Mike Vils on His Harley-Davidson J: Painter to the Stars

Painter Mike Vils brought his 1929 Harley-Davidson J along on the Motorcycle Cannonball.

Mike And Irma Vils At Cannonball

Cannonballers Mike and Irma Vils rode Mike’s 1929 H-D two-up.

Photo By Mark Gardiner

Content Tools

You may not know the name Mike Vils, but if you’re a biker of a certain age, you’ve seen his work. He started out as a fabricator and painter for Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, then owned his own custom paint shop in L.A., where he did the paint work for just about every factory race team in the U.S. Remember Kenny Roberts’ famous yellow, black and white “chain block” paint scheme? That was Vils’ work.

Vils shared his 1929 Harley-Davidson J model with sculptor Jeff Decker. They rode on alternate days, and when it was Vils’ turn, his wife, Irma, rode pillion. “I’ve owned this bike 16 years,” he told me. “It’s my daily driver.”

The carb is a Linkert, which was the stock manufacturer, but Vils’ is an M31F1 model that was made in limited quantities and sold only to the Highway Patrol for pursuit vehicles. Vils also fit his own cam and high-compression Shovelhead pistons. On the dyno, Vils’ bike makes about 30 horsepower, more than double the original output. “I could tell you the displacement, but I’d have to kill you,” he says, before admitting that it’s been stroked.

There’s a hand pump on the tank and the engine also has a driven oil pump, but with no scavenger pump it’s still a total loss system. Vils fit the oil pump from a 1926 J model, which works better than the adjustable pump that came stock in 1929. The transmission’s set up with later-model gears and sealed bearings.

The bike still has a 6-volt electrical system, as it did when new, but it’s solid state, complete with lithium nano-ion battery pack. In case he had to ride it in the dark, Vils replaced the stock 32-watt bulbs in both headlights with 50-watt bulbs, then added a 60-watt center headlamp for good measure. To keep the lights burning, he installed a higher output generator from a Harley single.

1929 was the first year for front brakes on Harleys. Vils’ is stock, but it’s been set up with care. “I assemble the wheel and turn the whole thing on a lathe with the backing plate on it to center it all,” he told me. “I use longitudinally wound cable. Most cables are radially wound. If you move the front brake 80 thousandths, it will skid the front wheel.”

Read about the 2012 Cannonball in: Surviving the Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run.