Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Hillclimber's History


The Tanks...Oh Yeah!

The Letter

I love this shot...gazing up the hill. Check out the tanks!

Iron Horse April 1983

About 20 years (or so) ago I was wandering the swap meet in Wauseon Ohio and came across a strange lookin' Harley 45 flathead. It was on a trailer around the side of a building. There were a few folks gazing at it. The owner (who became a good friend of mine) didn't know anything about the bike other then it was a "backyard" Hillclimber. He told me that if I bought it, he would through in a stock 45 frame so I could swap the motor and ride it. He also said he had spare sprockets that came with the bike. It was pretty damn cool and reasonably priced so I figured I would take a chance and buy it. I love weird shit. I had it at my space at the meet and a guy came up and said he owned it in the 70's. He had bought it from a Hillclimber named Larry Franz. I thought OK and stored that info in my head. I brought the bike home and stuck it in my basement. I didn't touch it.

Fast forward a couple of years and I am back in Wauseon walking the meet and I see a couple of bikes that resemble the one I have but these looked to be more updated then mine. There was an old guy sitting next to them. I started to ask about the bikes and described the one I had. He asked if it had a white frame. I said yes (how did he know that?). I asked his name...Larry Franz he said.

He proceeded to tell me that it had been his bike and that he won two national championships in one day on that bike in 1952!!! He described the issue of the Harley Enthusiast magazine that it was in. He also told me the history of the bike and that Iron Horse magazine did an article on him in 1983.

Larry bought the bike from A.W. French, an avid Hillclimber and employee at A.D. Farrow's HD dealership in Columbus Ohio in 1940. French had just won the National Championship on it the previous year (1939). Larry campaigned the bike from 1940 into the 50's changing and updating it along the way. He sold it in 1970 and it eventually made its way to me.

Now I was excited about meeting Larry and finding out more about this bike. I dug up the 1952 Enthusiast and had a couple of posters made of the article and pictures. I mailed it off to Larry in hopes of catching up with him again. I never heard a thing until one day years later his son Larry Jr called me. He told me his dad had passed away and he found my name and number in his stuff. He talked about the times he went with his dad to the hillclimbs and about the bikes and the family.

I ran into Larry Jr in Jefferson PA one year and he sold me a bunch of his dad's stuff... racing jerseys, helmet, leathers, boots. etc. I ran into him again in Ohio and there on his tarp were the original tanks from his dad's bike!!! paint, decals and all! I looked around and there was another whole Hillclimber in parts...I bought it all. Many original parts from the bike I owned were there. As Larry Sr changed the bike to compete over the years he kept all the old parts.

This brings us to 1996. I am moving to PA from Jersey and I am cleaning out an old desk. In the desk there is a large envelope unopened with a return address of Larry Franz...???? Inside the envelope was a letter from Larry Sr and a bunch of pictures that he personally wrote captions under. Unbelievable! He replied to my letter within a month of receiving it and I never knew it and never got the chance to thank him! My wife at the time must have tossed it in the desk drawer while cleaning up the place!

The amazing happenings and coincidental events surrounding this piece of racing history continue...

Over a year ago I had sent Guy (Greasy Kulture) pictures and an email basically telling the same story I mentioned above. Well Guy posted it on his blog and I thought that was cool. (That's how I got involved in blogging).

So about a week ago or so I get an email from Guy. He thought I might be interested in an email he received from a gentleman that was Googling A.W.French and saw my reference mentioning him. Well it turned out to be none other then Tom French the son of the famous (to me) Hillclimber. He was thrilled to find out his dad's bike was still around.

More to come...

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