Every once in a while you get a chance to step back in time firsthand. Most of these occasions are when someone from another age group gives you a glimpse into the past.
My dad John bought a 1946 Knucklehead recently and we have been tinkering with it. We had some questions on technical aspects and knew whom we needed to go see. Russell Stuckey’s father opened Stuckey and Son Harley-Davidson in Kansas City in 1946. Russell worked for his father until he passed away and then took over the dealership, which was in business until 1981.
Russell goes to church with my grandmother, and we have been able to visit with him on several occasions. This time was special because he was going to “school us” on how to work on the Knucklehead.
When he arrived I asked him my first question. I asked if it was really true that he could ride his motorcycle down the street standing on the seat with his arms spread out. My grandmother told me Russell and his wife could do this trick together.
“No, that was my dad who did all the trick riding. I tried it once at Olympic Stadium in front of the crowd. I didn’t know that someone had turned my gas off to play a trick on me. So as I was riding across the track showing off, the bike quit, and I fell off in front of the entire crowd. It was embarrassing and quite painful. That was about the extent of my stunt riding,” Russell says.
Russell showed us how to properly kick-start a Knucklehead. The process involves rolling the throttle at the same time as you are kicking on a compression stroke. It was an impressive lesson that worked nearly every time.
“Later in 1965 when Harley began making bikes with electric start, which opened a whole new market for us. We had been losing a lot of business to easier-to-start bikes and people who just plain didn’t want to mess with a bike that was hard to start. Actually my father didn’t use a kick-start on the old bikes. He rocked them back and forth then had a snapping motion that moved them forward and they started. He was really a master at it,” said Russell.
The actual workings of a Harley-Davidson dealership in the old days were fascinating to someone my age (34 years old). Back in the 40’s, Stuckey and Son Harley-Davidson was allotted about 18 bikes a year. They made most of their money on parts and service. They offered clothing but had a hard time competing with Sears.
“Guys would come in and try leather jackets on and see what fit. Then they would go to Sears and buy nearly the same jacket for less money. Harley didn’t have the exclusive line of clothing like today. But we were busy working on customer bikes and selling parts making our money. Clothing was secondary.”
Russell and his father rode almost every day to the dealership. In the wintertime his father would pour scalding water on the cylinders and manifold of his Harley to get it warm enough to start. Then he would ride on the snow-covered streets with his feet dragging to avoid falling over.
“One day it was raining like crazy. I drove my 1940 Ford to the dealership. My Dad saw my car and told me to go home and get my bike. He said, “We aren’t selling cars here. We are motorcycle riders and we want out customers to know that. Go home and get your bike or don’t come back today.”
Russell drove the Ford home and then rode his bike back in the rain. He said when it was really cold outside they used to stuff layers of newspapers inside their leather jackets for additional insulation.
“The times were much different when we had our dealership. My father used to finance all the bikes himself. If you missed a payment he would work with you. In December he would ask people when they came in to pay their monthly installment if they had enough Christmas presents for their family. If they didn’t, he would refuse their payment for the month and add it onto the end of the loan. He didn’t want a customer’s family missing Christmas for a motorcycle payment.”
The typical Stuckey customer was different than today. In a time when many families had only one car (if that), many of the riders had their motorcycle as a primary form of transportation. If they wanted to get to work they could ride the bus or ride their Harley. They had to have a basic knowledge of how it worked to keep it going.
“We used to change oil for free. It was no charge. I can’t believe people pay to have their oil changed now. That was a big marketing angle for us to get customers back in the dealership and keep up our relationship. My Dad was big on customer relationships. He wanted them to come back to our place for parts and accessories. It worked great back in the old days.”
Russell is full of other colorful stories that would take up too much space to put here. One story was when the factory was angry with another dealer in the area and Bill Davidson himself came down and showed up unannounced at the dealer’s vacation house out at Lake Lotawana to “straighten out” the problem. Can you imagine one of the founders of the Motor Company making a personal visit to a dealer’s vacation home to work out a dispute with the factory?
I am afraid the days of missing payments to purchase Christmas presents and free oil changes are long gone. Too bad—it must have been a neat time. Except for no electric start. I am getting tired of kicking this Knucklehead!
By Jeremy Povenmire