The ups and downs of owning a classic motorcycle
Builder extraordinaire Bob Vail and his “Similaria” BMW (left) and Harley. Photo courtesy Bob Vail
Rider: Bob Vail, Cleveland, Ohio
Occupation: Construction management consultant
Current rides: Too numerous to list!
The story of Bob’s “Similaria” motorcycles: “I like to make things and inspire others to make things. In particular, I like to make motorcycles that are at the intersection of form and function. Old motorcycles have an elegant look of gracefulness and simplicity, where nothing is hidden. The eye picks up the distinctive colors of brass, copper, aluminum and nickel. My goal is to make similar motorcycles with that old look, but capable of running continuously at 70mph, with good brakes, good lighting, enough electrics to use heated clothing and good for the next 20,000 miles.
“The Harley-Davidson is made to look like the 1914 era. The main features of Harleys I wanted to include were the flat-sided gas tank, handshift, thin, large diameter wheels/tires, an antique headlight, a springer front end, long wrap-around handlebars and the Prestolite acetylene gas bottle on the handlebars (to power the headlight), and belt drive.
“This motorcycle was to be ridden, so features I wanted to include that were NOT on these older models were good brakes, a bright headlight, a large bright taillight, and a good amount of electrical power. I started with a 1997 Harley Sportster 883 and transferred the engine to an Arlen Ness hardtail frame. The gas tanks (left and right sides, separated by the frame) and oil tank were my first attempts at building tanks. The headlight is an original B&L brass light, but it’s gutted, with an H4 halogen reflector and bulb installed. On the handlebars I fabricated a steel bottle made to look like the Prestolite, but it has a cut-out for my speedometer and tach. Effort exerted: 195 drawings, 273 fabricated pieces, 1-1/2-year build time, completed in 2011 and ridden over 10,000 miles, including attending the Motorcycle Classics ‘Ride ’Em Don’t Hide ’Em’ rally in Pennsylvania in 2016.
“The BMW is a similar story, but I wanted it to look similar to a 1928 R52. The main features of the real R52 I wanted to include were a frame that goes over the top of the gas tank, a distinctive wedge-shaped gas tank, a loop frame behind the engine to the rear wheels, a leaf spring front end, a cylinder-shaped headlight, handshift and footboards.
“I bought a functioning 1974 BMW R75/6 and proceeded to cut the frame up, adding twin top frame tubes, and relocating the steering head. This time the gas tank was made of aluminum, hand beaten around a plywood form. The unique shape of the headlight was achieved thanks to two KitchenAid 8-inch sauce pans. The front brake is the perimeter type, custom made by HDW. I do have rear shocks on this bike, but I located them inside the rear frame’s loop to make them more obscure.
“Effort exerted: 277 drawings, 257 fabricated pieces, 2-1/2-year build time, completed in 2015 and ridden over 3,000 miles.
“For both bikes, I started with the wiring harnesses and made the needed modifications. To keep track of the changes, I made a digital copy of the original 8-1/2-inch x 11-inch black and white wiring diagram from the manual, then digitally added the color to each wire. I saved this original file, then added the changes I made to these bikes, and printed it 24 inches x 36 inches. This is quite time consuming, but well worth it for building and future reference. A big thank you goes to my wife, Lynn, for her support of the time I spend building in the basement and out riding. Riding these motorcycles is great fun, and the handshifting adds a mellowness and rhythm to the journey — and takes me back to a time long ago.”