You might say that Steve Barber has antique motorcycle long-distance riding in his blood. In 1998 his mom was a passenger in The Great Race, a cross-country competition for vehicles at least 45 years old. Peg Barber and Frank Westfall were aboard a 1928 Henderson, one of only a few motorcycles in an event dominated by four-wheelers. They remained competitive all the way across the country, until the bike’s magneto failed in torrential rain, leaving them stranded just 50 miles from the finish.
Barber himself has plenty of background in antique bikes, taking over the operation of the family business, The 74 Shop, after his dad’s death. The shop specializes in 1936 to ’72 Harley Big Twins, and Barber says his passion is rebuilding and detailing original-paint Knuckleheads, Panheads and Shovelheads.
In recent years, Barber has become famous as the originator of the Motorcycle Timeline Exhibit at the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s Grand National Super Meet in Rhinebeck, New York. Barber’s innovation annually brings together hundreds of motorcycles representing every year from the dawn of the 20th century into the 1970s.
What got you interested in entering the Motorcycle Cannonball ride?
I got interested through my family connection to The Great Race. My mother rode that event in 1998,and I’ve always had the sense of adventure to try something like that myself. My original plan was to ride a Knucklehead across the country by myself this year. But then Frank told me about this race, and I thought, “Here’s my chance to do something even better.” So I signed up, and now I’m a Cannonballer.
I’ve always been jealous that my mom rode across the country and I didn’t. She was actually on The Great Race when I graduated from high school. It worked out really well for me—my mom was halfway across the country for my prom, and I had a really great time.
When I heard about this, it just seemed like something epic to do. You hear about guys like Cannonball Baker, who did it so many years ago. To be able to go out and re-create a piece of American history like this is great.
Lonnie and all the people putting this on deserve the greatest amount of credit. After organizing the Motorcycle Timeline Exhibit, I know what’s involved in trying to do something big like this. For Lonnie to take on something of this magnitude is fantastic.
What bike will you be riding in the event?
I’m going to be on a three-speed 1915 Harley-Davidson Twin that originally came out of England. I’m a Knucklehead/Panhead guy, so this is a completely new venture for me. I’m trying to find out more of the history of the machine, but when it comes to these bikes, I would say my experience ranks as a one, compared to guys like Dale Walksler and Joe Gardella, who I characterize as 10s. My oldest motorcycle before this was a ’39 H-D EL, so I have absolutely no experience with anything older than a Knucklehead. I don’t even know what I’m looking at, but I’m learning.
I don’t think I would ever have thought about a motorcycle like this if it wasn’t for the Cannonball. This event has already allowed me to learn about a whole new area of motorcycling that I’ve never been involved with before. And it’s allowed me to meet new people. Of course, some of these guys do cross over into my area, but a lot of them are people I’ve never met or heard of.I’m looking forward to making some new friends along the road. Hopefully, at the end we’ll have done something we’ll remember for the rest of our lives.
As it turns out, the bike you bought has some unique features, including an extra-large gas tank that seems perfect for the Cannonball. What have you learned about it so far?
What I know is that it was built in Milwaukee and sold by a Harley dealer in London. I’ve heard rumors that this motorcycle was built specifically with the double-capacity gas tank for English riders, because there weren’t a lot of gas stations over there at the time. But I’ve also heard the bike could have been an endurance racer. The bike definitely was raced at some point in England.Some people have identified those as “Daytona” tanks.No matter what you call them, I’ve been told they’re very rare, and the extra fuel and oil capacity will certainly help out on the Cannonball. There are several other parts on this motorcycle that knowledgeable people have looked at, and they’re educating me about it. I’m still hunting for more history on the bike.
The bike came back to the States in 1979, went into a collection and never saw the light of day. I made a deal for it, took it home and with the help of fellow Cannonballer Bill Nugent, added gas and oil, then changed the spark plugs. Within 45 minutes of servicing, we had the thing fired up—and it literally did fire on the first kick.
To me, it just seems like this bike has been waiting for this event. It has been sitting, waiting for me to put my butt on the seat and my heavy hand on the throttle.
What else have you done to the bike since you got it?
Nothing. I’ve been riding it—just putting around—ever since we fired it that first time. I haven’t really taken it on the road, but I’m going to get it registered and insured and ride it around in New York if it ever stops snowing.
Do you have plans to make other modifications before the ride?
I’m hoping to keep the motorcycle as original as possible. I’m going to put some new tires on it, and someone told me about a rear brake update that can be done, adapting Knucklehead front brake shoes for the rear brake. I would say tires, a carburetor rebuild and the brake update for safety—beyond that, I want to leave it as original as possible.
Do you have previous experience with long-distance rides on antique bikes?
Mostly I’ve done day-trips on old motorcycles. I’ve only done a few two- or three-day jaunts—300 or 400 miles in a day—but not for two weeks straight. So something like this is totally new and radical.
Riding across the country on a 95-year-old motorcycle is going to be quite a challenge, both for the bike and the rider, isn’t it?
I don’t think so. Guys did it 100 years ago, so why can’t we do it now? The roads are better, the bikes are better, technology is better. If we’re prepared, and the motorcycles are sound, it shouldn’t be an issue.