1947 Denny McLain Knuckle

Before and After Slideshow

 

The Tale of a Knucklehead
By Denny McLain
June 15th, 2008 Father’s Day

I hadn’t really thought about writing something like this but early on in the restoration process with the Harley it was strongly suggested by Dave at Highway Choppers. He said getting the bike fixed back up was only half of my responsibility. I owed it to the bike and to the family to write down everything that I could remember about growing up with it. That way, long after I’m gone there’s still a connection to the family. Along the way each member of the family that takes on the responsibility to care for the bike will add their own pages to the story. They’ll add their own pictures and maintain the history.  are merely the caretakers and it’s up to us to make sure the story goes on. So, please realize I’m no professional writer. Spelling, grammar, punctuation, those were things I remember from many years ago. I’ve never longed for an opportunity to audition for “Are You Smarter Than A Fifth Grader”. And the stories may wander just like my mind does, so bear with me. This is for the bike, and my Dad. Compared to them, my story would be very boring.

This is the story of a 1947 HarleyDavidson 74 cu in motorcycle. The motor was the legendary Knucklehead that had propelled HarleyDavidson for the last dozen or so years. Unfortunately, the first two years that she was on the road is somewhat of a mystery, but beginning in 1949 the bike joined the McLain family and is still in it to this day.

I wish my memory were a bit clearer but I’ll do my best to recall some experiences that I had growing up with this spectacular machine. My dad, Frank J. “Scotty” McLain Jr. bought it in 1949 from East Side Motorcycle Sales in Portland Oregon. The salesman’s name was Al Stimac, a long time friend of Dad (from here on referred to as Dad or Scotty). We lived in Harrisburg at the time. Mom said there was a Harley dealer in Eugene but they just weren’t fond of the folks that worked there. Al and Dad had hit it off from the first time they met and the friendship they built lasted many years. According to what Dad told me many years later, the bike was originally purchased by another individual when new, also from Al. I’m not sure how or when but the guy apparently dumped the bike, badly breaking his left knee. They repaired the bike but the man was unable to shift gears. It naturally had the original suicide clutch and tank shifter. Dad said he was a big man and just couldn’t move back far enough on the bike to operate the clutch. They tried changing the seat out to a buddy seat but he was still too tall and his leg far too stiff to be able to shift gears. Next they tried converting the bike from a foot clutch to a hand clutch with a foot shift. Unfortunately the results were the same. He still couldn’t ride. Dad had been looking for a newer bike for some time, one that Mom could ride with him. The man reluctantly asked Al to find a new owner, somebody that he knew would really care for the bike. Al immediately thought of Scotty. That’s how the bike got in to the family. Mom doesn’t remember what Dad paid for her but Al got him a good deal. Naturally I don’t remember anything about those first few years since I was only one when Dad bought the bike. But growing up, it was always around.


Mom said Dad used to love to go for rides. He ran with a few other guys from the area down in Harrisburg. They’d sometimes take off after work. A really good friend was Don Jensen. He and Dad went on a lot of rides together. Even a few Gypsy Tours up to Long Beach Washington. Mom came up with a couple pictures that Don had taken of Dad on a ferry in August of 1950. Mom said they hadn’t seen Don for many years but they still kept in touch with Christmas cards. He and his wife live in Utah now. Mom gave me his phone number and I gave him a call. He was really happy to hear what I was doing with the bike. He mentioned the ferry trip to the Gypsy Tour and said they had a blast. He still had the pictures Dad had taken of him with his bike on the ferry too. Don remembered one phone call he got from Dad one evening. Dad asked him if he wanted to go for a ride. Don said he asked Dad if he was nuts. It was snowing like crazy. Dad said no, I’m not nuts. Don’t you think you can ride in the snow? So they did. They spent the entire evening riding around playing in empty parking lots. He said you could slide forever. Neither one went down, but a few years later they’d look at each other and laugh because they were so crazy. I don’t think they did that again, at least not like that.

