Seems as if every month I read about the death of another motorcycling pioneer. It's sad to say goodbye to these old-timers. No longer will we hear their stories of a time much simpler — of machinery less technical but more temperamental. With the passing of those who "lived it" we are losing the direct connection to our past.
Fortunately, the Motorcycle Mechanics Institute is slowing that loss with its Early Model Harley-Davidson programs that cover Flathead, Knucklehead, Panhead and Shovelhead motorcycles — basically the rolling history of 1936 and later.
The Early Model program was something I initially thought of as a way to preserve vintage iron. But I sold the concept to MMI back in 1986 on the promise of increasing tuition revenues. My strategy paid off, and today the 150-hour Early Model program still lives, bigger and better than ever and offered at both the Phoenix and Orlando campuses.
Over the years the program has collected an excellent assortment of vintage iron. Each campus has roughly a dozen motorcycles ranging from a 1937 Big Twin Flathead to a few dependable Shovelheads — and everything in between. Additionally, each location owns dozens of engines and associated parts for classroom training. This was no small task as each piece had to be either tracked down through personal connections or snatched up at swap meets. You don't order a 1939 Knucklehead out of a catalog.
Some pieces, like the Phoenix campus's 1965 FL Police Special came to MMI the long way round — from Iraq! Education manager for the Early Model program, James Saraceno, made the connection through an acquaintance and then negotiated the transport back to the the States about 18 months ago. The bike had to be completely disassembled, rebuilt and restored. This served as an excellent real-life project for the students. Today, the Panhead lives and breathes and serves both as a training aid and as a testament to the capabilities of the faculty and students.
A restoration project like this is not the norm, but there's always some bike that's getting extensive attention. The program's scheduled curriculum covers the details of the engine, drive, chassis and electrical systems with a touch of machining thrown in. The training is mostly hands-on, with engine disassembly and reassembly performed with a partner. A class of 16 then has access to up to eight different motors at one time. This ensures the students learn about the numerous production changes in each model line.
With the vast array of training aids at their disposal, the students can get their hands on most Harley machinery. And, with instructors who love vintage iron and have actual restoration experience, it's rare that an answer to a tough question isn't readily available. Or the student and instructor can team up to research the school's vast library of technical literature, much of it sourced directly from the Motor Company.
How often will graduates use the information and skills learned in Early Model? Unless they work in a shop that specializes in restorations — not much. But the motorcycle business is more than just economics. We all have a responsibility to preserve our past. And the students who enroll in the program do just that by paying the extra tuition.
That's music to my old ears and tells me that vintage iron will be around for a long time to come.
Dave Koshollek teaches sales and service classes for dealership personnel. His career includes stints as a service manager, Dynojet VP and director of technical training at MMI. E-mail him at DAKOenterprises@cs.com.