A Harley restoration is one man's cure for the blues
1959 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLH
Years produced: 1957-current
Total production: 947 (1959)
Claimed power: 40hp @ 5,500rpm
Top speed: 115mph
Engine type: 883cc (53.9ci) overhead valve, air-cooled 45-degree V-twin
Weight (dry): 225kg (495lb)
Price then: $1,200
Price now: $6,600-$11,000
“I was never into Harleys,” says Rick Schaefer. “But one day I saw a bike in a friend’s barn, and he asked me if I wanted it. I felt I needed a restoration project to keep busy, so I bought it.”
Rick didn’t know it at the time, but what he had bought was a 1959 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLH, one of 947 made. His need for the project was driven by personal loss: His brother had died of cancer, and then six months later his father died. “I went through the whole winter depressed,” Rick says. He soon found the cure to be a classic Harley restoration.
Taking stock in the Sportster XLH, Rick found a lot of the stock parts were missing. The seat tabs had been cut off the frame — minor damage for a classic Harley-Davidson motorcycle of this vintage, as many bikes that went through the chopper era of the Sixties and Seventies have frames that are altered beyond repair — but the engine was original, even if the forks were not. It was a better than the average barn find, and a classic American motorcycle well worth restoring. Even so, Rick knew restoring the bike would be a challenge, and he knew he’d need help.
There are a lot of people out there who work on classic Harley-Davidson motorcycles — frame men, magneto experts and sheet metal artists, wizards who can do wonders with even the saddest lump of rust. The trick is in finding them, because people who know what they are doing — like “Harley” John Cunningham — don’t advertise much. Most of them have all the work they can handle.
“I went to the local dealer for help. He didn’t know anything about old Sportsters, but directed me to Harley John Cunningham, a former Harley-Davidson dealer. I looked up Harley John and showed him the Sportster. ‘I’ll help you,’ he said.” The rest, as they say, is history.
Rick’s 1959 Harley-Davidson Sportster XLH
The story of Rick Schaefer’s labor of love started in Texas. The friend who sold him the Sporty was driving through Texas some years ago, when his VW bus broke down in the middle of nowhere. He walked to a farmer’s barn for help, and there was the Sportster. The farmer helped him get the VW going, and he went on.
Two years later, Rick’s friend was driving by the same place. He stopped, thanked the farmer for his help, and asked if the Sportster might be for sale. It was, he bought it, and he brought it home to New York. He rode it hard, customized it, and at the same time generally ignored giving it any maintenance. Eventually, the poor thing refused to run. Several years later, Rick bought it.
Harley John rebuilt the engine and helped Rick find a lot of the original NOS parts Rick wanted. Rick found period photos of the 1959 XLH and, based on how the bike looked in them, decided to have it painted Skyline Blue, one of the three stock colors.
“We got it running, and then I had the idea to show it,” says Rick. “That was a mistake. I thought it was the most beautiful bike in the world. It looked like a piece of art to me, but at the first Antique Motorcycle Club of America show I took it to, they told me I had the wrong rims, the bolts were not Parkerized and the spark plugs were wrong.
Learning the ropes
American Motorcycle Club of America (AMCA) judging is based on a comparison of the bike in the field to the bike as it was originally sold. Parkerizing is a chemical finish, also used on gun barrels, that protects steel parts from rust. Rick was upset by the judging results, but bounced back after receiving numerous offers of help. “AMCA people will help with anything if you ask. It used to be you couldn’t talk to the judges, but they changed that, which is good. It gives you a chance to learn.”
Rick and John went back to the garage and fixed what they could. At the next show, Rick’s Sporty earned a Junior Second. “They said some bolts were wrong and the generator body needed paint.” Several shows later, the Sporty is a Winner’s Circle bike.
“I ride the Sportster about 500 miles a year, depending on how the weather cooperates,” says Rick. “I’m getting used to kickstarting it. John’s been coaching me on the procedure. You give it a quarter throttle, retard the spark with the left grip, turn the gas on and engage the choke. Kick four times. Turn the key on, but NOT the lights. Put the choke on the first notch and KICK. Hopefully, two or three kicks will start it, but my leg is often black and blue after meets.”
Rick sticks to country roads, although he says there are no problems if the bike is stuck in traffic. He has modified the clutch to run in transmission oil, a popular period fix. “The brakes were great back then, and they still stop the bike. The tires are new old stock, and limit handling. I have new repro tires, but haven’t mounted them yet.”
As it turns out, the bike is clearly much happier now, and so is Rick. “It’s hard to believe what the bike once was, the way it looks now. I would definitely do it again. My family and Harley John’s have become close, and we celebrate holidays together. I have met so many people through the AMCA. I have dedicated the bike to the memory of my brother and father.”
As one of only 947, Rick Schaefer’s immaculately restored 1959 Harley-Davidson XLH Sportster is a rare bird.
So when Rick (on the Sporty at left) offers me some time in the saddle of his Skyline Blue Sporty — on a wet road after an unexpected downpour — I’m feeling a bit apprehensive; it’s not easy explaining how you ruined someone’s impossible-to-replace 1959 Harley. But Rick, who is excited to see what I think of his pride and joy, doesn’t seem to be giving the weather a second thought.
Saving me the embarrassment of failure, Rick kicks the Sporty to life (it’s something of an acquired skill), and gives me the quick drill: left hand manual advance, right hand throttle with no return springs, and right side reverse-pattern shift.
By this time the sun is coming out, and as a fog starts rising from the road I lift the shifter into first and pull away. My route is a meandering two-lane blacktop through an alternately forested and farmed valley, perfect for familiarizing myself with the Sporty’s meaty twin and ancient tires.
Anyone used to old Brit Iron would find shifting the Sporty a familiar exercise. With an upside down pattern and a long throw, it clicks into gear easily as long as you shift with authority. The clutch is surprisingly light, and there’s no shudder, just a smooth, linear feed.
The same’s true of the engine, which feels smaller than its 883cc. Throttle response through the Linkert carb is surprisingly good, and the engine’s hefty torque gives effortless acceleration. Short-shifting the four-speed gets the best out of the V-twin, allowing me to focus on the suspension, which is surprisingly supple. Balanced and light through the corners, the pig-like handling I’d expected is nowhere to be felt. (To be fair, I hardly pushed the Sporty — there’s that impossible-to-replace thing again.)
The manual advance and lack of throttle return springs takes some getting used to (you have to keep reminding yourself to roll the throttle back during shifts), but after a bit even that starts to feel natural. It’s fun, and every shift reaps the reward of hearing the assertive bark of the bike’s great V-twin.
Compared to more modern machinery the Sporty’s brakes are decidedly weak (you stop by jamming on the rear break and finishing with the front), but about on par with a lot of other bikes of the same era. Overall, it’s an easy bike to ride; surprisingly competent and user friendly.
Much too quickly my ride comes to an end, and I’m handing the Sporty back to Rick. Unstrapping my helmet I hear Rick asking me what I think of his Sporty, but as the helmet comes off he sees his answer; I’m grinning ear to ear. MC