Zen and the art of motorcycle rebuilding. Talking shop — and philosophy — with Harley-Davidson devotee Rob Watt By Ron Corbett; Photography by Rémi Thériault
This story appears in the Summer edition of Ottawa Magazine. To see all of the images, buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.
Rob Watt is on the phone, suggesting reading material for my story.
He starts with the websites. Vintage motorcycle repairer (and philosopher) Adam Cramer. Japanese custom motorcycle builder (and artist) Shinya Kimura. Photographer (and bike enthusiast) Josh Kurpius. Don’t forget ChopCult. Or Church of Choppers.
Next come the blogs. The Haints Co-op, Zen of Neato, 50’s Haze, and 4Q Conditioning by Oakland artist and former pro skateboarder Max Schaaf.
Then the books. Francis Fukuyama, author of The End of History and the Last Man. Anything by Hunter S. Thompson. “Shop Class as Soulcraft by Matthew Craw-ford is almost a bible,” he says, and I add that book to the list.
“Have a look at those if you can,” says Watt before ringing off. “You’ll see what I’m talking about. We can talk afterwards.”
A motorcycle. That’s what Rob Watt is talking about — a ’53 Harley-Davidson, “Frisco”-style panhead — although as I make my way through my homework list, I begin to suspect that’s like calling a Hemingway novel a story or The Simpsons a cartoon.
The bike in question was a beat-up, ugly — but running — machine when Watt first saw it in 2005. It had an airbrushed-skull paint job on the gas tank, an ’80s-era overstuffed king-and-queen seat. Some wannabe’s idea of what a bad-ass Harley should look like. Watt spotted it on Vancouver Island in a little bike shop where he was well known. The owner of the bike, a mechanic, said Watt would make a perfect owner because he could look past the skull and the ridiculous seat and see what was underneath.
Watt, who, in his day job, is a diving officer for the Royal Canadian Navy, bought the bike, although he didn’t start working on it right away (he was able to ride it for six months before the engine blew). He then got sent overseas to Afghanistan. Stored the bike in his garage. Came back with deployment money in his pocket. Got transferred to Ottawa and brought the Harley with him. Started looking around for a garage where he could work. But nothing felt right until he drove to Alexandria and walked into American Cycle Service.
WEST COAST CHOPPERS. American Chopper. Orange County Choppers. Watt rhymes off the names of the television shows dedicated to the chopper lifestyle and laughs. “That’s cartoon stuff. It’s got nothing to do with real chopper culture. Nothing to do with what Lee [Batchoun] and Rob [Kelly] and I were doing with my Harley.” (A chopper, before we continue any further, refers to a motorbike that has been modified — or “chopped” — from an original motorcycle design.)
“What were you doing?” I ask.
“Trying to keep things real. I know. It’s a silly expression. But those television shows are not the real scene — at least not as I know it. To me, it’s about scouring swap meets for old parts, learning stuff from the old greybeards, wrenching on bikes in your garage with your buddies. Riding vintage death machines with hand shifters and no front brakes.”
I listen, and when Watt finishes, after a respectful period of silence, I say, “You’re talking about repairing a motorcycle, right?”
Watt gives his own respectful moment of silence, then says, “How are you doing on that reading list?”
Shop Class as Soulcraft became a New York Times bestseller in 2009. Its author, Matthew Crawford, owns a motorcycle repair shop in Richmond, Virginia. Before becoming a motorcycle repairman, Craw-ford earned a PhD in political philosophy and was the executive director of a Washington-based think tank. In his book, Crawford argues that we have lost our way. He’s talking about those of us who have uncritically embraced the Information Age. Who see nothing wrong with high schools converting shop classes to computer labs. Who buy cars that no longer have an oil dipstick. “I would like to speak up for an ideal that is timeless but finds little accommodation today — manual competence,” Crawford wrote.
Rob Watt has a master’s degree in economics. He has spent his working life in the Canadian Forces (where every proper noun is an acronym and red tape is on steroids) and feels the same way. “I can really relate to Crawford,” he says. “I often find it more intellectually stimulating to try to trace a problem on a vintage motorcycle than to solve issues in my daytime white-collar job.”
For Crawford and Watt, being in a good garage is a way of framing the world, of coming up with political views and philosophical tenets that make sense, of communing with primeval truths and ancient gods. Plus, you get to ride a Harley.