August 4th, 1950. Gypsy Tour, Long Beach Washington

I remember lots of Saturdays watching hill climbs around Junction City. Those guys really were nuts. The hills were so steep you couldn’t even climb up them. But here these guys were, huge Harleys with chains on the back tire. They’d rev them up and charge toward the hill. Straight up they’d go fighting the whole time for traction and trying to keep the front wheel from coming back up over the top. A few of them made it all the way to the top, but many others failed. They’d lose it and all you could see was backsides and elbows as they flipped back down the hill toward the bottom. Sometimes the bike would just fall over, other times it would be flipping end over end right back down the hill with the rider. Now that was really cool.

Mom said Dad had always wanted a sidecar. He wanted to be able to go on family rides and be able to take all of us. I believe she said it was 1953. Al gave Dad a call and said he’d run across a sidecar. He told Dad he thought it was just what he’d been looking for. That’s when the sidehack joined the group. My memory still won’t take me all the way back to then, but my first real memories of the bike always included the sidecar. It was the same Flight Red the bike was. I learned later the bike originally was blue, and Dave told me the sidecar was originally Congo Green, an early attempt at a metallic paint. To me they were always red and would stay that way.
I remember bits and pieces of those early days. In the mid fifties I begin to actually recall things about some of the adventures we had as a family taking weekend jaunts with friends traveling all over the state of Oregon. Luckily, I had proof of that as some of those were preserved in the HarleyDavidson Enthusiast Magazine.

Some First Memories

We’d moved to Portland by now, from Harrisburg. Dad followed work. The only company I can recall that Dad worked for full time was Ted Nelson Company, a steel fabrication company on Swan Island. I think that’s where he started when we moved up there. Dad was an awesome welder and they specialized in things like concrete forms. Dad did a lot of specialty welding for them too. I’ve watched him weld stainless steel, aluminum, titanium, I swear he could weld copper to steel. Mom has tracked our move to Portland back to April of 1956. My memories of the Harley start there.

Little things come back first. My sister, Doreen and I in the sidecar. Mom on behind Dad. No idea where we’d been but knew we were heading home. It was cold, I can easily remember that. Doreen would roll the cover back over the sidecar seat and we’d slide down as far as we could go and look up out the back of the cover. Watching the streetlights go by was always so intriguing. And it didn’t take long until we’d get warm. Just our faces still chilled by the night air. That was always one funny feeling I’d never forget.

Other times when it was warmer we’d be sitting up and I’d look down toward the fender of the sidecar and watch our shadow on the ground from the street lights. It was always kind of eerie watching the shadow go by. When I’d look out the front, the lights were always dim. Guess the old 6 volt system didn’t really put out that much light. To my left, there were Mom and Dad. Him always in total control, every now and then looking down at us with a big smile on his face. I didn’t know what seventh heaven was way back then, but now that I do, that’s where Pop was, he was totally in seventh heaven riding down the road with Mom snuggled up against him and Doreen and I in the sidecar.

We went on many rides in the spring and summer. We belonged to a motorcycle club, the Lancers. I remember Dad talking about another big club in Portland at the time, the Rose City Road Cruisers. They were a big club, fancy shirts, fancy bikes. The Lancers was primarily our family and a group of I’d say six to eight other people. Many were single guys. Our colors were black and yellow. We had matching shirts, we all wore white helmets, and a couple of the guys had their bikes painted to match the club colors. It was really a small group.

The Lancers 1957

Clubs weren’t gangs back in those days. Lots of husbands and wives and even families were involved. We’d take rides as a group, or if the event was sponsored by a shop, like East Side Motorcycles, it might have been people from many different groups or clubs that went along. I wish I could remember more than I can but this fantastic idea to write down our memories didn’t start until Dave suggested. That part of the story will come some time from now. For now, I’m just racking my brain to remember any of the little things he’s suggested.

