Harley People, by Garry Stuart and Steve Wilson

 

There are two diverse sides to Lonnie Isam's involvement with Harley-Davidsons. He manufactures parts for, and restores, pre-'29 machinery; his parts business, Competition Distributing Co., is a major force in keeping the older bikes on the road. But then this first-class engineer also uses his CNC machinery to make parts and build complete machines for Top Fuel V-twin dragsters, including the ones for the rider he sponsors, Mike Romine, who you'll read about elsewhere in this book. So Lonnie deals with both the fastest and the slowest Harleys! With his uncle, Cole, Lonnie's expert eye and restoration skills have helped put together the historic motorcycle collection at the museum in Sturgis. Lonnie is moving shortly with his wife, Marianne, from Houston to Sturgis, and he's nominally semi-retired, though in fact he's busier than ever.

Lonnie 1905 BikeMy first bike was a '41 Knuckle chopper while I was in high school. I was so small I had to have one of my buddies come over in the mornings to start it up for me, so I could go to school. Whenever he didn't start it I didn't go to school. I was in the 10th or 11th grade, 16 or 17.

My dad was in the Navy. When he was home he would drag race and build hot-rods, and I'd help him with that. I guess that's where the engineering skills started.

A block away, there was a used-car salesman, and he had probably 50 antique bikes in his garage, and I hung around him all the time. Every day after school I would go down there; his name was Bill Mead. He collected pre-1930 stuff. That's when I rode a 1912 Thor Twin. He lived up on a hill; we would run it out his driveway and go down the hill, and the bike would fire up every time. That old man got me hooked, and I spent a lot of time with him. He would always say when we'd be working on the bench together, ''Some day, Lonnie, when I get old enough, and you make it, you can come back and buy all my stuff out, and I'll retire on all the money you give me. You can take all my stuff so my buddies won't get it from me when I die.'' I'd say ''Yeah, Bill sure, sure. ''

In 1969 I had a chopper, went to see the Easy Rider movie, and then took off and never came back. Went to Texas. First I went to Southern California on my chopper. Threw my helmet away on the freeway in Oregon when I crossed the border, and then never came back up there. The old man, Bill Mead, I kept in touch with him, and I started collecting old bikes. He lived in Seattle, Washington.

I started making money in Texas, boom town, you know, in the early '70s, anywhere you went you made money. Bill Mead had a stroke and his wife called me, and said, ''Bill had a stroke, Lonnie, and he told me to call you. He hasn't recovered yet, but all of his buddies are over here wanting to buy his parts from me. He'd said, 'To hell, call Lonnie.’ '' That's all he could get out of his mouth. It was lucky I had the money at the time; it was like $80,000. There were 28 bikes, and 88,000 pounds of pre-1930 stuff. Two tractor-trailers to haul the parts, and one tractor-trailer to haul the bikes. So I buzzed on up there, and by then he was kind of sickly, but we spent a couple of days with him, and after he got the money, he got better real quick. The stroke regressed. But it was really good, 'cause the guy had raised me like a dad. I took all the parts, and I brought 'em home. I kept all the bikes; there was a couple of bikes that he made me swear I would die with, which was fine; I kept them, and I will keep them.

Those were the '29 Cleveland Tornado, and a Scout that he had that he rode from Alaska to Seattle in 1929, on a cross-country endurance race. He broke the engine and put another engine in it, and kept that bike. Then there was a 1919 Indian Model 0, the opposed twin in line with the frame, that he also rode up into Canada. That was a nice original-paint bike. The other ones were some good stuff, too, and the price that I paid was cheap back then.

Lonnie and Cole CollectionThere were a lot of Harleys. There was a Sam Opie twin- cammer. That was a bob job way back then, like a '27, '28 model. There were a bunch of Excelsiors, and, God, Indian fours, and Harley JD models. Almost everything was original paint. Then he had a bunch of those stripped-down motordrome Scouts--a really nice collection. And the parts-I still have all the parts, I put 'em in storage and bought a 50-gallon drum of Cosmoline and mixed it up and put it in the yard sprayer and I sprayed everything down, that was almost 30 years ago. We're going to get at 'em in a couple of years, but we still haven't touched those parts of Bill Mead's they're still there, still intact.

We got them in the early '70s. Then we started buying out other parts. In 1976 I bought out the biggest Harley dealer in Texas; he'd been in business since 1918. That was Stelter Harley-Davidson. It took 19 40-foot tractor-trailers to haul the parts, which we got for $25,000 in 1976. Yeah, and then it was Stubb Windle, in Long View, Texas, for $20,000, and it took 11 trader-trailers and probably 13 or 14 U-Haul trucks to haul that. It took me over a month to move the stuff. Every day, driving.

He had military Harley stuff. Everything was overgrown in the yard, and we had a front-end loader, a tractor, to move the brush, and there was a Servi-Car with a tree growing right up through the frame and wrapped around it. So we rented a tractor to get it out of there. While I was digging it out with the tractor, the back wheel sunk into the ground about 2 feet. So I backed it up out, and it was military crates underneath the ground, with about a foot of dirt over them. I moved the tractor and started digging them out, and I found 11,000 new-old-stock Delco-Remy voltage regulators for Flatheads and Knuckleheads, in perfect condition. The Stubs Windle buy was probably the most exciting one because it was like treasure hunting.

