Harley-Davidson's 1916 Model 17 FHAC 61ci 8-Valve Racer

Hog on the high: We ride the elusive circle-track racer.

Harley Davidson Model 17
The first sight of the eight-valver tells you it’s a two-wheeled version of a Texan cow-wrangler: lean, mean and packing a punch.Photo: Stephen Piper

Exactly a century ago the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, which had been hitherto hesitant about going racing took the fight to its dominant Indian and Excelsior rivals with its all-new Model 17 FHAC 61ci (998cc) eight-valve racer, which made its competition debut at the gruelling Dodge City 300-mile race in 1916—and won! Of all the racing motorcycles ever built, any place any time, the American V-twins of the 'teens and 20s are unquestionably the most rakish. Lean but meaty, lithe but muscular, they simply exude speed and purpose. If ever a bike looked to be doing 100 mph standing still, it was the archetype American Racer from whose spindly frame, close-coupled wheelbase and brawny 61ci V-twin engine evolved a species of Superbike that gave almost incredible performance by the standards of the era.

Nominally available to privateer riders, the 998cc V-twin eight-valve Harley Model 17 was listed for $1,500 in 1916—a huge sum at that time that would buy a pretty nice house in Milwaukee, when even Indian’s most expensive racebikes sold for no more than $350. It was clearly an effort by Harley-Davidson to funnel these purpose-built racers exclusively to those who would put them to good use, while at the same time paying lip service to the FAM requirement. It’s not often that a company deliberately prices a product out of reach of the public, but that’s certainly what Harley-Davidson did here.

Harley Davidson Model 17
Most bikes nowadays actually have brakes, whereas all that this fire-breathing monster had was a pretty ineffectual expanding band rear stopper, and an ignition control in the left twist grip.Photo: Stephen Piper

The first sight of the eight-valver tells you it’s a two-wheeled version of a Texan cow-wrangler: lean, mean and packing a punch. I was pretty nervous as I clambered gingerly onto its surprisingly comfortable, broad leather seat. After all, most bikes nowadays actually have brakes, whereas all that this fire-breathing monster had was a pretty ineffectual expanding band rear stopper, and an ignition control in the left twist grip.

So, time to engage brain and get rolling, for moving off the mark on the Harley requires finesse and application. Press down on the left foot lever to engage the clutch, which locks in place, then select ‘Low’ gear on the vertical hand-shifter lever mounted on the left of the tank, by pushing the metal knob away from you. Next, retard the ignition with the left twist grip, then release the clutch pedal keeper and try to fiddle the throttle in the right twistgrip in unison with the actions of your left foot to produce a smooth takeoff. The wonder is that I only stalled it once, since at the same time if you want to REALLY accelerate you have to advance the ignition with the left hand. There’s never a chance of getting bored riding one of these bikes.

Harley Davidson Model 17
If you advance the ignition via the left twist grip and wind the throttle gradually open, the acceleration in top gear from almost walking pace is pretty incredible by the standards of a hundred years ago.Photo: Stephen Piper

Having barely avoided flunking a getaway at the second time of asking, I briefly considered opting out of trying to get second gear at all, and shoving it straight into top (‘High’). At this point the unwritten ethics of track testing intervened, so after shutting down the throttle, I grappled again with the clutch pedal while moving the gear lever through the neutral slot to second. As the gear engaged with a lurch, thanks to an insensitive boot on the clutch, I was almost shoved off the back of the seat as the Harley leapt forward while I had just a single hand on the steeply dropped bars. Fortunately, the track was empty, so the ensuing wobble that almost took me from one side of it to the other didn’t result in a collision, and having gathered myself up I gingerly repeated the process to get into top, but this time managed to avoid any swerve. Whew!

If you advance the ignition via the left twist grip and wind the throttle gradually open, the acceleration in top gear from almost walking pace is pretty incredible by the standards of a hundred years ago. It was also terrifying to begin with, because with the knowledge at the back of your mind all the time that there are practically no brakes, you inevitably develop a sudden paranoia about stopping this runaway two-wheeled train.

Harley Davidson Model 17
The legendary 61ci Model 17 racebike dominated American board track racing over 100 years ago, after making its victorious debut in the 1916 Dodge City 300-mile race, the two-wheeled equivalent back then of the Indy 500 for cars.Photo: Stephen Piper

After a handful of laps I’d discovered the approved technique for getting this potent but primeval package round a turn, so that I was able to speed up gradually, and start using the considerable reserves of performance on tap from that lovely engine. Simply retard the ignition, then shut off while at the same time applying the pretty useless foot brake, give 'er a brief crack of throttle to get set up nicely for the corner, then swing into the turn. Care must be taken not to lean too far over, for although the 28 x 3 four-ply Commander tyres are of modern compound and manufacture, using the grip they offer to anything like its potential quickly results in grounding the low-slung footboards which are unfortunately not hinged to prevent disaster, should this happen. Once round the turn, accelerate smartly away while advancing the ignition: with the throttle cracked full open the engine fluttered under acceleration, indicating the carburation was a bit too rich. Otherwise the engine ran very well and was very oil-tight, a credit to Peter Arundel and Lindsay Urquhart who restored it to this delectable state.

Harley Davidson Model 17
Auction prices have valued this legendary machine from the earliest days of motorcycling at more than $600,000!Photo: Stephen Piper