Back to the old days. Dad took really good care of the bike and sidecar. It seemed like every time I turned around he had the can of Gunk out and he was cleaning everything up. I’ll never forget that smell. Especially when he’d fire her up after he was done and the motor put off that fragrant smell that you only got from a shiny clean Harley motor that had just been degreased. We’d never take her out dirty. If he had to wash her after work from his second job then that’s what he’d do to make sure she was clean and bright when we hit the road. I don’t think anybody ever saw that bike dirty at the beginning of a ride. That couldn’t always be said at the end. The weather in Oregon tends to rain a lot so sometimes we had that nice layer of light road mud on everything by the time we got home. But I remember more clear rides than dirty. The weather always seemed to cooperate for the most part, when we were actually going down the highway. It did like to rain at night or sometimes when we stopped but most of the actual rides were dry. Not always though. I’d feel so sorry for Mom and Dad, up there on the bike with little to protect them from that cold rain. Doreen and I would just slip way down under that cover on the sidecar and stay nice and dry and warm all the way home.

Random Memories

I remember Dad working 3 jobs at times. Mom worked a full time job too and spent the rest trying to handle the house. Dad didn’t seem to have much spare time, but once in a while he’d take me to work with him on weekends on one of his part time jobs. One memorable Saturday, Dad worked in a motorcycle shop. I think it was the one owned by Al Stimac. From what Mom recalls, Al really wanted to own East Side Motorcycle where he’d worked for years, but it just didn’t work out. So Al opened his own shop. It seems to me he sold used Harley’s and new BMW’s. I can’t really be that sure. Anyway, the thing I remember was going to the shop one Saturday with Dad. They had all these neat Harley’s all lined up, drip pans under every one. I spotted one I really liked. When I sat on it I was amazed that my feet actually touched the floor. I heaved and got the bike up off the kick stand. The spring on the stand did it’s job and snapped into place. So here I sit, about 8 years old if I remember, holding up this full size HarleyDavidson. I had no idea how heavy this thing was. Until it came time to think about leaning it over to kick the kickstand back out and set the bike back down. As long as I sat still, fully upright it was fine. If I leaned it even one little bit, I’d feel the weight of the bike begin to crumble my knee and I knew I’d lose it. I was too proud to yell for help so I sat there. I have no idea how long it was. The guys were all off talking with what I assumed were customers. It seemed like out of nowhere here was Dad. I remember he said “Wow, you look pretty good on that bike”. Luckily he could see the strained look on my face. He leaned down and whispered “could you use a little help with the kickstand?” I said “If you wouldn’t mind, I’m not sure I can do it.” He laughed and pulled the kickstand out and said “go ahead and lean her over, you’ll be just fine.” I did, thankfully, and the bike finally came to rest. I swear my legs shook for two hours. I’d never be so stupid as to do that again.

One weekend we were having some kind of Lancers meeting at the house. Who pulls up, Al Stimac, riding a brand new Sportster. It seems to me the unique thing was the shock absorbers on the back. Everybody was ranting and raving about the “Rear Suspension”. Guess nobody knew what that was up to then, I don’t know. Another weekend I remember Al showing up on a brand new BMW. Everybody laughed at the “jugs” sticking straight out on both sides. Al said the bike was so well balanced you could ride it across a plowed field and take your hands off the handlebars. You wouldn’t dump it. Seems some of the guys took it out and came back with all kinds of rants and raves but it just wasn’t a Harley.

I recall several trips when I was little. Wish I could remember more detail. There were always lots of people and lots of bikes. Some were very organized, others were just show up when you do types of things. Many were overnighters where we’d load up our sleeping bags in the nose of the sidecar and have a camp stove and maybe a lantern along with some pans and plenty of food. I remember sleeping out under the stars. There were a few times when the weather turned kind of bad. One such ride was to Scout Lake I think. I was still pretty little. I remember Dad had brought a tarp that he tied between some trees to make a lean to. I remember it rained really hard. I have no idea what time it was but they built a great big bonfire for everybody to sit around to try to get warm and dry. I remember two people for some reason the names Ernie and Marge come to mind. Mom told me later they were part of the Lancers. Ernie Johnson was his name. They’d bought brand new sleeping bags for the trip. They’d talked about them before we all went to bed. How warm they’d be no matter what the weather. Well, I remember them coming down to sit around the fire with all of us after the down pour. Everybody was laughing and pointing at them. The liners on the sleeping bags were red. Sure enough, Ernie and Marge were both bright red too, just like the color of the bags. It was really funny. I think this might be the trip that was covered in the October 1956 Enthusiast magazine but I’m not 100% sure. In that one Mom and Dad are pictured helping cook breakfast for the whole group.