After that, Marianne ran the shop while we were gone, and me and my buddy, Tim McGovern, would go round all the little towns around Louisiana, Mississippi, Oklahoma, all within 500 miles of us. We would take the truck and go to the local post office in the little town, and we'd park there at night and go to sleep in the parking lot. And usually the oldest postman got there the earliest. That's the guy we'd hit up. We'd go over and talk to him, and ask him ''Hey man, do you know anyone who has any Harleys in their back yard?" And they knew. That's how I found 'em, through the postman. He'd tell me where they were, and we used that method all the way up to the '80s, and it worked every time. We found hundreds of bikes. We were buying for $175, $500, $2,500 dollars. It was great.

Then we started going to Davenport in 1974 or '75, which was the first or second year. My kid, Lonnie Jr., went there when he was a couple of years old, later he was running around, and he would buy brochures; he was amazed with Flying Merkels, they just got his heart. So he would be buying Flying Merkel literature, and he did his class paper on Flying Merkels and got an A. He bought motors when they were $100 or $500, and kept them all, and now they sell for big bucks. He's pretty much a know- it-all on Flying Merkels. So he actually grew up at the swap meets, learning.

Now he's 32 years old, and he's making Merkels. He's up in Sturgis restoring bikes for the Cole Museum. Today he's doing a 1913 twin, two 1912 Harley twins. He's doing a 1911 Harley single, he's doing a 1911 Flying Merkel twin, and he's just finishing a Maldwyn Jones 1911 twin Flying Merkel. He's got maybe eight bikes in process right now. He has a lot of collectors that are trying to get him to restore bikes for them because he's young and meticulous and does a real extra-anal job.

This was how the Cole Collection came about: Uncle Cole said to me, "I've got some extra money. When you go out there buying bikes, you buy some for me. We'll pile 'em all up, and one of these days I'll sell them and we'll split the profit." So we did that for 20 years, got about 425 bikes, and he hasn't sold one yet. Last year, he put all of his collectibles and his motorcycles in a trust fund, and his estate will support the trust fund, which will support the museum pretty much indefinitely. So the museum is kind of stable now, and eventually you will probably see a 35,000- square-foot building somewhere with a real nice display.

Cole MuseumCole's passion for motorcycles came from me. Everything that I liked, he liked. It just so happened I knew how to pick real nice thoroughbred bikes over the years, and we hardly bought any junk. Anything we bought was good, mechanically sound, very good collectible stuff. He got lucky, having me buy for him. Cole got most of it when we were buying for $2,500 to $5,000, not $50,000 to $80,000. He buys bikes today for $75,000 and $100,000. I also buy now for a few select millionaires on a personal basis, ones and twos stuff. I guess I'm kind of a consultant who makes sure those guys don't get burned. Out of a six- day week in my shop, I spend three of those days consulting and putting people together to buy good collectible bikes and advising people on motorcycles, and another three days are spent with drag racers. I spend pretty much of my time on the phone right next to my lathes and mills, so I can work on the bikes while I'm talking to people.

I got into the drag-racing work in 1973, when S&S came to me. We had a 1973 Sportster that me and another guy made, and it was pretty quick. My Dad died drag racing. I enjoy it, the competing part of it, but building the motors and building the machines is where I really enjoy it. I had a Harley shop there in Houston, and S&S sent this carburetor to me to test out and it was number 000X1; it was the S&S Super D. I put it on my Sportster, a 96-inch drophead Sportster; it was a Double X Modified bike that we called the Orange Crush. That bike tested the first five or six S&S Super Ds, and we won with them. We set 10 or 11 records up to 1978 or 1979 on that bike. They gave me a sticker that said "Killer", and that bike has 11 ''Killer'' stickers on it.

Then I saw the nitro guys start showing up. There weren't very many of them, less than a dozen probably, and I figured I had a couple of extra motors from that Double X Modified deal, so I made a frame and a car wheel and the hub and put a car slick on it. I took my regular Double X Modified engine and didn't make any changes at all to it. Took the taanny out of it and made it high gear and started pouring nitro down its throat. The carburetor didn't work too well, so I put in all kinds of float bowls; I made my own float bowls and made my own valves and stuff, and jets, and finally got it figured out.

We reached High Gear Pro Fuel, they called it Pro Dragster, High Gear Carbureted, for 12 years after that, and the nitro business is really what woke me up to what a motor does. It like broke everything, every day, all the time; no matter what it was, we blew it up, we broke it. It was like every time we started up we'd cringe, we'd back up, you know, every time we'd do a burn-out we'd blow it up.

