Harley Starting

The ageing process of modern man is rather unique. At the age of 16; both male and female of the species takes another step in their evolutionary process by proving that he or she has mastered the basic minimum skills to control a 2,000 pound iron beast. They only have to prove that they can keep it on the road and head it in the correct direction, then park the damn thing when they are done.

For this effort they'll be awarded a special license, granting them the privilege to drive 2 thousand pounds of iron and steel on 4 wheels on highways and byways of America. This was probably a lot easier than taking down a T-Rex or a Wooly Mammoth. However once they have acquired the license it marks the beginning of mate selection and more importantly they've taken another step forward in personal mobility.

I don't actually remember my first driver's test. But I clearly remember the utter disappointment I felt, when I failed it. For the life of me I still can't figure out what was so important about parking a car parallel to the curb in-between two other cars. It doesn't have a thing to do with keeping it between white lines on the highway or controlling it in a skid. But for some reason localities all over the country insist on this being a part of the driver's test; never mind that we almost never park that way.

I know that in Hampton, Virginia they are really serious about parallel parking, it wasn't too long ago my friend was woken up one night from loud knocks on his door. One of Hampton's busy police officers was standing on the steps of his front door. The police officer informed him he was parked more than 12" from the curb and left him with a ticket for illegal parking. My friend's car was parked in front of his house which is tucked away inside a residential area. But I guess when you don't have shootings, robberies or other felonies to be concerned with; "felony car parking" is the next big thing…

Failing the parallel parking maneuver part of the driver's test required me to return a week later to do it all over again. Long story short I did manage to pass the damn test and then begin my own adventure in the next step in personal mobility.

Like all kids I began by borrowing the family car to take little excursions to safe sounding places. Let's face it my dad wasn't going to let me take his car out for night of teenage drinking and carousing; and he wasn't exactly happy when I asked to use his car to take members of the opposite sex on dates either. Cars and dating, that's a whole other chapter in my life; there isn't enough space for me to list all of the different warnings I got. I was warned about speeding and sex every time I left the house.

We only had one driver in the house until I became licensed… so we only had one car. Most times that was very inconvenient for me. But I had a plan to add another car in our driveway. Of course this plan required me to find a job. I went to work part time pumping gas. This actually paid pretty well in 1964.

Working at the gas station wasn't as painful as you might think, I wasn't alone, there were at least 4 of us on each night and hundreds of cars came through during the shift. Yes we were busy, the time passed quickly. And when there weren't enough customers to keep us busy there was always some boyish mischief that would help pass the time.

1956 Ford Crown Victoria

After not spending anything I made for several months, I had saved enough money to buy an old car from a friend of mine; a 1956 Ford Crown Victoria. There wasn't a dimple or mark on her tuxedo black paint, the roof was offset by a chrome divider, the Crown Vic sitting on 4 perfect snow white walled tires was an astonishingly beautiful car.

This beautiful example of Detroit's best 1956 styling had one minor problem; it didn't run. Some time in its life the engine suffered some major catastrophic malady requiring it to be removed from the car for repair. The repair required the engine to be rebuilt, however for some reason that didn't happen. So the car and engine sat waiting and in that time some of the engine's parts had somehow been mislaid or lost. But, most of the engine was neatly stored in the Vic's trunk. It did make the price of the car really cheap and affordable.

I figured I could put the engine back together and save a lot of money in the process. My Dad wasn't as impressed as I was with the Crown Vic or with my ability to reassemble the engine. It was about three weeks later when Vic was towed to the junk yard… That Vic is probably still on the road today… them junkyard guys had plenty of engines to drop in and one of them is kicking back in the plush driver's seat styling and profiling my Crown Vic all over town…

Still I was without my own transportation… that's when I remembered my Dads offer, several years before when I was watching him start his Harley. He would fiddle with the carburetor, the turn the little distributer and then kick the engine over several times and then turn on the key and kick the engine over once more bringing the engine to life. If it didn't come to life which was the case more times than naught, he had to do the routine over and over again until it would fire up.