There was another weekend jaunt that I recall. I think this trip was strictly the Lancers. It too was down south of Portland although I don’t remember exactly where. It might have been back to Scout Lake, we went there a few times. It was one of those high mountain lakes in Oregon that are so beautiful. It was a small lake as I remember. Anyway, again, the weather took a turn for the worse. A couple of the guys went out scouting for a place we could find some shelter. Mom said it might have been Jimmy Jones and Dave Monohan. They came back later and told Dad about an old abandoned barn down this dirt road a ways. Everybody fired up their bikes and off we went. We found this old barn back in the woods. We lugged all our stuff in and found places for our sleeping bags. That night it stormed really bad, but the next morning it was just beautiful. The old barn had done its job. Everybody was as dry as toast. Not necessarily warm, but dry. You had to be tough back in those days. You normally figured that in Oregon, even in the summer, there was a good chance that somewhere along the way you’d get wet. It happened all the time.

Probably the ride I remember the most was the one pictured in the January 1958 Enthusiast. It was the Mount Hood Loop Ride. I remember we all met at East Side Motorcycle and took off from there. It was huge, more bikes than I’d ever seen before.

Bike & Sidecar bottom left. Scotty, Doreen & Denny. January 1958 Enthusiast Magazine.

It was just Dad, Doreen and me. Mom stayed home with our new sister Debbie. The ride actually occurred in September of 1957 and Debbie was born the beginning of August. All three of us were dressed in our Lancers shirts and matching helmets. A good friend of Dads named Bob Pletka took pictures of the ride. There are quite a few where you can pick us out. There weren’t too many sidecars. We stopped for lunch somewhere along the way. Bob took some pictures of a lot of the bikes all parked side by side. The picture on the cover you can see me standing on a guard rail in the background. That black and yellow shirt really stood out. Another picture showed the three of us sitting at some picnic tables having lunch. But the neatest shot of all was the one Bob took of Dad, Doreen and me all by ourselves, on the bike.

Scotty McLain with daughter Doreen & young son Denny
January 1958 Edition of HarleyDavidson Enthusiast Magazine

She was all clean and shiny as always. I still have a copy of that magazine, and took it with me the day I went to Highway Choppers to ask if they could help me restore the bike. I told Ken and Dave I wanted her to look just like she did in that picture. Dave has a pretty good sense of humor. He said “Sure, we have lots of black and white paint” because the pictures were all black and white naturally. But again, that’s what lead to me writing these memories down. Trying to maintain some history of the bike and how she grew up in the family. I still have the original 8X10 photos that Bob Pletka took on that ride. It was a one day affair, no overnight adventure. Lots of Rose City Road Cruisers were there along with some of us Lancers and some other small clubs. It was just a Saturday or Sunday ride for fun that East Side Motorcycle organized. The memories will last forever.

Rose Festival Parades

Like I said, in the late 50’s I remember things being tough. I recall Dad being gone a lot, the result of working basically two full time jobs and a third part time on the side. But one of his part time jobs was really fun. The Rose Festival Parade was one of the really big events in Portland. Every year it got bigger and better. And it was one of those events that it seemed everybody went to. We’d go early, usually toting lawn chairs and staking a claim somewhere along the parade route where we could get right down to the curb where we could watch the floats and bands and clowns and everything else go by. But Dad took it as an opportunity to make some extra money. The local newspaper, the Oregonian wanted mobility for their photographers. And one good way to do that was to hire Dad and the sidehack to take the photographers up and down the parade route during the parade snapping pictures. He did that for a number of parades. For me, it was like Dad was a part of the parade with people waving at them as they rode by. Of course they were all hoping to have a chance to get their pictures in the paper, but Dad and the photo guy just smiled and waived back. He was a celebrity in his own little way. I have no idea what they paid him but he enjoyed it so much I think he’d have probably done it for free. It was really cool when he’d stop and talk to us. Everybody looked at us like we were really special because we knew the guy with the Harley and sidecar.

