Sep 01, 2020 11:54AM
By Pamela Collins
Motorcycles resonate with different people for different reasons, riders and non-riders alike. Maybe that throaty exhaust note unwraps memories of Dad’s old bike and times shared together. Or that maroon and gold color scheme bounces a memory backward, to days of college and a first true love. That glint of chrome could be reminiscent of a restlessness borne in youth lying silently dormant and unfulfilled, still.
At the Thomas T. Taber Museum in Williamsport, you can ride through your own mystical, magical, two-wheeled memory lane at the new Harley-Davidson vs. Indian Wars exhibit. Running through September 20, this show features prime examples of the named marques, as well as other manufacturers, dating from 1920 through 2019.
Area resident Duane VanFleet loaned a part of his private collection to the museum to help illustrate the back-and-forth (and continuing) battle between these two major American motorcycle manufacturers. As with most things motorcycling, though, these bikes represent more than value, or rarity, or singularity. They represent memory and emotion.
As Duane tells it, the exhibit also illustrates the tale of two brothers, their collective passion for racing and motorcycling, their journey from having, then losing, then regaining, and their story of literal “brotherly love.”
Keith VanFleet, Duane’s brother, restored many of the antique beauties on display. His enduring love affair with motorcycling began before he could even drive—when he started racing motocross at fourteen. Duane, in true little-brother fashion, often tagged along when Keith visited his motorcycling mentor, a Scranton neighbor who worked on bikes.
The motorcycling bug bit the brothers hard, but, as often happens, receded at times as adult responsibilities gained priority. But the absence/growing fonder cliché proved true, and not only have the VanFleets begun buying and restoring motorcycles, but many of these bikes in the collection are also the exact ones they owned.
They also still race. Duane enjoys ice racing, and they both complete in the Race of Gentlemen, a drag race run in the New Jersey shore sand using vintage motorcycles every fall. Keith usually rides a 1937 eighty-cubic-inch Indian factory racer with twin carbs and a Bonneville cam for that race. Duane rides a 1942 Harley-Davidson WR TT Factory Racer (of which there are fewer than ten known examples), once raced by the legendary Al Knapp. Both bikes are in the exhibit.
“It’s the perfect mix of crazy,” says Keith, “You have to know where to draw the line. I get beat every year, but only by a wheel.” Keeping an elderly machine in racing form presents challenges, but, he continues, “there’s nothing I like better than grabbing a seventy-year old machine that’s worn out and run[down], and you can make it new and competitive. I just love this old stuff.”
The old stuff in the collection will whizz, putt, or race visitors down their personal memory lanes. Keith says the oldest bike, a 1920 Cleveland, kick-started the restoration challenge and remains the most difficult motorcycle he’s ever restored. “The motor was locked up, the connecting rod broken. I had to cut the fuel tank in half and put a modern tank inside it. I welded the connecting rod.” He says the Cleveland operates okay, but the ride isn’t necessarily smooth. “You bounce all over the place,” he chuckles.
Actually, all of the collection’s bikes run, as the VanFleet brothers aren’t inclined to coddle prissy, pristine show bikes. In fact, Duane is planning to race a Harley-Davidson 1937 Salt Flat Drag bike for the vintage world record this year at the Bonneville Salt Flats. Silvery sleekness drenches its long, stretched frame and chromed front end, and the bike looks like a rebellious teenager rather than an eighty-three-year old senior. The Flathead engine provides the only clue to its true age, but one doesn’t doubt that it will go fast, because it will.
The exhibit lets one examine and compare the technological changes Indian Motorcycles and Harley-Davidson underwent throughout their lifetimes, as the two American companies competed in the race to make better bikes and grasp consumer loyalty, even to the present day. Prime representatives in the collection from Indian include a 1941 441 Indian four-cylinder. Boasting seventy-seven cubic inches, the squarish four-cylinder motor looks unconventional, but beautiful, perched underneath the maroon-colored tank with matching swooping fenders and tan leather seat.
A 1945 Indian Sport Scout used forty-five cubic inches to make twenty-five horsepower and reach speeds up to 85 mph. Another Sport Scout, this one from 1940, once belonged to local racing legend and AMA Hall of Fame Member “Fast” Eddie Fisher, whom Duane calls “one of my idols,” a former Indian factory racer turned Triumph factory racer (he won Laconia in 1953), who, at ninety-five, still rides. To read more about “Fast” Eddie Fisher, visit https://issuu.com/mountainhome/docs/november_2018.
Bikes representing Harley-Davidson include a 1941 G-model Servi-car three-wheeled delivery vehicle; a 1937 UL side-valve Flathead; a 1946 Knucklehead; a 1960 blue and white Duo Glide (bought and sold by Duane three times); and a “peas and carrots” 1981 Heritage AMF Shovelhead resplendent in its green and orange paint scheme.
One H-D model in the collection tells a special story. The 1942 Knucklehead EL replicates exactly the bike the VanFleets’ father, Ernie, had owned and then sold when he started his family. Duane and Keith found and restored the bike, then presented it to Ernie and mom Florence two years before Ernie died. With its shiny paint and springer front-end, the motorcycle tells a story far greater than a simple restoration, or a fast machine, or an expensive racer. It tells a tale of history, of family, of lost love, found love, and enduring love.
Clothes, oilcans, advertisements, and other items round out the collection, which also includes several fine examples of British motorcycles. Find the Harley-Davidson vs. Indian Wars exhibit at the Thomas T. Taber Museum, 858 West Fourth Street. For more information visit tabermuseum.org.