1923 Model J Harley-Davidson

May 1, 2008
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Story and photos by Glenn Roberts

We’ve all heard the stories claiming that a friend of a friend, who knew another guy that knew your fifth cousin twice-removed, was looking through the buy and sell paper and stumbled on an ad that said something like, ‘Bike for sale, best offer.’ After removing decades of dust and refuge, the bike turned out to be the find of the century and he purchased it for pocket change.

This story runs along those lines except it wasn’t a newspaper classified ad and I bet it cost more than pocket change, but it could be considered a find as rare as hen’s teeth.

Fully restored and finished Model J Harley-DavidsonThe acquisition of this motorcycle ran in more civilized circles which began with a conversation between Dave and a trader of vintage iron. With photographs and further conversation regarding the possibility of such a rare find between Dave and his friend, Rich, also a fellow collector, it was a general consensus to all involved that it could be an extremely rare find, a collectors dream.

When Dave and his wife, Sue began collecting vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles almost 20 years ago as a hobby, they really had no idea they would stumble on a bike as rare as the one that graces these pages. In fact, this bike is so rare, Dave has reason to believe that even the historical archive department of the Motor Company on Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee doesn’t have one.

Dave grew up around Harleys and has been riding and wrenching on them for about 27 years. This has led Dave and Sue to have a long-time interest in Harley-Davidson history and the reason why they began their modest collection in 1989. They have now amassed a total of eight motorcycles in their stable, some of which Dave and Sue ride regularly.

“We came across our first one around 1989, it’s a 1946 WL. It was road worthy and ridable, but it needed a lot of work,” Sue said. “Since Dave is on the road a lot, it still needs work.”

Dave’s job takes him on international travels and that makes it handy for making contacts around the globe, but not so good for finding time to work on the bikes. This might be one reason why Dave now looks for complete correct bikes and he keeps them that way, without restoration. He likes to see them naturally aged instead of showroom condition.

Anyway, back to the story at hand. It was while Dave was working in the southern States that he happened upon a businessman who dabbled in buying old bikes and importing them into the United States for auction.

Harley-Davidson Model J restored to newHe mentioned to Dave about a 1923 Model J he had for sale. Dave quickly did a bit of research and made some calls, before long he knew he couldn’t pass up this gem. He got on the phone to “seal the deal,” but it wasn’t quite as easy as passing over some cash and receiving a key in return. The bike was without an ownership, or any other type of paperwork for that matter.

The pursuit began to obtain adequate credentials for the motorcycle before it could be imported into Canada. Dave and the seller of the bike got in touch with Harley-Davidson in Milwaukee and after being transferred to a few different departments, they finally were put in touch with an Identification Specialist at the Juneau Avenue head office. It was determined through photographs that the ‘23 Model J was the real deal including verification of the serial number font being correct for that era. Dave received a letter from the Harley-Davidson Archives Department ensuring the originality of the bike and the sidecar. But even after receiving the letter, the paper chase wasn’t over. Dave had to now prove that the bike had never been registered in the United States or that would open up another can of worms. Finally, with the official Harley-Davidson letter of authenticity and verification of never being registered on American soil, Dave was allowed to bring his new set of wheels home.

“When we initially contacted Harley-Davidson about the bike, they were immediately quite interested in the 1923 Model J until they found out it was sold,” Dave said. A photo in the January/February 2008 issue of Hog Tales, clearly depicts a line of bikes with fender mounted number plates that start with 1922, then skips to 1924 and consecutively continues well into the ‘30s. Noticeably missing in the photo is 1923. There is also very little information about these years when, in the early ‘20s after the First World War, Harley exported approximately 90% of their bikes according to Dave’s research making this bike very rare indeed with little information available.

WWI Model J Harley-Davidson BayonetteIt seems the newly acquired Model J came from Germany. Dave was aware that some of the importer’s bikes came from Germany but it’s the fire extinguisher mounted On the sidecar with German writing and labels still affixed to the canister body that gave away its home soil for 80 plus years. After the First World War there were still many American servicemen in Europe and this bike was originally painted Olive Green, the colour of the Harley-Davidson military bikes. While the serial number makes this bike an obvious 1923 model, the original colour doesn’t jive unless it was a military model. “In 1922 to 1924, Harley used ‘Brewster Green’ but the original Olive Green colour is still visible so we’re pretty sure it was a military bike,” Dave explained. The bike had been repainted at some point, but whoever did the paint painstakingly masked off all the original logos and decals. Dave commented on how bad the paint was back then so he isn’t surprised it had been repainted.

Dave’s research has shown that Harley-Davidson made their own sidecar for some years, but they also used sidecars from 14 different manufacturers. From speaking with mechanics at the Wheels Through Time Museum in North Carolina, he’s convinced that this is a true Harley produced sidecar. Regardless of its manufacturer, the serial number on the sidehack confirms it too is a 1923, and Dave believes the sidecar has never been off the bike’s frame.

After discussions with many people in-the-know, Dave figures the bike is about 98% original including the leather shrouded cables, original wiring and the nickel-plated oil and fuel lines. The patina on the seat glistens as only well-worn and aged leather can. The 61 ci (1000 cc) intake-over-exhaust ‘F-head’ engine, showing off a fine dusting of rust, runs great and always starts with the first or second kick.

“I win bets with people who don’t know the bike, that it will start on the first or second kick, I always win. But it wasn’t like that when I got it. It ran, but not very good. After rebuilding the carburetor with internals from an identical carb, albeit a different year, that Sue found on eBay, I discovered the ignition timing was out. It appeared to have a new generator on it and the distributor is driven off of the generator,” Dave said. “I expect someone replaced the generator, installed the distributor wrong and it never ran after that. After re-timing the distributor it started on the second kick. I’m sure the bike hasn’t ran with the new generator on it because within a couple of minutes after starting it, every bulb in the bike blew.”

With more wear than Dave has ever seen in a carburetor, and by a few other tell-tale signs, Dave thinks this bike has well over 100,000 miles on it. Dave and Sue do ride their Model J at special events. I caught up with them originally riding it at the Canadian Biker Build-Off in the summer of ‘07 and they have been spotted cruising the streets of Port Dover during the Friday the 13th festivities.

Dave is also quite excited about his newest acquisition, a 1952 H-D Model G Servi-Car complete with a springer front-end. “It only has 18,000 miles on it and the original Firestone tires,” Dave said excitedly. He had been keeping his eyes open for a pre-1967 model because the bodies were all steel prior to that year, as opposed to fiberglass, and the inside of the trunk was lined with wood.

Maybe it’s time to scour the classified ads more closely. I know that somewhere there is a ‘buried-in-the-back-of-the-barn’ special gem waiting for someone to rescue and resurrect.

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