Right. So let’s get down to the nuts and bolts of the actual rebuild. It’s simple, really. Here’s how it all went down, in Watt’s own words: “Initially, it was supposed to just be an engine repair, but it sort of morphed into a frame-off rebuild. Interestingly, the final look of the bike changed several times, in part based on feedback I got from a build thread I was running at the time on ChopCult.
“I had picked up a ’54 right side case that we were going to bore-match to the left, but when we got the bike apart, we found out the left case had already been cracked and welded twice, so we played it safe and went with a new set of STD cases.”
“This past winter we replaced a base gasket and installed a high-performance ignition system. It is a bit of a pain working an hour out of the city on the bike, but it’s all about working with people who know what they are doing, who ‘get’ what you want to do, and who you get along with.”
Brock Yates is on my reading list. Former executive editor of Car and Driver magazine. The man who started the legendary Cannonball Run races of the ’70s. The screenwriter for Smokey and the Bandit II. Yates has this to say about Harley-Davidson motorcycles: “[Harley] has a patina of history and tradition that cannot be created even by the canniest and most creative of advertising wizards. It is hardly the most technologically advanced or best performing of its breed. Quite the contrary. The current Harley-Davidson is in essence an antique. Its basic design dates back to 1936 and, in a broad engineering sense, to a French twin-cylinder concept developed at the end of the 19th century. It is the perfect flintlock rifle, the world’s most refined sundial. But with that antiquity comes tradition and a storied continuity that defies imitation.
“The Japanese — long masters of the art of creating high-performance engines and capable of making vastly superior motorcycles of all kinds — are frantically dumbing down their product lines in slavish attempts to build faux Harley-Davidsons. The results are perfect replications of the venerable Milwaukee original but hopeless and hollow gestures. They bring nothing to the table to counter Harley’s nearly century-old aura.”
So it’s more than boys with toys. Guess that’s what everyone is telling me.
It’s about soul and history and how, if you could put Rob Watt’s Harley on a strap and could carry it around your neck, it would be a musical instrument. Not a machine, but a musical instrument, the low-throated reverb of some classic Les Paul heard in the Blama-ama-ama-aaaaaaaaa of the engine. Not the high tink of a telecaster — which would be a Honda — or the fine tones of a Stratocaster — which would be a Suzuki Ninja — but a Gibson Les Paul mister, hanging low, looking mean, Jimmy Page about to hit the opening notes to “Black Dog” and the rest of the world fading to black and not really mattering all that much anymore.
That’s what this was about — winters spent communing in a garage, summers out on the road, travelling to weekend festivals with names like Greasebag Jamboree, putting the cubicle and the computer lab far, far behind you, like visions in a rear-view mirror when they become so faint, they might as well be a heat mirage.
It’s about working with your hands and building something you can touch and use instead of having to explain or PowerPoint or prioritize or delegate or any other ephemeral, wispy uselessness that passes for labour in this day and age.
It’s about summer fun. Yes, it’s about summer fun. Isn’t that what we’ve been saying?
Owner: Rob Watt Hometown: Ottawa
Bike’s name: “Unforgiving” (based on the previous mechanical issues, the uncomfortable ride, and his wife’s attitude about the amount of time and money he has poured into it)
Frame make, model year, and mods: 1953 Harley FL, slightly raked and frenched at the neck
Motor make, model, and mods: 1953 Harley FL rebuilt by Rob Kelly; STD cases, 4-3/4” stroke; S&S cam, rods and flywheels; H-D pistons; Rowe valves; Super-E carb; solid lifters; Dyna electronic ignition
Fork make, model, and mods: 41mm H-D Hydra-Glide legs, Mullins Chaindrive narrow trees
Primary drive specs: BDL open belt
Tranny specs: H-D 4-speed, jockey shift, kick-only
Front wheel specs: 21” vintage Honda (only thing we could find that fit between the Mullins trees), Avon Speedmaster
Rear wheel specs: H-D 16” with PM rear disk, NOS Firestone tire
Custom-fabbed bits: Lots of custom stainless goodies: mid-controls, sissy bar, oil filter mount, fender and tank mounts, cool combined fork stop/headlight mount, etc., plus a fender that was narrowed and reshaped to give it a Wassell look; all hand-fabbed by Lee Batchoun
Painter: Timmy “Toonz” Feher
Seat maker: Custom seat pan by Lee, tuck and roll by local marine upholsterer