Some 40-plus years ago, Mike Nieman and Tom Harding learned about Harley-Davidson motorcycles while they attended William Bowers’ classes at St. Helena High School.
“He was the machine shop teacher, we started rebuilding Harleys and building them from the ground up, with engines that were in crates,” said Nieman, who is the owner of Nieman’s Motorcycle Rentals in St. Helena. The two members of the SHHS Class of 1973 have been friends since then.
Last fall, Nieman said, “We got to thinking that (building motorcycles) was so much fun back then, let’s get together and build one this winter time and see how much fun we have. And it turned out to be a blast.”
The two friends are still assembling the motorcycle in Mike and Jodie Nieman’s shop at 1132 Main St. It sits on a hydraulic frame, so it can be raised and lowered. Its chrome is gleaming and it looks like it just needs a few more adjustments before it is totally put together, but looks are deceiving.
When could the 125 hp RevTech engine be started? Harding answers, “We could have it fired up within a week, if we wanted to. We have a lot of little stuff to do. We’ll take our time.”
Nieman also had an answer to the question: “I want to make it (the process of building the motorcycle) last a little bit, I don’t want it to end, because we’re having so much fun. I’m going to drag the process out, because once we’re done, then what?”
Harding answered: “We could sell this and do another one.”
When pressed, Nieman said, “I have to weld that, weld some stuff to the tank. We have a ways to go (before it’s finished).” What is on the stand is just a mock-up of the finished motorcycle. When building a motorcycle from the ground up, he said, “You put it all together, then you take it apart and start using Loctite, to make sure the nuts and bolts don’t loosen.”
Parts & pieces
Now, let’s talk about the parts and pieces. They bought a lot of parts from e-bay suppliers, including the South Korean RevTech engine, six-speed Ultima transmission, all-American chrome wheels and tires and various other chromed parts. The tig-welded steel frame and steel, springer forks both came from Paughco, a Nevada company that sells custom parts and accessories for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
The two point out the workmanship on the steel frame and have decided to leave it unpainted. Nieman said, “This is going to be a theme bike for all the welders, because of all these beautiful welds, which is part of the art of the bike.” Harding added, “We decided instead of painting the frame and the tank, we would leave it natural, with a patina. We’ll put a clear coat on it, so it won’t rust, but we like the look of the steel metal. It shows all the welds and everything. We thought this looked pretty good.”
By now, the two were getting warmed up, describing their creation. “This bike will be sitting indoors somewhere, not in the rain,” Harding said. Nieman added, “Everything here is top-of-the-line manufacturing.” Harding chimed in, “Everything on it is the best of quality. Triple chrome. We could have cut a lot of cost and made it cheaper, but we said no, if we can’t build it right … ”
The two then talked about their vision for this gleaming, not-yet-finished motorcycle. “This is what you call a bar hopper, you go from one bar to another, in the valley,” Nieman said. “It’s not made for long distance.” Harding disagreed: “Yes it can. Originally, all Harleys had rigid frames before they started making swing arms (suspension). It’s a rider, too. Somebody could ride it … it’s just not as comfortable as one with shocks.”
Nieman chimed in, “Years ago, people used to wear kidney belts, to keep everything in, because there were no shocks.” Again, Harding, “We used to ride rigid frames as kids. For a little more suspension, we’d let a little air out of the tires.”
’70s ‘bobber’ look
These two men are having a good time. Harding, who lives in Napa, often comes to Nieman’s shop in St. Helena and they enjoy being together, reliving the old days and working on the bike.
Harding points out that the exhaust pipes that are on the bike aren’t the final ones they plan to use. Nieman said, “We’ll have upswept pipes. We’re going for the ’70s ‘bobber’ look,” with old-school narrow-treaded tires on chrome wheels and a small fender up front and a “bobbed” fender on the rear. The spring saddle, too, too, is old school, using two springs for suspension. It sits nearly on the frame, right behind a large, steel, also unpainted gas tank.
“We could have made this in the style of a ’Frisco chopper as it’s called," Harding said. "In a ’Frisco chopper, the tank would sit up real high on the frame, but we’re not going to do that.” He added, “It’s got a lot of ’Frisco chopper to it, except how we’re going to position the tank.” Obviously, a ’Frisco chopper was created in San Francisco. Just think Peter Fonda in “Easy Rider.” There’s a framed photo of Fonda from the movie on the wall of the shop.
It’s clear Nieman and Harding have spent hours and hours discussing their dream build. “We’re trying to bring back the ’70s look, when we were in high school. This is how we used to build them,” Nieman said.
In his shop, there are eight Harleys on kickstands, including a white one from 1972 that Nieman built as a chopper and later rebuilt as a cruiser. There are photos of the chopper on the wall. All eight Harleys are for rent, but Nieman said, “Not this one, it’s just a work of art.”
The two of them own the motorcycle together and have thousands of dollars tied up in it. How are they going to decide who rides it, for example, on a beautiful Saturday afternoon?
Harding said that decision is easy. “I don’t ride anymore. My reflexes aren’t as good as they used to be.” Then he reconsidered and added, “The day he fires it up, I may take it down Main Street and back, once, but that would be about it. If I was younger, I would (ride it), but I’m too old. I don’t want to jeopardize my retirement.”