Elmer Trett one of the top drag racers of the '80s, was the one that made me go into Pro Fuel, injected nitro. I met him at a race in Houston, and he was my idol. I remember saying that I wanted to get a bike like he'd got, but it was a Kawasaki or something, a billet motor, and I still liked the Harleys. So I hounded him on the phone for years. He said, ''Lonnie, I'm not going to talk to you, I'm not going to deal with you, 'til you get an injector." He was making injectors for other guys out of billet. I said, ''Well, I could make patterns for a throttle body for your injector.'' I put his name on it, and I sent him two of them. He says you do that for me, kid, and I'll set you up on injectors. So I made a dozen of them and shipped them to him, and so he made my two throttle bodies.

He said, ''I've put the barrel valves on these two throttle bodies and all the linkage and everything, and bored 'em just right. These are different; these are for you.'' And I said, "Well send 'em to me, Elmer, send 'em to me.'' And he said, ''No, you ain't getting 'em--you got to send me your carburetor.'' After about 12 years of running carburetors I was a bad-assed carburetor guy, and I had this one carburetor that I would sleep with it, I loved it so much. I went, ''Jesus!'' This was the baddest carburetor in the world, and everybody wanted it, so I had no trouble selling it. And even then, Elmer gets me to give him the guy's number, and has to call the guy to check. I don't know why Elmer wanted me to get rid of it. He was just a character; he did things like that. Yeah, he was the baddest boy in the world. It was a tragedy, he got to that age and had that freak accident; it was a tragedy.

So the next day I got my two throttle bodies. Elmer said, ''Set your timing at this, run 96 percent, don't mess with anything else, set your clutch up this way, and go out and run it.'' So we went out, and that thing just flew, man! We had been trying to beat Dale Nungesser for 12 years, and we smoked his ass in San Antonio with that, the first time out. It was killer; it was perfect. I called Elmer back and said, ''Yeah, man!'' Ever since then, I never went back to the carburetor, and I see why he weaned me off it.

When I started out in drag racing, I was riding them, too. At one race we were running low 9s on it. I liked it. Then there was a short little buddy of mine, Bob Doza, who was standing there, and he was a little tiny guy, 125 pounds, real
strong. He said, ''Man, I'd really like to ride that, Lonnie.'' So I said, "Did you bring your leathers? Go get 'em, put 'em on.'' And he runs an 8.99 right out the door, and from then on we were together for probably 10 years.

We pretty much wreaked havoc around Texas, Louisiana, and Oklahoma for a time. Doza carried on riding the bikes until the tires got big and the power got too big.
We went from 400 horsepower to 600, and then Bob crashed one time. It took him four months to recover. He raced again for me for three or four years, but his body was a little too small to maneuver those machines. So we went through a couple of other guys, you know, and we had ego problems. Our business was booming, and we wanted someone to represent our company.

So we went to Florida, looking for a guy to ride. Mike Romine was in the pits, and two other guys we were looking at were there, too, and we were kind of watching them. Every Orlando race, this school teacher brings these little kids in from some school in that area, and they run around in the pits and get signatures from all these pilots. So we're in line getting ready to race, and all these kids are running round so the racers would sign their shirts and stuff. A couple of the riders we were looking at, the kids were around them wanting autographs and they weren't paying any attention to the kids. They weren't even looking at them!

Then here's Mike Romine. This is in the staging lanes, getting ready to race, he's got two kids setting on the bike, and he's on his knees signing the backs of tee-shirts of two other little kids. Marianne pointed him out. She said, ''Look at him;'' so we started talking to him, and we saw that that's who we wanted to represent our company and our name. Mike and Patty Romine are from Sturgis, Michigan, and we have been with him going on five years, and all we have done is run fast ever since.

Lonnie and MarianneEverything I have done in the last 25 years has been backed up by Marianne. We met back in 1974. A girlfriend of hers kept wanting to introduce me to her a couple of years in advance, but I had just got through with another woman and didn't want to have anything to do with anybody, and was too busy with my own life. Then I met her at a party. I took her for a ride on my Harley, and she liked it. She actually calmed me down a little bit, I was a little bit wild back then. She was my baffle, let's say: I was drag pipes, and she was my baffle. We still have that same good understanding.

After all those years and gathering all those bikes with Uncle Cole, our dream was to do the museum, and we did it. We built the museum in Sturgis. The building's a little small, but it works real well right now, and it was the end of that dream, the end of an era. When we finished the museum and the bikes were in it, it was like, ''Wow, what do we do now,'' you know?

Making these repro parts for old Harleys used to be part of our hobby, but now it's becoming a business; it's growing. We have our hands in a lot of different things, but my heart is still in the Harleys. Well, it always has been. I'll do that 'til I can't get up.

So on vacation, when people ask us, ''What do you all do for business,'' we say, ''Oh, we do real estate.'' But I remember one time we were in Jamaica, I think it was; we were walking down the beach, and I got my flowered pants on and everything, and there's this black dude sitting on a rock, smoking a joint. And he looks over at me and he's got shades on, and I'm walking down the beach and I didn't think I looked like nothing at all, like Mr. Tourist. He goes, ''Yeah, Harley-Davidson man!'' We just looked around, and he was talking to us. How he picked us out, I have no idea. It was like I had a tattoo on my forehead, like we were branded!

 


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