© 2002 by Jim Haubert
I have decided the best way for me to write articles for this newsletter is to do them in the chronological order of the experiences that I will be discussing. In my previous article I mentioned that I worked for H-D’s Racing Department for most of 1972 and left early in 1973 so this is where I will pick up now.
It was a dark stormy night with the wind tearing at the shutters. As I put the cat out and prepared to retire I saw a figure hidden by the shadows……………. Oh, wait that’s for my novel, not for this newsletter.
When I started at Harley, I thought I was going to heaven and couldn’t believe that the racing department was actually hiring me, a 25-year-old kid who just liked Sportsters, did some drag racing and had a few years machine shop experience. Eventually I began to see that my experience was more extensive than I was giving myself credit for and learned to be thankful for the training that my father gave me.
One of the first things that struck me about the racing department was that my dad’s shop was better equipped in many ways and his shop was not well equipped. I learned that Racing had recently separated from being just a corner of the Experimental Department and did not even have a machinist of it’s own until it moved. This split was made possible because of the millions of dollars that AMF was pouring into Harley after it purchased the company. This is one of the reasons I am not too fond of the AMF bashing I hear going on from various areas.
To illustrate just how racing had to make do with whatever it could scrounge up before AMF, let me tell you about one of our two lathes. It was a large Hendee machine of about 16-to18 inch swing that had been converted to electricity rather than line shaft. It had its own overhead drive mechanism rigged up with a flat leather belt to drive the spindle. Harley to this day still uses oval brass tags with numbers stamped on them for inventory control. This machine was number 23, yes that’s right it was the twenty-third machine that the Motor Company ever inventoried. The gearbox on it had casting dates from 1898, no misprint, 1898. When you tried to take a heavy cut you could watch the spindle lift about 1/16 of an inch and if you had used carbide for your cutter, you would be given another chance to practice your tool sharpening skills when the spindle came back down smashing the tool.
You think that’s bad, let me tell you of our Bridgeport. It was a well-used machine also and our foreman, Roy Bokelman apologized to me when he showed it to me. I have seen much worse in the years since, but how they ended up with it I will never forget. He said that when Racing was planning their move, they ordered a new Bridgeport mill and when it arrived at the plant, the Tool Room took it and gave Racing an old one. When Racing protested, management told Racing to take it and be quiet.
Although there is another story here about what happens to the labor/management relationship when one department is allowed to undermine another, I have not related these stories to bash Harley. I have another reason I feel is more important.
At the time (late 60’s & early 70’s) the press was not very kind to Harley and often painted them out to be a Goliath with money to burn. In reality, the public doesn’t know just how much of Harley’s racing success of the 1950’s through 1960’s came in spite of the funding and not because of it. It really is a story of a lot of hard work and dedication by many unsung heroes that are the epitome of American resourcefulness. It is this resourcefulness and determination that has always had my admiration and respect. Often in organizations, these strengths go unrecognized except to be viewed as a threat by those that don’t have them, or lack the courage to use them.
One of the best examples I have ever met of a person demonstrating these strengths is Carroll Resweber. He came to Racing shortly after I started and we got to be good friends. His racing skill stands on its own, but his fabrication abilities combined with a good intellect make him every bit a champion in this area also.
One of my first jobs was to grind a pair of FL piston pins to a specific length so they would have no endplay between the snap ring grooves. Harley was having some trouble keeping the pins in some of the early alloy XR engines and it was thought that if they eliminated the end shake it could prevent them from driving out and destroying the cylinders.
Carroll came to me one day saying he had been discussing this problem the night before with a friend of his who built racing engines. The friend suggested checking the line bore of the main bearings to be sure their axis was perpendicular to the cylinder bores and Carroll asked for the simplest way to check. We checked a set on our homemade surface plate because it was all we had. We found them to be out of perpendicularity by about .030 inch, which was outrageous! They were supposed to be well within .001 inch. We didn’t even have a commercial surface plate but one thirty-second of an inch could be measured with a scale, no need for anything fancy.
It was time to tell our foreman.
Roy wanted us to set the cases up in the Bridgeport mill and check them that way. We had Pieter Zylstra get the blueprints to verify which surface to use for checking and they checked out the same, as did several others. Once in awhile we found a good set.
Now it was time to tell Dick O’Brien, the head of the Racing Department.
He was very unhappy and contacted the subcontractor that had machined all 200 sets. This was possibly going to mean that Harley could not release any XR’s and would be out of the entire season.
The subcontractor was trying to claim it was our checking methods and there could not possibly be this much error. From New York, they flew in three individuals who met with Clyde Denzer and myself for a demonstration of what we found. They continued to try to blame our checking method for the error, which made me angry because it was the same as saying I didn’t know how to measure to less than a thirty-second of an inch. So I played it calm and let their own arrogance back them into a corner.
Because I knew which of the cases I had set aside were good, I grabbed a set and said, “Lets try another set”. When the new set checked out good, they immediately latched on to those results to show how great their CNC machines were and how they weren’t to blame.