It wasn’t too long after this that the weekend rides began to slow down. Dad and I went on a few rides but nothing like in the past. We did a few Poker Runs. They were organized and were really a lot of fun. I got to ride and get dirty at the same time. We’d follow a route that was predetermined and every now and then we’d have to stop to collect cards. The poker hand you were able to build won certain prizes. I don’t remember ever winning anything, probably because I’ve never played poker but running back through the woods finding cards and sliding down hills was fun. And there were Turkey Runs. Again, many of these rides were organized by East Side Motorcycle and proved to be a lot of fun. We’d all meet at the Harley shop. They had a pace team that left before we got there. They marked the route we’d ride. You never knew if they were riding the speed limit or what they’d do. They weren’t supposed to speed. The goal was to ride the course they marked out and do it as close to the same time as they did. The winner received guess what? A Turkey. But there was always plenty of food and drinks at the end, along with a lot of visiting with the other riders.

Those rides came few and further between. All of us kids were growing up. We were taking on new interest. Our neighbor taught me how to water ski. Then Mom and Dad bought a boat and our weekends changed dramatically. The Harley got parked. The sidecar had been removed long ago. Life was pretty hectic as I remember it. The Lancers had broken up years ago and things just changed. The last time I remember seeing Jimmy Jones was at the drag strip in Woodburn. Jimmy had built himself a drag bike. I remember Dad saying how neat it was that Jimmy had done that. According to Dad, Jimmy couldn’t even change the plugs on his bike. He bought this basket case in apple crates and rebuilt it from scratch. Man would that thing fly. He beat all the cars they put him up against but finally lost to another guy on a Harley. I don’t remember ever seeing Jimmy after that.

Riding Through High School

After talking with Dave the other Saturday I realized that a lot that I’ve taken for granted over all these years were really kind of odd when looked at by somebody else. I can see now where it was different but I’d never thought of why, or even more nuts, writing it down on paper. That’s Dave’s doing. Creating this memory and putting it all together in some type of book or hard copy memorabilia that can accompany the bike through time. So here I sit, trying my best to recall why things went the way they did.

My first bike was a 1957 NSU 250 one lunger. I wanted to learn to ride and even though this old NSU was kind of beat up, we knew it would serve it’s purpose. There in Portland we lived in a pretty good sized old two story house. Out behind the house we had a third of an acre without much on it. Lined with wild blackberry bushes it had a little garden that Mom maintained and an old chicken coop. The rest was just dirt and grass (weeds). Mom grew most of our fresh veggies and always had a row or two of flowers so there were always fresh cut flowers on the table for Sunday dinner. The rest I commandeered for a track where I could ride the NSU. I spent tons of hours out there learning to ride. And some time learning to fall. But the riding was the fun part. Sometimes the neighbors didn’t mind (the snuffer pipe was on) and others they hated (wide open funnel with nothing in it). I even remember Dad bringing the Harley out a time or two chasing me around my little make shift track. And I even tried the Harley a time or two. It was still just a bit too much for me though.

During this time I remember Dad taking me to short track racing almost every Thursday night at the Portland Livestock Pavilion. The bikes were funny looking, more like bicycles than motorcycles. I loved watching the way they’d broad slide those bikes around the corners. It was really fast paced and loud, you couldn’t hear yourself scream. Being indoors the smell would get really strong but we loved it. Every time we’d leave I’d think WOW! I’d love to do that some day. Well, here I am 60 and really not sorry I never did. But it sure was fun to watch.

