Coast to Coast on Century-Old Cycles | Cannonball Run

By : Michael Lichter

When Matt Olsen of Carl’s Cycle called to ask if I would be interested in photographing a 16-day cross-country ride on pre-1916 motorcycles, I didn’t take him seriously. To ride from Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, to Santa Monica, California, on valuable antiques from private collections and museums bordered on insanity! Then he made it sound even more unbelievable when he explained that he was building a 9-horsepower, single-cylinder, single-speed 1914 Sears from scratch to take part in the event.

While the odds were stacked against Matt and the ride as a whole, I signed myself up to shoot this “Motorcycle Cannonball.” Making the event more enticing, Matt offered up his father, Carl, who would ride me (often sitting backwards) coast-to-coast on the back of his 1953 Harley-Davidson Panhead. I wasn’t the only one interested, as 68 riders deposited funds to guarantee a starting spot.

The 3000-plus-mile ride would be mostly on secondary, two-lane roads. It would be an endurance challenge rather than a timed race. The rules were as follows: “The machine must be powered by an original engine. Many things could be changed on a machine, and updates made for safety’s sake, but the core of the motorcycle must be 95 years old or older.” Updated brakes were recommended, and it was suggested that for safety reasons some riders not run “clincher” tires. Each would have contemporary lighting in lieu of the original carbides of the day. An original carburetor was required, although it could be modified or rebuilt.

The bikes were divided into three classes: Class 1 for single-cylinder, single-speed bikes; Class 2 for multi-cylinder, single-speed bikes; and Class 3 for the multi-cylinder, multi-speed bikes that became popular by 1915. The ride itself was modeled after “The Great Race,” a coast-to-coast rally open to all vehicle types 45 years or older that ran for many years through 2007.

The riders ranged from 24-year-old Matt to 79-year-old John Hollansworth. Some had very little motorcycle experience, like Paul Watts of California, who had less than 2000 miles under his belt yet joined the Cannonball because it seemed like fun. Alan Travis had even less experience, just 1500 miles to his credit, but boy, did he have drive—he’d driven cars in The Great Race many times. His factory-built 1914 Excelsior board-track racer had been run just two or three times before he bought it. To get ready, he took the engine apart, only to find it was in perfect condition and needed no work whatsoever! To get a bit more experience, he then put 500 miles on the bike, including pedaling it for 9.3 miles just in case he ran out of gas.

Many of the riders were well-known in the motorcycle world, such as world-class custom-builder Shinya Kimura of Japan; motorcycle Hall-of-Famer Cris Simmons; motorcycle sculptor Jeff Decker; American Iron magazine publisher Buzz Kanter; premier antique restorer Steve Huntzinger; Harley-Davidson dealership owner and stuntman Buddy Stubbs; Wheels Through Time Museum owner Dale Walksler; and Harley-Davidson Museum staff restorer Bill Rodencal.

By : Michael Lichter
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