A Party At Wheelies Motorcycles : Some folks take take their Shovelheads more seriously than others.
You can find Wheelies Motorcycles on a narrow apron of chain link and concrete in an area of Victoria called Rock Bay, where zoning allows light industry. I dropped by Wheelies one Sunday in mid-May when there was music blaring, grills grilling, buyers buying, and sellers selling. The swap meet was going just fine. Plenty of old parts for everyone. Indians and Harleys and Triumphs and Beemers and Italian bikes too, and all of them vintage, had lined up for judging. The poster said the show ‘n’ shine had $1000 IN CASH PRIZES to offer, and that there would be trophies and judges and “multiple categories.” A black and chrome Triumph chopper owned by an English girl from Vancouver was the early favourite to win, the crowd insisted.
Someone at Wheelies had convinced someone at the City to shut down the street for a block or two so Wheelies could celebrate this day in style. (Two years in business!) A permit was written and signed in ink. And now young bearded men ripped up the block one way, and down it the other. They rode hardtails: oily, leaking, belching, dirty Shovelheads. They wore uniforms: open-face Bells, greaser shades, checkered shirts and denim vests with club-style rockers. They were anxious to party and they wanted more fun, more good times, more music. Only live music would do!
The poster said the Vicious Cycles (‘THE BEST BAND EVER’) would show up to play music but with the hour growing late and the Cycles still nowhere in sight, the chopperheads were restless and angry: “Where’s our live music!” they demanded. “Where are our Vicious Cycles!!”
“Think they might be drunk on whiskey someplace?” I asked Joel Harrison, who owns Wheelies Motorcycles, and thus owned the responsibility for calming the crowd. Joel shrugged in the non-committal way that people do when they don’t have a good answer but you could just tell he was worried the Cycles were holed up in some horrible flop house at the edge of town, chugging cheap booze, chain-smoking cigarettes and causing a scene. Though I’d not had the pleasure of meeting the Cycles in person, I’d seen the poster and they seemed the type.
The poster said they’d make a draw that day and someone would win a Shovelhead chopper! To enter, just buy a ’limited edition patch’ for $30 or four for $100. One sawbuck saved with the four-pack—enough to buy a short round of beers inside Wheelies, where the service is varied. With a kitchen at one end and service bay at the other, Wheelies is, depending on your point of view, an eatery that mends motorcycles or a fix-it shop with gourmet items and seating for maybe 15 or 20. Plenty of standing room though. On the walls there are posters and artwork from the Sixties and early ‘Seventies—the Shovelhead years.
At Wheelies, they also build custom bikes—real chop-shop stuff with king-and-queen seats, Z-bars, hardtails, jockey shifts and Shovelhead motors of course. It was beginning to dawn on me that Shovelheads are very hot with this crowd, very much in demand. It’s the iron icon of an era, I’m told.
On the street and leaning against kickstands I could see Shovelhead choppers with bedrolls tied to four-foot sissy bars, just like they used to do back in the Sixties in Dave Mann posters. Not sure if the riders were going camping or just like the look. Either way is fine.
Walking the swap meet I spotted a Harley with Fat Bob tank done up with orange flames over bald eagle paint, and beaten up with dents in the side. Stickered to the tank yard sale style were strips of green masking tape marked in black felt pen with four short bits of vital seller information:
1980 FX Fresh Barn Find
Runs Excellent $5,500
The price seemed familiar to me. It’s precisely what I paid for my second-hand 1979-80 FX back in 1981. This struck me as ironic and maybe even a touch comical. If memory serves, some of us were a little sheepish about our Shovels back in the day, wishing we could lay hands on a good Knuckle or Pan. “Real” Harley motors, we said. “Even an old 45 would be okay,” we told each other. The Shovels were just too … “new.”
My buddy Corey Kruchkowski set me straight. “Cheap for a vintage shovel,” he said. “Try and find one for less…”
Well, truth be told, I wasn’t actually looking that hard. Not then, and not now. And I definitely had no way of knowing way back in the early Eighties that time and circumstance would combine to make the Shovelhead the ‘BEST HARLEY ENGINE EVER.’
How did that happen?
Thankfully, the BEST BAND EVER finally arrived and just in time to calm the chopperheads who had—in their fury over the lack of live music—tied poor Joel with ropes and dragged him around the block behind their hardtail Shovels. Dusting off his dungarees, Joel regained his composure, announced the winner of the Shovelhead draw and satisfied the crowd by proclaiming the black and chrome Triumph owned by the English girl from Vancouver as the show ‘n’ shine’s BEST CHOPPER. (You’ll read more about it and her in another issue.)
I left Wheelies Motorcycles feeling I’d learned something about Shovelhead motors that day. That’s quite surprising.
By John Campbell Canadian Biker #323