Eventually I mastered the bike well enough to take my drivers test. We’d discussed it and felt a motorcycle only license was best for me to start with. Unfortunately, the old NSU didn’t cut it for taking the test. So we borrowed a Honda from a good friend across the street to go take my test on. I practiced for a while and when we all felt I was ready we went down to the DMV to take the test. Thank heaven I passed with flying colors. Now I was legal to ride on the street. We fixed the NSU up good enough to get it licensed. Now I have the license and the bike. We decided to make my inaugural ride from Portland to Salem to visit my Grandma. Mom and Dad drove the car behind me. I was tooling right along and about half way there I heard a pop, there was a puff of smoke and the next thing I knew the bike stopped like I’d slammed on both brakes full force. The folks almost ran over me it stopped so fast. Wouldn’t you know, the lower end froze up. There I sat, broken beyond repair. The folks decided the best bet was for them to drive home and bring back the pickup to haul it home. That was the end of my NSU. We eventually sold it to a guy who also owned a 57 but the top end on his froze so mine had all the parts he needed to fix his. Off she went and that was the last I saw the NSU.

So here I am with a driver’s license and no bike to ride. I had a part time job at a grocery store too and the folks were having to run me back and forth to that. The only logical solution was the Harley. Dad drove his pickup now so she just sat there. The sidehack had been disconnected long ago. There she sat, almost begging to get back on the road. I don’t remember how it all evolved but for some reason Pop told me I could use the Harley. But initially it was just to work. Eventually it revolved around to school too, probably because the store wanted me working more hours and that was my only transportation back and forth. To get there straight from school I needed wheels. So I started riding it to school too.

This is where Dave thought it really strange that this kid was riding a big twin to school. Well, it was that or walk, and I had way too much distance to cover to walk. So that’s how she originally got there. My schedule had gotten kind of tight. In order to get to work at the store I had to go straight from school. The only way I could do that was with wheels. Dad drove his truck so the Harley was there every day. All I had to do was take good care of it, be safe and smart and I could ride it. So I did. It took a little practice because it was so much bike but it was really awesome to ride. By today’s standards you’d probably say it wasn’t real comfortable but when all you have to compare it to is a 250CC NSU it rode pretty well. And it made me feel cool. So I did it. Unfortunately the kids that went to school with me weren’t always that gracious. And it didn’t take very long to realize that. It started with subtle things. The plug wires would be pulled off the plugs. Just little things to annoy me. My rides to work were totally uneventful. Nobody messed with it at the store. Just at school. Over time they pulled little pranks. Nothing big, so I continued to ride it to school. As I gained confidence, I asked if I could take her on joy rides. I guess Pop was happy with what he saw so he said sure. I covered the cost of the gas and oil and I could ride wherever I wanted. Back then I could fill the bike, buy a pack of smokes and still get change for my 50 cents. That opened the door to a whole new relationship with the Harley.

My work week included Saturdays. That didn’t leave a lot of leisure time but there was Sunday. So I started thinking of places I’d like to go just to get away. The coast was only about 70 miles away. That would be a blast. So now and then I’d plan a Sunday ride to the beach. A couple times like an idiot I actually took it down on the sand. What a fool. I only weighed about 140 pounds. All I needed was to bury that thing up to the frame and I’m screwed big time. So my sand riding was extremely limited. But the ride from the city to the coast was sheer heaven. Riding through the Tillamook burn area was breathtaking. Even though there was so much damage, it was still mystical riding through there. A few of those rides had special stories.

One that came to mind involved a cup of coffee. It was a rather cool Sunday. I’d been riding in a slight drizzle all morning. I saw a roadside Café up ahead and decided to stop and go in to warm up a bit. I parked the Harley right out side where I could sit and watch it. Not that anybody would try to steal it. That didn’t happen much in those days. As I sat there with my hands wrapped around the warm cup I noticed it appeared the bike had moved. Oh, not a lot, just what seemed like a little. Then, like slow motion, it moved a little more forward. As I realized what was happening, wham, up goes the kickstand and over goes the bike. I thought, Oh Crap, now what have I done. The last thing I needed were dents and scratches. Outside I go to pick up the bike. Have you ever picked up a full size HarleyDavidson? I just looked down thinking “how in the blank am I going to do this?” Well, you lean down and as graciously as you can, pick it up. I don’t remember anybody else in the café except the lady behind the counter. I’m not sure if that was a good thing or a bad thing but I was able to pick her up and get it back on the kickstand. This time I let it roll all the way down to the curb before I leaned her over. I learned a couple lessons on that one, like don’t leave it in neutral, especially if you’re parked on an incline.

