Among the hundreds of classic cars on display at the most recent Goodwood Breakfast Club, there was but a handful of motorcycles. Among those bikes, however, there was diversity, from pre-war Brits to classic sidecar units.
And representing the Yanks on the grid was George Ayling’s 1944 Harley-Davidson, a 1,200cc wartime hardtail with springer fork suspension up front, and ‘very little in the way of brakes’.
George bought the Bobber about a decade ago, after suffering sellers’ regret from letting go a similar model previously. Luckily, this example is something of an improvement.
“It’s in better condition, better to ride and just looks better,” he George explains. “That’s not the original paint though, it wouldn’t have been orange and black to start with. It’s more of a 1950s style, the American ‘Bobber’ style.”
“I get a lot of people stop and chat to me about it, because it’s not a concours bike, it looks well used.”
Powered by a 1,200cc air-cooled side-valve (aka flathead) engine, the rudimental machine is good for the national speed limit, he promises.
However, there’s a technique to riding it: “It’ll do 60, 70 miles an hour and stay there all day but with not much braking, you have to ride ahead. The front end is a bit squirrely, due to the forks – once it starts bouncing it tends to bounce across the road. And with the hardtail, the main problem is avoiding potholes – you have to look ahead all the time and weave about over the road a bit.
“There’s a lot of torque in it so you don’t have to rev it, it’ll pulls from 0mph, and you just chug along and it’s good fun to ride as long as you’re not in a hurry to get anywhere.”
Shifting through the four-speed gearbox is done via a tank shift and foot clutch, while a damper sits atop the forks, allowing the rider to made adjustments to ‘try and stop it bouncing so much’.
Unlike the smaller 750, which was imported in its thousands to the UK and used by despatch riders, the 1200 was an altogether rarer beast on this side of the Pond.
A Harley aficionado, George was taken by the 1200 for a number of reasons. “I like it because of its looks and the fact that it’s fun to ride, it’s just so unique. There were I think 80,000 of the 750s shipped over, compared to very few of the 1200s.”
“I’d certainly buy another one of these if one came up. But any bike of that period, I’d be interested in.”
Noticing a theme, I wondered aloud whether his heart lay in American Classics? “It does really. We had a 1956 Ford pick-up and used to come to Breakfast Club and the Revival in it, but I sold that last year and regret it now…”
On the 1200, George covers less than 1,000 miles per year, taking it to local shows and for sunny Sunday rides. It’s not a bad weather bike, he admits: “There’s no front mudguard so if it’s wet you get all the spray off the front wheel coming up in a big rooster tail and landing right in your face.”
However, on his previous model he ventured as far afield as Holland, in order to take part in the aptly-named Old Timers Rally. Did he have similar plans for this bike?
“No,” he admitted. “I came from our home in Liphook today, about 30 miles away, and that’s far enough!”
Finally, I turned the conversation to maintenance – usually the bane of any classic bike owner’s life.
“There’s always something to do to it, nothing major, just adjustments and check the oils,” George said. “But no big works, it doesn’t need it, they were pretty reliable engines.”
“We have put a belt primary drive on it, because it was chain, which need constant adjustment and leaked oil everywhere, so we’ve done the belt conversion and also converted it to 12 volt – it was 6 volt. That was a winter project, as it doesn’t go far in the winter.”
And any future work planned, I asked, mentioning how popular these bikes are becoming among customisation workshops?
Laughing, the 67-year-old admitted that wasn’t the scene for him. “I’m just going to leave it as it is,” he said. “Make sure it starts, keeps running, and doesn’t break down…”