What is a Greasy Gringo?

I thought it would be easy to describe. And I guess if we were to be perfectly literal, it would be. But there’s something more. An underlying ethos so inseparable from identity as to be defining in itself. So pervasive as to be woven into the fabric of every fold of existence. The red thread in the dark wool suit only evident under close examination. Look closely and it’s everywhere. Pay no attention and it doesn’t exist.

Ever gone to dinner with your wife or girlfriend whilst your mind was a million miles away analyzing and solving a mechanical issue you’ve been working on?

Lain awake nights making step-by-step plans for what you’ll do next time you’re at the workshop until the alarm goes off?

Learned to participate in casual conversation while simultaneously working on something else in your mind, giving not a clue?

Attended a business meeting in a suit and tie with grease in your fingerprints that could not be scrubbed out?

Made detailed sketches of parts and specialty tools that you’d like to make in notebooks, napkins and scrap paper. Saved them in your wallet interminably until you improve the idea and eventually create them?

Taken calls from friends Saturday nights asking you to come out and you’re in the shop and tell them you can’t make it?

Stopped to help a broke down motorist on your way to an important event and taken the time to explain troubleshooting methodology to the barely interested as you fixed their car intuitively? While the rest of the people in your car roll their eyes, not understanding the sickness?

You get the idea.

This is no flash in the pan.

I’ve been suffering or benefiting, depending on one’s perspective, from this mindset since I was six years old and disassembled completely the first bicycle I’d ever gotten by 2pm on Christmas day. My parents, not being able to find me, finally made their way out to the garage to discover me elbow deep in parts and my dad’s tools. They threatened “You’d best have that back together by bedtime or you’ll never get another bike from us again”. I was dismissive, and confident that I’d have it done in time, even then. Of course a few unnecessary parts remained when I was done. That’s no cutesy cover-up. They added nothing to the function of the machine. A few years later I figured out that a hacksaw could cut metal and whole new world opened up to me. I cut some sections out of a couple aluminum lawn chairs we had and made two foot long fork extensions to that same bike. I jammed them on the forks of the bright yellow Huffy and used existing holes in the tubes to bolt on the wheel. Sketchy as hell. And fun! The first couple ramp jumps (if you could see the dodgy crap we assembled as ramps in the neighborhood) proved that modification to be, let’s say, temporary at best. But it didn’t stop me.

Obsession. Useful if you can harness it. At the same time a detriment that can haunt you. Its kissing cousin, perfectionism, amplifies the effects. Perfection paralysis. I also call it Magnum Opus Syndrome. Know what it is? Ever have it? Only perfect is good enough. You can guess where that one might lead. Mostly towards more thinking than doing. But these same traits can also bring meaningful innovation and gainful employment. Everyone’s got something reckon with. I consider myself lucky to have been saddled with these.

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Early HD Timer Conversion

Where can I buy one of these? Nowhere? Ok.

We’ve been helping Ralph turn his ’70 XLCH (The Iron Headache) into a reliable machine for regular use over the last couple months. As most people who’ve owned an ironhead will tell you, there’s a pile of work hiding in all of them. Some choose to refine the bike over a period of years fixing crap as it occurs. This gets tiring and often leaves you short of your destination. Some folks like that approach and that’s perfectly valid. We’re trying fast-track Ralph to understanding his machine thoroughly and addressing all the major systems in advance of their likely failure. This week? A non-fidgety low maintenance ignition system.

His bike has an external ignition timer as opposed to the embedded timing chamber that later sportsters and cone shovels have. This slims down the choices a bit. There are three main issues that limit choices: The timer does not accept a bolt-in points replacement as the body of the timer itself carries the points. The timing weights are also integral with the timer shaft preventing use of an ignition that doesn’t use centrifugal advance weights. Lastly, the timer shaft rotates clockwise whereas later sportsters, cone shovels and evos rotate the timer shaft/cam counter-clockwise. Hmmm.

I recommended a Dyna S for this job, as would probably anyone who has put serious miles on an early bike. They are cheap, simple and stone reliable. There’s a reason most bikes at the drag strip run them. You can run them with stock HD coils and existing weights. In the even of a rare failure out on the road, you can pop your points (that you carry in your tool bag, right?) back in and keep it moving.

Young Dan and I got to figuring out our approach last evening using an old Dyna S I had in my stash. We had it largely figured by time Ralph arrived. Both of us are prone to impatience and are easily consumed by interesting problems to solve. Details are in the captions below. Enjoy.


We removed the pickup sensor from the new ignition and marked holes for mounting on the old timer. Tapped to 4-40 to use the mount screws it came with.

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They Stopped Making These . . .

Hmmmm. How to make this part fit that part. . . I don’t think smashing it closed and bolting it down will do.

So as I’m leaving to go for a ride a couple weeks ago the kicker on the red & black pan gets stuck in the bottom position and no longer turns the motor. There were no noises or other indications that the shaft had broken, but it did. A number of years ago I fixed this shaft when the threaded boss for the internal gear sheared off. That one was my fault. Sometimes I’m still a gorillla-fist and tighten things too much. I machined off the end and tapped it for a retainer screw and made a thick retainer washer. This fix lasted about five years. Not bad.

At that time I was too stubborn to buy a new shaft as I thought they were too expensive at almost a $100. Well, now you can’t get one at all for any price. I searched pretty thoroughly. Seems they stopped making them. The shaft for this particular kicker has an oversized boss where the arm attaches for increased strength. The arm has an extended length compared to stock, too. The attachment point on this one measures at .788″ where a stock one is closer to .600″. That’s a big difference to cover by fashioning some kind of shims but I imagine it could be done.

I ordered a replacement shaft of stock dimension from the local shop (Riverside Cycles in Phila) and figured I’d come up with an idea for how to make it work shortly. It came to me later that day: Cut the old shaft in two, keeping the oversize arm attachment portion. Cut a perfectly good brand new shaft in two, keeping the internal gear and shaft portion. Weld them together. What makes this job tricky is that the shaft material is extremely hard, tempered and precision ground. You can’t weld at the shaft as you’d have no way to grind it back down to original dims. It’d also probably be weak. I decided to cut them off just behind the arm attachment point, taper them down to a “V” shape to allow deep welds and then clean up the welds back to original size.

Guess there’s no way you can claim to know how to weld if you don’t trust your own work. This application will be good test. You can imagine that there are major forces exerted at the repair point including flex and torsion. I don’t claim to be a welder but I have welded a ton of parts for my bikes and a few others’ that have held up just fine. I know the machine I have very well and can generally be confident in my work. I also have fucked up a bunch of stuff. . . and like to think I learned from it. We’ll see with this one.

I was pleased with how this came out in that at least it looks decent enough. I’ll see if it holds in real life. This kicker is used to start a 93ci shovel/panhead motor with 9:1 compression. Not huge, but no 350 Honda either. I’ll keep you posted.

Let’s get to it. Pics and steps after the jump . . .

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