I got where I loved to ride it so much I’d find short rides around the city when I’d get out of school early and didn’t have to work. Skyline Blvd above the city was awesome. I came up with a few favorite routes and stuck pretty much with those. Later as I grew older, I’d take my girlfriends on rides up around there on my Honda Scrambler. But for now it was just us and the road and that was about it.

One afternoon the weather was fabulous. I got out early that day and was off that evening so I figured we’d get in a good ride before the folks got home and dinner would be ready. I was cruising along minding my own business when I happened to notice what looked like a squirrel jump out on the road a bit ahead of me just before a curve. From out of nowhere comes a car, going like a bat out of hell on my side of the road. Funny how that slow motion thing works but I could see the old ladies eyes were as big as hula hoops. Now what the blank do I do. Reflexes kicked in and I swerved straight right to get out of her way. The front wheel fell off the shoulder and I found myself along for the ride, hoping for the best. Well, about three feet or so off the shoulder was a shallow ditch. That’s where we ended up, the bike standing straight up, both crash bars buried in the dirt and both wheels about three inches off the bottom. Well, once again I’m in one of those “Now what do I do” situations. Today, grab your cell phone. Back then, you’re screwed. There was no way I could pick that beast up and get her out of the ditch. So, you wait patiently until somebody comes along that can help. Not many folks lived out there in those days. Traffic was always very light which was what made it so great to ride there. After probably an hour a car came by. Didn’t even slow down. Then two more cars, same thing. All of a sudden I heard something and the last car by had turned around. It was some guy in a station wagon. He asked if there was anything he could do. I said I really wished I could get her out without having to call Dad. He looked in the back and found his snow chains. Let’s try these he says. He hooks both sets together and hooked them on his trailer hitch. The other end we wrapped around the left front crash bar. Slowly he started pulling me down the ditch. It seemed to last forever but finally I hit a rock that popped the front wheel up enough to catch the side and the car drug us left and out. The guy was my savior. I didn’t have much to offer but he wouldn’t take anything anyway. He just said to return the favor to somebody else some day. Wow, great memories and great lessons learned, not just about the bike, but about people too.

Well, back to high school. We all know kids can be vicious. No different today than back in the early 60’s. It started with little things. Plug wires pulled off. Sticks pushed down against the saddlebags to look like antennas on a cops bike. Then it became too much. I came out after school on afternoon and the saddlebags were laying on the ground. Someone had jumped up and down on them long and hard enough to break them both off. That was about it. Then they carved up the throttle grip with a pocket knife. Pure vandalism for sure but nobody ever saw anything. It was really disheartening. So I decided riding the Harley to school wasn’t worth the damage being done. It was really sad. Dad really felt bad too because he knew how much I’d grown to love riding her.

I’d been saving a little money so I decided I better get my own wheels. Back in 1965 the 250 Honda Scrambler was a very popular machine. Mom was my accountant so we went down to the Honda dealer in St. Johns and I bought a new scrambler. It was a fun bike for a kid. They were much more “IN” than the Harley was. The kids viewed it as too old fashioned. So I parked the Harley pretty much for good. I rode the Honda until girls started looking much better. Late in my senior year I bought an old 55 Chevy from a neighbor and that kind of ended my bike riding for many years to come.

