during 60 miles an hour. That was great until, suddenly, the throat on the carburetor screwed off and that Indian came to a chugging stop. It took us awhile to backtrack and find that missing part before we could get it going again to take it home.
That Indian ended up by being loaned to a cousin trying to use the motor for a garden tiller for a Victory garden during WW!! while Bud and I were away in the Navy. The next one was a much later Harley Davidson. With a kick starter no less. After an accident hitting a dog that caused me to go over the handlebars and onto an unforgiving cement street, my parents bought me a 1929 Chevrolet sedan to lure me away from motorcycles.
I’m not sure what year Bud’s Ford convertible was but I believe it was 1928 or 1929. Whatever it was , it had a “flat” crankshaft that required an occasional pulling of the pan, filing off the rod caps to tight them, as much as possible. One time, I recalled we got them so tight we couldn’t turn the motor over with the crank. So, to overcome that problem, we towed it with another vehicle with another good friend, Dave Rice, jumping on the crank as we towed it, in gear, down the road. How we kept from running over Dave I’ll never know. He survived and once it turned over it would start easier. Until it was time to tighten those rods again.
Our inventiveness showed up on the next vehicle, a 1928 Whippet. It cost us some money to get it done but we were able to install a second transmission in backwards. Bud had bought another Whippet for $10 to use its transmission tied to the back of the first transmission. The best cruising speed was with both transmissions in second gear. It was great fun to drive backwards down a major city street in Portland and pass a city bus with passengers gawking wide-eyed at that crazy backwards-running sedan.
In forward motion, in order to get up to its fastest speed, we had to be going downhill. We got up to about 80 mph on one trip with a boot in one tire making the wheel flop up and down a bit. At that time we couldn’t afford new tires.
Bud Rice and I somehow survived those years, even making it through WWII in the Navy. And, today we are still the best of friends. Have been ever since our friendship started in the 5th grade some 75 years ago. And, we still do some tinkering in a much safer way.