So I replied, ”Ok, this set is good, but you have seen me use the same machine and same methods for measuring. But if the first set is good, because our methods are bad, then this second set is bad. So take your pick, either this set is good or the other set is good. Either way we have bad cases.”
Suddenly there were no more denials and they only had themselves to blame for how easily they were led into a trap. Now they finally admitted that something needed further checking at their company. They later found that after the first few case sets were machined, a change made in the clamping method distorted the rest of them during machining. After machining, the cases returned to their original shape and this changed the accuracy that had just been machined, leading to our inability to keep piston pins in place.
Now the plot thickens.
Dick O’Brien went to the AMA to explain the crankcase situation and it was decided that Harley could build 200 complete XR’s with empty engines to show a good faith attempt to abide by the rules. After AMA inspected the 200 bikes, they would be torn down to have the cases repaired before the engines could be completed. The bikes were then sold as the repaired cases trickled back into the plant.
The repair that was approved by Harley called for the left side case to receive a large steel sleeve that was then bored to accept the main bearing.
These events explain why the first 1972 XR’s were made with two different styles of left cases around the main bearing. The cases that checked out OK and didn’t have to be re-machined went out with the original design while the ones requiring rework had the larger steel sleeve.
There also is a humorous sideline to this story. After I left Harley and was working with William H. Davidson to restore a bike for the Indianapolis Speedway Museum, he was teaching a course or spoke to a class at night school, I can’t remember exactly which. Anyway, someone in the class had heard of me and asked why I was fired for finding bad crankcases. Where this came from I’ll never know but Mr. Davidson and I had a good laugh over it.
© 2002 by Jim Haubert
A few weeks before I left Harley to start my own business in March of 1973, a really beat up early 30's style single cylinder Harley race bike arrived in the racing department in a crate.
It was rumored that William H Davidson, the current chairman of H-D, wanted the racing department to restore this bike. I asked about this and found out it was true. However, I was also told that the department had far too much work and too few people to perform it to be able to take on a project like this.
I had already given my notice about leaving but Dick O'Brien had asked me to stay until after Daytona because of the workload. I agreed because I didn't really want to leave. In the last issue I said I thought I was going to heaven, remember? I had hopes that some things might change, but I wasn't going to count on it either. Anyway, I asked Frank Ulicki, who still works at the plant, if he could give William H. a picture of my Vincent taken at a car show to show him the caliber of my work. I wanted Mr. Davidson to know I was interested in the restoration project once I left. Frank carried through, but I didn't hear any more about it for months.
The day I left is still as clear to me as the day I started. I was doing fine until the end of the day when Roy Bockelman, my foreman, said he hated to see me leave. That's when I got choked up, for many reasons. My Jeep Wagoneer was parked inside the Juneau complex at the bottom of the stairs and Al Stangler had already helped me load my tool box. I had tears rolling down my face as I drove Al to his car, but Al is far too considerate to have said anything. I was driven by a knowledge that came from inside telling me that I must continue to look for something better. I didn't know what, just that there was better.
Through the years I have learned that in many ways the "dream" position of being the machinist for the racing department, by its nature, was somewhat limiting. Because you were not surrounded by other machinists/tool & die makers your exposure to different methods and processes was limited to your own creativity. I have since seen how most of the work I did there was a rehash of what I had already learned.
In late July of 1973, I received a call from Wm. H and he invited me to meet him at his office to discuss the details of the restoration project I had mentioned earlier. Apologizing for the delay in contacting me, he said that the first bike he finally found was the one I saw in Racing and was too far-gone to use. I agreed, considering he was hoping to complete the project in a few months rather than years. Since I had seen the first bike, however, he had found another in much better condition, and had secured the correct style of engine also.
When I met with him the next day he mentioned that he had an opportunity to donate a Harley-Davidson motorcycle for permanent display at the museum of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway and hoped to do so before he retired in October of the same year. He found out that the first race ever held at the Indy Speedway was a motorcycle race and after that initial event, the Speedway went to cars and never hosted another motorcycle race again. Of particular interest to him was the fact that the museum only had one motorcycle on display at that time and it was an Indian racer. He was thrilled have the opportunity to not let an Indian go unchallenged. I need not mention the Harley/Indian rivalry ....... but I guess I just did.
Mr. Davidson said he had been searching for a long time for a bike to duplicate the one ridden by Joe Petrali in 1935. This was the year that Joe won ALL the AMA National Championship dirt track races for the entire year, setting four records in the process. I don't believe any rider since has ever accomplished this.
We went over to the racing department where Wm. G. Davidson of the styling department joined us. Wm. H. introduced Wm.G. to me as Bill and I still have a hard time remembering him as Willie G!
Ever heard of him?
Boy, talk about name-dropping. Albert Einstein, Thomas Edison, Jay Leno, Elvis Presley, Peter the rabbit .......... I'm so sorry, I was on a roll, and, well I guess, hmmm.
Oh well, Wm. H. wanted me to work with Bill, and have the styling department help in whatever way possible and it was through our involvement in this project that we first worked together.