Before I start phasing through the next years of primarily visiting the old girl, I need to pass along one little tail about more adolescent ignorance. As my experience and confidence on the Harley improved, so did some of my dumb moves. Now I’ve gotten used to how the bike handles, and I’ve come to love the speed. It’s a huge machine with unbelievable power. Yet kids unfamiliar with it don’t understand the difference in weight versus power and acceleration. Yup, every now and then you had to show somebody that even though they were driving this big, bad car, when it came to flat power and acceleration, they probably didn’t stand a chance. One night coming home from a ride a kid in a Mustang pulled up along side me on Swift Blvd. there in North Portland. He for some reason felt that his wheels could muscle right past me with no problem. After the usual preliminary jeering back and forth we settled in at a red light ready to go. I revved the bike, the light changed, I dumped the clutch and held on for dear life. I’d done this probably a dozen times but for some reason this time was different. I didn’t move. He took off like a shot and there I sat, motor screaming and nothing. I backed off on the gas, grabbed the clutch and looked back. The chain was moving and so was the sprocket. Unfortunately there weren’t any rivets left holding the sprocket to the hub. I’d stripped every one of them off. So here I am, about a mile and a half from home and I start pushing. She wasn’t going anywhere. It didn’t take long to come to my senses and push her off to the side. The next quarter mile was up hill. So I walked home, got in the house and there sat Dad. Hey, where ya been? I told Dad most of the story, at least the part about revved her up and dumped the clutch. I might have left out the Mustang part. Guess we better go pick her up. Off we go in the pickup. He wraps a chain around that same old crash bar and pulls me home. Wow, was that a long ride home. The lesson I learned from that one was how to pull the rear wheel and take it down to the Harley shop to get it fixed. If I remember correctly it cost me about $45.00 to get that fixed. I sure thought twice before doing that again. You notice I didn’t say never. I just didn’t rev her up quite so high or dump the clutch quite so fast.

The next phase of my life with the Harley spans many years. I joined the Air Force in 1967 because I didn’t want to be drafted. That career lasted over 28 years. There are numerous encounters with the bike and sidecar during that time but for the most part they sat in a carport covered up with a tarp. It would be many years after that before I finally brought the pair to Arizona and many more until we get to this part of the story. I can’t believe I had this grandiose idea that I could restore this thing all by myself. I bought books and even got brave enough a couple years ago to pull the body off the sidecar.

Denny Removing Sidecar Body

One day I was thumbing through one of the books and noticed a picture of the seat. From what I read, the seat was plastic, not leather. And it was made in 1956. I picked up the phone and called Dad. When I mentioned the seat he laughed. He said “Ya, it was probably around 56 when I bought it”. He said he worked for the BLM driving bulldozers. He was clearing some land on a ranch and pulled up early one morning, parked the bike by the corral and walked over to the Cat. He fired it up and off he went to the area he was clearing that day. Just before dark he brought the Cat back to park it for the night. As he got closer he looked at the bike and saw the seat was gone. Only the metal pan was left. The horses had reached over the top rail of the corral and ate

the whole seat, padding and everything. Boy he said he was mad. So he had to go buy a new seat. He didn’t think he had much choice.

Four Generations Scotty, Denny, Scott (Sidecar) & Brandon

For now, my narrative will come to an end. I’ll add more to it as I remember more and as the restoration proceeds. For now, most everything I can remember is on paper, just like Dave told me to do. Now I can sit back and enjoy watching them do their work. They’re beginning to make headway in a lot of areas. The things I remember after this can go in the book, for family. For now, my mind’s gone blank.

Thanks for taking the time to read this. I had no idea what I was getting in to. Thank heaven I’ve had Mom to lean on to bring things back and remember some of the things I was too young to remember. Holy cow, that commercial about “Don’t trust anyone over 90” is BS. If not for her, I wouldn’t have hardly any of this stuff, especially the old Enthusiast Magazines. And special thanks to Dave and Ken Fulcher and all the guys down at Highway Choppers for suggesting that I do this and even more important, for their help in bringing back this dream. I’ve had a ball.

-Denny

One thought on “1947 Denny McLain Knuckle

  1. Rick Wright

    Denny, thank you so much for sharing this story, if there is a follow up I would love to read it! I too have some great memories about my Grandpa (recently passed) and MY Dad, and a couple of old bikes, and growing up and learning the “little respect” things about life and vehicles and growing up to appreciate the memories, I am very fortunate to have a son in his twenties that also holds those same values!

    All my very best,

    Graybeard

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