One part Harley, one part Norton, lightly shaken
Nick’s Laverda RGS is running rich on the right cylinder and the problem is eluding him. So, the heads are off, and the barrels have been lifted to see if there is an obvious problem. With everything looking just as it should, the carbs are now under scrutiny, and with a scalding hot cuppa in my hand, time seems to slide to a halt as theories are raised, debated, and eliminated on a wet English afternoon in Paignton, Devon, England.
Outside the small, dimly lit garage the rain is really hammering down now, and I interrupt the conversation to ask if the Harleyton should be brought inside. “There’s 6,000 miles on the clock since I rebuilt ’er. She’s a daily driver,” says Nick, as we move on to the float levels. Gazing out at the rust on the front disc, the black exhaust soot on the right foot peg, and the road grime on the engine and wheels, I have to remind myself who owns this bike. Never one to baby or pamper his machines, Nick Roskelley has been building and thrashing interesting European motorcycles around the English lanes since I was a spotty teenager.
During this period in my formative motorcycle years, Nick was riding a Norton 850 Commando with a distinctly American flavor. High bars, a king and queen seat and a metal flake paint job made sure it wasn’t what the purists were riding. And on his workbench he was building a beast — a beast of a Laverda Mirage 1200 that I eventually talked him in to selling, and a beast I still own. Peering back through those grimy windows of time into his shop at the end of Winner Street nearly 30 years ago, I realize looking at the Harleyton more closely that some things never change.
Just the thought of a 1942 WLC 45 cubic-inch Harley engine in a 1960 Norton Wideline Featherbed frame is enough to cause havoc in vintage motorcycle circles on both sides of the pond. Nick is very aware of the chaos and commotion he causes when he rides the Harleyton to his local bike night on the Paignton sea front. Few people are anywhere else but on the love-it or hate-it fence, and this makes him very happy. He also thrives on the fact that he hand cut and polished all the fabulous stainless steel brackets, mounts and housings with material that came out of the scrap bin. The bike was purchased for about $2,000 right before the owner was about to turn it into a chopper. Around $1,500 has been spent bringing the bike to the condition you see here.
The gas tank is from a Dominator 99 and was originally silver. Nick’s friend Nick Lovell made the “Harleyton 45” decal, which is based on an original design by artist and sign painter Dave Stevens. Talking to Nick about the Harleyton with the smell of grease and oil in the air opened a floodgate of motorcycle memories. The tank itself was hand painted in Nick’s workshop with two-pack black paint and lacquer, and a piece of discarded stainless steel was beaten pretty to fit on top.
Look closely at the gas tank and you’ll see a period 1960s metal bicycle pump under the right-hand side. No prizes for guessing where Nick found it. In his own words, “It was bent like a banana and thrown in a bin.” Coming with the free price tag, it was in Nick’s price range so home it went. After numerous meetings with the rubber hammer and the polishing wheel it now looks as good as new.
While we are on the subject of beating metal, Nick told me he enjoyed the comedy series “Orange County Choppers” that’s on the tube in England now. “I even made my own pipes,” he told me laughing out loud, “just like OCC.” Starting life as pieces of flat scrap metal, he had originally started making fishtails before trying to fit some original Norton reverse cone megaphones. With the former looking wrong, and the latter too large, Nick decided to make his own version, and the result is fantastic. Having found the head pipes in another bin somewhere along the way, he made the scaled-down silencers with two axle stands and a Norton fork leg, after building a set of mock ups out of cardboard. Welded in the workshop, they were polished at slow speed on his lathe at home. If you look closely you’ll see a tidy kick plate on the lower pipe, as the first ride with the new system produced a melted boot and a nasty mess on the pipe.
The frame, just like all the machines before it to roll out of the Roskelley workshop, has been baked enameled black. It wears Hagon gas shocks in the rear and a set of forks from a 1970 Commando up front. This gives the bike great road holding and decent brakes, according to Nick. Utilizing a master cylinder from a 1970s Suzuki T500 means a smaller piston than the stock Norton item, and gives Nick more strength and feel at the lever. He also improved things further by adding a Goodridge hose and NVT pads. You have to remember, the Harleyton was built to ride.
Attached to the standard “Senior Ace” bars, I am amused to see the same Suzuki-style, left-hand switchgear as used on my old Mirage, with no provision for an indicator switch. Looking over to the other side, there is nothing but the housing for the throttle cable and the brake lever mounting. At this moment Nick flashes me a big grin and tells me to watch something. Directing my eyes to a row of very small holes in the hand-cut dashboard (which he found in the trash and made beautiful) he pops the key in the ignition and turns it on. Shielding the holes from the ambient light, my jaw drops as I notice them light up. Nick used LEDs for the charge rate and ignition warning lights, and I can’t believe after all the photos I’ve taken I haven’t noticed them.
