Origainally published in International Motorcycle, April 2002, Vol. 12 # 2
By Steve Bond
Motorcycle competition has taken many forms over the years. Some, like road racing and flat tracking have flourished to the present day. Others, like hillclimbing, have only isolated, loyal groups of eccentrics keeping the sport alive. Hillclimbing used to be very popular in the United States, primarily because no expensive venues were required - all you needed was a hill. And there were plenty of those. One rider, one motorcycle and one hill. Quickest to the top wins.
Hillclimbing has evolved along with other types of motorcycle competition. Elongated frames and highly-tuned, nitro breathing engines dominate the modern game but, as in other types of racing, things used to be much simpler.
Seventy-five years ago, factories such as Indian, Excelsior and Harley-Davidson sponsored riders who competed in a number of prestigious National Championship events. Today, factory support is long gone, replaced by a dedicated few who carry on the tradition.
The motorcycle gracing these pages is a factory Harley-Davidson hillclimber built by top AMA Pro Larry Ketzel, appearing basically as he last raced it in 1950.
It's more or less a "Franken-motorcycle" as it's constructed from bits and pieces from several different models. From available information, Ketzel was not only a good rider, he was a very intelligent individual who knew what he wanted in a racing motorcycle and how to put it together.
According to a 1936 California certificate of ownership document, the frame was manufactured in 1928 and originally housed a 45 cubic inch JDH street engine. The cases are from a 1929 JDH 2-cam, 74 cubic inch (1,230cc) motor and Ketzel incorporated flywheels from a 61 cubic inch (1,000cc) model. The cam is a standard JDH type hand ground by trial and error for maximum performance.
The cylinders are based on 21.5 cubic inch units from a 350cc single-cylinder "Peashooter" specially cast at the factory with flanges to fit the JDH cases. Herb Seaver, a Harley Davidson pattern maker in the 1920s and 30s, cast the barrels for this motorcycle and only six sets (12 barrels in total) were ever made.
The OHV heads are stock 1930 Peashooter units and on the rear cylinder, the exhaust was converted to the intake side and both heads feature radical porting. Carburetion is by a single Schebler racing model of undetermined size.
Once the engine was together, it wasn't just a drop-in as Ketzel had to remove half the gearbox just to fit the powerplant into the frame. He also scrapped the gear-driven oil pump and installed a hand pump to reduce horsepower loss. While he was at it, Ketzel bumped the compression ratio to 13:1.
The 1929 frame already had the rigid rear end you see here, but Ketzel grafted a springer front fork from a 1928 45 cubic inch street unit. Handlebars are factory Harley hill climber units.
Riding the hillclimber would require a different approach than other racing motorcycles. There was only one gear and the kill switch is there for more than just shutting the engine down. As with most other hillclimbers of the day, the throttle was always kept wide open and the kill button was activated to slow the engine - if required.
The rear wheel has an interesting approach to traction enhancement. Tire technology in the 1930s was good for its day but nothing like modern rubber. Not only does the Harley have link chains similar to what you'd find on snowblowers mounted radially around the tire, these chains are supplemented by lengths of motorcycle drive chain mounted alongside.
Rather than a drum with internally expanding brake shoes, the rear brake on the Harley has a fabric brake band around the outside circumference of the drum. There are no front brakes.
Ketzel raced it for a number of years with some success and then sold the machine to Orvin Abbott in 1936. Several years later, Ketzel took it back as a basket case trade-in on another motorcycle. Abbott suffered some problems, disassembled it, and it was never repaired. At a later hill climb, Ketzel blew the engine of his "A" motorcycle and used the cases from the junk motor of Abbott's. Larry kept the title to the engine in his files (along with about 65 others), which is why the title of the frame is registered to Ketzel, but the motor belongs to Abbott.
Ketzel, who once worked in the Harley-Davidson factory, went on to own a Harley dealership in Salinas, CA for 25 years. He died in 1992 at the ripe old age of 86. Before his death, he donated this motorcycle (dubbed the "Home-Brewed Special") to the American Motorcycle Association Hall of Fame Museum where it normally sits on display as part of the "75 Years of Excitement" display.
In late 2001, the AMA Hall of Fame Museum, in a strange sort of Free Trade Agreement, loaned the "Home-Brewed Special" to the Canadian Motorcycle Heritage Museum for its "Salute to America" exhibit at the International Motorcycle Supershow in January 2002.
The Canadian Motorcycle Heritage Museum, in return, loaned its 1920 Indian board tracker to the AMA Hall of Fame Museum for a display called "A Century of Indian Motorcycles" commemorating the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Indian Motorcycle Company. The exhibit features more than 50 motorcycles from Indian's tumultuous history, and will remain open at the AMA Hall of Fame Museum through December 2002.
Looking at the "Home-Brewed Special," you almost go back 70 years, picturing a leather-helmeted Ketzel leaning forward over the tank. His steely eyes squint through split-lens goggles. His bare hand pins the throttle, drops the clutch and all hell breaks loose. Chains on the wildly spinning rear tire churns the moist earth, sending pebbles and grit thirty yards through the air. A few seconds later it's over and Ketzel stands at the top.
The Canadian Motorcycle Heritage Museum is dedicated to preserving Canada's motorcycling heritage and is currently seeking donations of significant motorcycles, artifacts, memorabilia, books and literature, photos, and trophies having Canadian heritage and can issue personal income tax receipts for all donations.
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