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.
By Mark Gardiner
January/February 2013
Add to My MSN

Cannonballers Mike and Irma Vils rode Mike’s 1929 H-D two-up.
Photo By Mark Gardiner

Content Tools

Related Content

Seth Enslow makes record-breaking 183.7-foot jump

Freestyle motocrosser Seth Enslow broke the existing record of 157 feet for a successful long distan...

The Joy of a Workshop

It is a nasty sleety kind of winter day and I am sitting in my shop, tea in hand, just contemplating...

Ace Café Debuts Harley Build: The Ace 1200CR Street Special

Ace 1200CR Street Special to debut on the Ace Café London stand at the UK's premier "two-wheeler" sh...

Riding U.S. Army Harleys

Bevo Bowen shares some vintage photos from the 1940s of the U.S. Army Harleys his father used to rid...

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.

Post a comment below.


My Community

The sound and the fury: celebrate the machines that changed the world!
First Name: *
Last Name: *
Address: *
City: *
State/Province: *
Zip/Postal Code:*
(* indicates a required item)
Canadian subs: 1 year, (includes postage & GST). Foreign subs: 1 year, . U.S. funds.
Canadian Subscribers - Click Here
Non US and Canadian Subscribers - Click Here

Motorcycle Classics is America's premier magazine for collectors and enthusiasts, dreamers and restorers, newcomers and life long motorheads who love the sound and the beauty of classic bikes. Every issue  delivers exciting and evocative articles and photographs of the most brilliant, unusual and popular motorcycles ever made!

Save Even More Money with our RALLY-RATE plan!

Pay now with a credit card and take advantage of our RALLY-RATE automatic renewal savings plan. You save an additional $4.95 and get 6 issues of Motorcycle Classics for only $24.95 (USA only).

Or, Bill Me Later and I'll pay just $29.95 for a one year subscription!