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Monday, February 13, 2012

Wheels through Time...

The Wheels Through Time American Motorcyle Museum, in Maggie Valley NC, is the self-proclaimed home to the world's premier collection of rare American vintage motorcycles, and is usually closed for the winter season.

Even though I had heard a lot about Wheels Through Time from my Harley riding colleagues, I had never been to the Museum. Checking their website on a whim, I learned that they were having a Special Opening on February 3-5th 2012, in order to award a raffled 1936 Knucklehead to the winner of the 2011 WTT fund-raising raffle.
It also happened that I was helping my sister move out to western North Carolina on Feb. 2nd and 3rd, and could pass right by the Museum on the return trip home. And my Dad would be along for the return trip too.
My earliest memory of my Dad, related to Motorcycles, was of him pushing his brown Honda CB450 up our tall concrete porch stairs and into the front door in order to "park" it inside our front foyer. I'm sure Mom loved that. And of his riding buddies on their early 1970's oil-drooling BSA's and Triumphs. I admit I was usually scared to death riding on the back with him as a kid, even after he got a new 1979 Yamaha XS1100 Touring rig. It looked similar to the one below, but in Midnight Blue. He still has it, and neither of us has seen another one in real life.
But even though I rode with my eyes closed most of the time as a kid, I always knew I would pilot my own two-wheels when the time came, especially after seeing the Imperial Speeder bikes on Endor in 1983's "Return of the Jedi".

Nowadays, my Dad usually pilots a 2010 Harley "dresser" with all of the bells and whistles, but my entire stable of bikes amounts to 3 Hondas and 2 Kawasaki's, and zero American-made bikes (well, my Concours was built in Lincoln, Nebraska but for some reason that doesn't count), and I don't know much about American motorcycle manufacturer history other than being familiar with some of the more recognizable names (Harley-Davidson, Henderson, Thor, Excelsior, etc).
So checking out Wheels Through Time was mandatory, especially as it looked like they were opening up special just for us!
It turns out this place is HUGE! Dale Walksler, the owner of WTT, claims to have over 300 motorcycles on display, but this could easily be an understatement. And true to what I've heard, Dale was there himself, kicking over a few machines so we could hear them run (the museum's motto is "everything runs").
I, of course, went nuts trying to photograph everything as well as I could. The museum lighting is dramatic, but was very dark at times, making non-flash photography a challenge. This ended up being yet another low-light photography challenge, with shutter speeds drifting into 1/8th of a second and slower. Image-stabilization was definitely my friend on this outing. See my low-light photo tips here.

One of my favorite photos from this visit is this one of the "Woolery Bullet":

This was shot at 1/10th of a second, 1600 ISO. I like the way the red bike in the background is out of focus yet still recognizable as a motorcycle, lending a contextual reference for the Bullet's silver and teal tank in the foreground. I'm also liking the juxtaposition of the warm colors in the background with the neutral-cool colors of the tank.
The Woolery Bullet is actually a Harley-Davidson, and carries the only name other than "Harley-Davidson" ever put on a Harley gas tank from the factory. Its a one-off factory custom, direct from Harley-Davidson. Also notice that the black knob just to the left of the speedo is a 3-speed hand-shifter. Quite cool.
While walking the museum, I learned from my Dad that when he was a kid he actually owned a 1953 Harley Panhead, hand-shifted 3-speed with reverse - for all of three days. Seems his Dad made him take it back after he got the kickstand mired in the driveway and needed help extricating it. My Dad wouldn't own another Harley until 2010. Dale thought he had one like it nearby to show us, and went to search for it, but was waylayed by some other visitors having an interesting discussion about valve-work.
Other bikes of interest: these three factory board-racers in mint condition. Guys used to race these at triple-digit speeds around banked oval tracks made of wood.

Very fast, very slippery, very dangerous. Board racing was eventually banned.

Here's an example of how you can change the focus of a photograph by deciding what to frame.
While this is a perfectly fine shot of a Henderson Motorcycle:

By moving just a bit closer, we can isolate the bike from surrounding distractions and still retain enough specific elements so we still know this is a Henderson motorcycle, yet also include some other (ahem) supporting imagery:

Seems even from the earliest days, the female form was used to sell motorcycles:
If you look carefully at the photo above, you can see that this shot, while done in broad daylight, is also using additional lighting to illuminate the shadows in the models faces, and shows why you can and should use flash outdoors when possible, it can fill in those "raccoon eyes" and deep shadows caused by harsh direct sunlight.

When I say that Dale has everything related to american motorcycles in his museum, I mean everything...I don't remember what (or why) this three wheeler is, but its pretty awesome. And the big black one is cool too.

Here's a photo of perhaps the rarest motorcycle in the world, ever. Its a "Traub", based on the nameplate painted on the tank, and was found sealed up in a brick wall in Chicago. Not only does it also run like everything else, Dale even takes this for rides now and then.

And below, an example of some beautiful "plumbing" in this detail photo of an early Harley engine...

One of the (many) surprises for me was finding out that Harley made horizontally opposed twins in the 1940's, as well as the Vee-Twins they're so famous for. These looked very much like early BMW's:

And lastly, below is a photo of a Pierce Arrow motorcycle that took me many attempts to get without camera blur. For some reason, the Image Stabilization in my Olympus satrted misbehaving, probably due to me disabling something in the menu that I was unaware of. After finally rebooting the camera, I got this. Not too interesting, but I was solely determined to "get" this shot simply because I was having difficulty doing so, so here it is:
I do find the engine layout interesting just because its relatively crude looking,  but check out the integrated fuel tank in the frame (you can just make out the gas-cap above and to the left of the "Pierce" arrow logo). 1/15th second, ISO 1600.

On my way out the door, Dale fired up the next bike he's raffling off - a 1932 Harley Flathead Bobber.
Photo courtesy of  WTT
 The very excitement of it having kicked over caused a twenty to slip out of my hand in exchange for some raffle tickets and a (slim) chance to win. Perhaps there'll be an American bike in my stable yet. Wheels Through Time definitely warrants another visit, and soon.

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