Story by Marcus Martellacci
Photos by Glenn Roberts
Some of our feature bikes are special because of their appearance, and others for their performance. Some are “endangered species,” while others boast race pedigree or large trophies. In the case of Brian Knop’s 1949 Harley-Davidson WL 45, it’s 65 years of history with one family and a tribute to the past.
In 1949, Brian’s dad, Joe, purchased this bike brand new off the showroom floor. At that time, he would have found that this model was the same price as the larger and more powerful Panhead. It’s uncertain why he chose the flathead over the Pan – maybe he was familiar with it from his time spent in the Second World War – but the ’49 flathead is a rare bird, because the Panhead was a better seller. The price of the bike, in case you are wondering, was around $700 to $800 at that time. I’ll take two, please!
Operating this model is a bit more complicated than a modern motorcycle. The right handlebar has a throttle, and that’s it. On the left handlebar is the front brake lever, and the twist grip controls ignition advance. The clutch is a “mouse-trap” style operated by the heel and toe of the left foot, while the hand-shifter is mounted next to the left side of the fuel tank (the right side of the split tank is actually an oil tank, complete with dipstick). And the right foot pedal actuates the rear brake.
Joe and his wife accumulated 53,000 miles on the bike over the next 11 years – much of that mileage in Northern Ontario on rough gravel roads – until 1960, when it developed a mysterious mechanical issue and was parked in a double-car garage at his home. It remained there for the next 47 years.
Brian Knop inherited the Harley from his father in 2007, and set out to honour his dad’s memory by restoring the bike to its original condition. His first task was to remove the family heirloom from under the pile of wood that had been its cocoon for the better part of a half century. He was shocked to find that after all those years in a damp garage, buried under scrap two-by-fours and plywood, the “45” was all there and almost entirely free of rust. Brian says, “I only broke two bolts and a couple of spokes disassembling the bike.” Perhaps the wood had helped to absorb the moisture, or maybe it was just meant to be, but either way, it makes for a great story.
The pictures you see here represent almost five years and 500 man-hours of labour according to Brian, and that’s just his time. Others, like Terry Cruse and Mike Grae, helped with their time and expertise over the years to make this finished project possible.
Along the way, the engine was taken apart to reveal that it had already been rebuilt just prior to being stored. The mysterious malady that ultimately caused the bike to be retired, obviously didn’t originate in the engine. The culprit turned out to be a small crack in the intake manifold, which would expand when hot and cause the bike to run poorly. That manifold now hangs on the wall along with the original windshield and the first seat covering, which was replaced with new leather. Almost everything on the bike is original, with the exception of stainless spokes and tires. Even the saddlebags are original. One of the few new items is the paint, but even that was matched to the speedometer housing, which still retains its original finish. Another testament to the powers of the woodpile.
All the hard work came to a crescendo just prior to the 2014 motorcycle show season, as Joe’s Harley was prepped for its debut after more than 50 years in hiding. It was entered into three shows and took home four awards, including top honours in its class at the Toronto Spring Motorcycle Show. But when we spoke to Brian, it wasn’t the trophies that made his voice well up with pride. It was the emotions of his family members upon seeing this motorcycle in such a glorious state.
The collection of pictures and memorabilia from the life of Joe Knop and the meticulous restoration of his 1949 Harley-Davidson WL 45 is a true testament of a son’s effort to honour his father…