Back in Wm. H's office, he introduced me to his secretary, a very pleasant woman whose name I only remember as Midge. I don’t remember if I ever knew her last name. She was in charge of the archives at that time and she showed me to them where I was allowed to sift through period photos looking for any that might be of value to this project.
The archives, at that time, were a small room, probably less than 15 X 20 feet with a tall ceiling of about 12 or 14 feet. Located in the basement of the main building at Juneau, it was most easily reached by a cast iron spiral stairway located on the southeast side of the building. I often had the feeling of descending into a dungeon whenever I used that particular stairway. Sort of poetic I guess.
Careful now! I am trying to state my impressions and bring the reader into my experience as much as possible. I'm not trying to bash Harley. Keep in mind that I have a very limited format here with articles in a newsletter.
The archives were in an unbelievable state of disarray. Unbelievable that is unless you had worked at Harley around this time.
Harley-Davidson was emerging from a rather closed environment of being run by a small family to a member of a corporate climate. Remember what I said about my experiences being limited by being the only machinist? So it was with Harley-Davidson when it was only the family calling the shots. There was just SO much to be done and not enough money/people to do it all! Throw in the pressure that the market was exerting at that time and I doubt that anyone could have had the archives in better condition
After a few hours I had picked out two photos and gave the numbers to Midge. They were mailed to me the next day on August 1, 1973. The bike was delivered the following day. Wm. H also provided photos and throughout the project he uncovered more photos and stories. Like the one about a race that was held in the early thirties and was a one-lap race on a one-mile oval dirt track. I'm sorry that I can't remember exactly where or the exact date, but I do remember being impressed with the record Joe set. It was a flying start and after the one lap race Joe had covered the mile oval in something like 41 or 42 seconds. I learned this just after Mert Lawill had set a mile record somewhere at 37 or 38 seconds riding an XR. Have we really come a long way, baby?
I realize that the rules were different in the early days and that this is not a direct comparison, but it still showed me just how fast these early racers drove these 350 cc machines.
Near the end of the project, I received a call from Wm. H. He said that Joe Petrali was with him in his office and that the subject of the bike I was working on had come up during the visit. Wm. H asked if it would be OK if Joe could stop by to see the bike, as he was quite interested in the project. Always a gentleman, Wm. H. did not assume that because he was paying me to perform this restoration that he could bring anyone he pleased into my shop to view it, even though Joe Petrali was hardly anyone.
I said SURE!!!
Now I started to get a little nervous.
Suddenly this project I was working had a life beyond the all photos I was using for reference. All at once I was thrust into the past to "talk shop" with the very person who had created the conditions for me to be doing this restoration. If it had not been for Mr. Petrali's accomplishments, I wouldn't even be doing this restoration!
I had met many racers through my work in the racing department and found their personalities to be no different than most people. Some were very open, some were guarded, some interesting, some ....... well, not as interesting. But this was different. Now I was going to meet someone who had been a celebrity from my father's time. Histories, photos, speed records, the motorcycle before me, all were somehow merging into a greater picture than I had ever envisioned being a part of.
Within an hour, Mr. Petrali entered my dad's shop where I was using some space for my business and was working on the bike. Immediately any concerns I had simply evaporated.
I found Mr. Petrali to be quite a delight to talk with, having a very pleasant air of inner peace about him and a genuine interest in other people. Even me!
It was really an uplifting experience and rather an honor to be able to introduce him to my father and vice versa. My dad wasn't really interested in motorcycles but never discouraged me from them either. Now, here in front of him was the person he remembered hearing about over the radio and in the newspapers. A genuine hero from those early days of motorcycle racing. He was as impressed as I was as to the way Mr. Petrali related with us and not to us.
The bike was finished on October 12, 1973, shortly after Wm. H. retired. During the project he saw for himself how very little time there was to complete all the work necessary and assured me that having it completed before his retirement wasn't a crucial issue.
Wm. H. was a prolific letter writer and kept me posted, in writing, of much of the correspondence he had with the Indy museum. I still have most of my records from that time and have finally organized them. Here is the finished bike:
In a letter dated October 5, 1973 he wrote to Mr. Karl Kizer, the museum curator, and mentioned Mr. Kizer's idea of having a presentation ceremony, with Joe Petrali present, in May to coincide with the spring opening of the track.
Sadly, Mr. Petrali passed away suddenly early in November and I never have known if he had seen the photos of the finished bike.
The last paragraph of a letter dated November 12, 1973 Wm. H. says:
"Meanwhile, along with Joe Petrali's innumerable friends, I am grieved by his passing. He was a courageous and highly principled champion throughout his life. I will miss this outstanding man."
In my last installment I mentioned that Wm. H. was involved with night school in some way. This was typical of him. Not one to rest on his accomplishments in retirement, he found ways to return a service to the community. I always felt that he projected the same style of integrity that I first saw in my father, Elmer Haubert. Joe Petrali seemed to echo the same decency.
Courageous and highly principled yes indeed. Wherever Elmer Haubert, Joe Petrali, and Wm. H. Davidson are today, I miss these outstanding men.
What a contrast these men are to the present age. I don't know what is more appalling to me today, the lack of integrity in so much of our culture, or the fact that so many people accept it.