Grinning from ear to ear, Nick rattles off that the oil pressure switch was found on eBay for $5, the Smiths Chronometric Speedometer was a gift from dear friend “Scree,” and the clock was found somewhere amongst his possessions. The shorty headlight brackets found on eBay tidy up the front end, and the replica Vincent taillight was picked up for around $25. By now I am rapidly falling in love with the Harleyton, as I realize every single piece of this motorcycle has its own unique story. The bike is just such a rebel, like its owner, and stands as a true testament to the ingenuity and resourcefulness that personifies the British bike scene of my youth. It’s quite the contrast to many of the perfect trailer queens out there built with a large, fat checkbook.
In the beginning …
It had been two years since I first saw the Harleyton at Nick’s shop when it was painted silver, and it was a far cry from the bike you see today. “The engine sat too low in the frame, rendering the primary and rear chains so far out of line it was hard to believe it ran. I rode it about 300 miles that way. It was horrible,” Nick muses. But ride it he did, learning all sorts of nasty secrets that he vowed to put right. There was an old Lucas alternator rigged in a “Heath Robinson” manner, mounted with handmade plates that just didn’t work. The bike would barely shift gears and the handling was very wrong, so off to the shop it went.
With the bike stripped to the frame, the first order of operation was making the engine sit correctly in the frame. “If I had a dollar for every time I lifted the engine in and out I’d be able to buy a new bike,” Nicks says with a long, continuous laugh. Hand cutting, welding and polishing his old pieces of aluminum into the bits of sculpture you see today took around 70-80 hours of intense labor. Leaving the engine sitting an inch and a half higher, and about an inch farther back, the chains now line up perfectly, but not before an enormous amount of machine work was done on the primary case, taking the power from the Harley engine to the Norton gearbox.
Of the primary case, Nick says, “An old guy in the Kickstart Club told me it’s off a BSA B33, but whatever it’s from it doesn’t leak.” He also tells me it took some subtle machining, some modern seals, and a half-inch cork gasket to achieve this, and the chain now spins happily in automatic transmission fluid.
I ask Nick if he’s done anything to the engine. Apart from bronze welding some exhaust stubs into the exhaust outlet ports and sorting the points, it’s basically untouched. “There was a piece missing in the points, so I made a new one out of an old O-ring. It looks like there is still something missing, but it’s done 6,000 miles without a problem, so I’m not worried.”
Engine back in the frame, Nick sourced a larger Amal carburetor for better performance. Armed with a book about engine performance from Harley-Davidson, he learned an Amal and a longer manifold adaptor was the secret to more power. The new manifold was chromed before it was installed. The oil tank, swing arm and primary chain cover were bake enameled with the frame and bolted into place next. Rebuilt stainless rims were fitted with modern Avon rubber; things were beginning to shape up.
Back at the beach
With the slim possibility of sunshine, Nick and I meet along the sea front on a breezy morning. The exact place of my childhood summers, it feels extra special to be photographing my longtime friend’s motorcycle at this location. Of course the bike stops people every few minutes, and this just adds to the fun as Nick tells them what it is. Looking down my 400mm lens at the foot pegs, the clouds begin to clear from the deep, dark space between my ears. I haven’t been able to remember where I’ve seen them before, when thoughts of a friend’s Kawasaki 750 H1 fitted with Raask rearsets pop into the void. Nick can’t confirm my suspicion. He can’t deny it either, but it does give him the chance to tell me the brake rod was some titanium he found and machined into action.
With just the bike in focus in my viewfinder, I keep coming back to how right the Harleyton looks. Sure, it’s a bitza of the highest degree, but everything seems to flow, even though so much of it is nowhere near stock. The seat rail was made by packing a piece of straight tubular metal full of sand, welding the ends shut and bending. And the modern mirror was found at a local motorcycle shop. Nick also machined new pistons for the old brake caliper, sourced a German 12-volt generator to sort the electrics, and spent many long nights on the lathe making all new engine and wheel spacers.
Later that night over a cuppa at Nick’s place, we go over all the details one more time. Our sons are playing video games together as we talk, and it is hard to comprehend that 30 years have passed since we first met. But some things will never change. We are both still furiously passionate about motorcycles, and Nick Roskelley has just built one of the most fascinating classic motorcycles ever to blast around the roads and lanes of Southern England — again. MC
Expatriate Neale Bayly grew up riding the roads and motorcycles of England, and first visited the U.S. in 1984. When he isn’t busy traveling the world for new motorcycle press introductions, Neale lives in Charlotte, N.C., with his son, Patrick, his Laverda, and a host of other motorcycles.