On this particular day all attempts to start the errant motorcycle failed, and I showed up somewhere in the middle of the long attempt at starting. I think this was the day I learned a lot of the colorful nautical expressions that sailor's use, those words that flowed from my dad during the entire Harley starting process have stayed etched in my brain. Finally with a very loud roar his Harley started and soon settled down into an all familiar, potato, potato, potato, potato idle. Like all 9 year olds I was full of curiosity and had the ability to pick the perfect time to ask dumb questions. Before I could stop myself, "Can I take it for a ride?" escaped from my mouth.

My Dad didn't hesitate, "If you can start it, you can ride it…"

Well at 9, I didn't weigh in enough to even depress the brake lever never mind cycle the kick start pedal through its arc…. But now I was 16, I weighed in a lot more and had experience kick starting dirt bikes.

The Harley sat in the garage, paint gleaming, chrome shining, and sitting on those two huge white walled tires, the monster motorcycle was resting on its side stand, minding its own business and occasionally dripping oil into the catch pan under it. The big motorcycle was just waiting for someone to come by and start it. After all how hard could it be???

At 16 I was a tall skinny kid weighing in around 90 lbs. I approached the big Harley and threw my leg over and dropped into the seat to get a feel for its size. I looked over the handle bars, and could see highways buzzing under us, trees passing by with the sun shining through them as we cruised down the highway. The Harley was huge and if felt like it weighted more than a small car, but I figured today we would concentrate on getting it started…

I swung out the kick pedal on the right side and carefully placed my sneaker clad foot on it. Putting my weight on it, to my surprise it moved down. This wasn't going to be as hard as I first thought.

My dad always kicked it three times before turning the ignition switch on. I raised my foot and the pedal returned to the top. Once again I stepped down on the pedal and it cycled to the bottom of its arc and the engine turned over with a gasp of air escaping from somewhere in the engine. I was two thirds of the way there…

The third time I put my weight on the pedal; it didn't move. It just stayed there. I hopped on it, then I jumped on it and it still refused to move. I thought for a moment that perhaps I broke it. Then I remembered my dad weighed in at over 200 pounds; so I started to prep myself for one massive "go for it all" jump on that kick pedal.

My unfamiliarity with the Harley's starting procedure was about to become painfully clear, the spark had to be retarded that's why dad fiddled with the little distributer, and I should have checked to see if the ignition switch was in the off position…

With a firm grip on the handlebars, my left knee resting on the seat, my left foot on the kick pedal; I heaved my whole body upward, when I reached my highest point I began my descent by throwing my body down as hard as I could. I must have gained an additional ten pounds in momentum. When I felt my foot make contact with the Harley's kick pedal, I threw my whole body weight into the kick. The pedal gave way and started its cycle down turning the engine over… but half way through its downward arc the kick start pedal suddenly paused.

With all of my body weight traveling down on the kick pedal there was no way I was ready for what happened next. My all out effort managed to get the kick pedal half way through its cycle, when the spark plug unexpectedly ignited. The engine fired early because the ignition switch was on and the distributor was still in the advanced position. The advance spark fired the fuel air mixture in one of the Harley's big cylinders causing the engine to roll backward. This roll back violently sent the kick pedal back to the top of its arc; at a speed only Albert Einstein could calculate…

The kick pedal's upward sweep was so fast and powerful that it catapulted my frail body straight up in the air. Because I still had a death grip on the handle bars; my upward movement had a sudden stop and directional change. As soon as my hands were pulled from the handle bars, I was now head down and feet up and moving horizontally across the garage.

During my airborne travel, which seemed to take more than a few minutes; my whole life flashed into view like a movie…. Then without warning my endless flight was suddenly and abruptly ended. I hit the garage wall and slid down the wall to the floor. There I was in a pile; my whole body was piled up in a heap on the back side of my face.

After a moment or two I began to take inventory of body parts, making a mental list of those that worked and those that worked with some pain involved… I slowly staggered back to a standing position and then the air was filled with those very same nautical terms I heard my dad use, the difference was they were coming out of me… The funny thing is they seemed so appropriate.

The Harley smugly sat there dripping drops of oil into its waiting catch pan, none the worse for the encounter.

Back to the Index of Stories