Matt Olsen, the 26-year-old builder of the 1947 Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead that won last August’s Born Free 4 Best in Show award, is so free I barely got the chance to talk to him about the bike. As I write this, he’s riding a 1928 J-model Harley in the coast-to-coast Cannonball Rally for 1929-and-older bikes, which doubles as his honeymoon since he’s also Just Married.
Olsen’s dad started Carl’s Cycle Supply in Aberdeen, South Dakota, something like 40 years ago, and Matt grew up in the business. Most of Carl’s trade consists of performing 95-point restorations on classic Harleys and/or providing the parts and machining services for others to do so. In other words, Matt Olsen literally has been trained in the classics, where he’s gained a reputation for being a great restorer. In fact, he keeps so busy doing restorations that the Knucklehead pictured here is one of the few all-out custom motorcycles he’s ever built, though he has thrown together a few bobbers and things. To our eyeballs (and to the Born Free judges), that deep knowledge of and respect for the past, and for the original design and intent of the bike’s creators, shines through in Matt’s Knucklehead.
When we finally reached Olsen on the phone, he was busy taking his Cannonball bike apart while trying to be romantic, and didn’t have much time to reminisce, so we kept it short.
Matt’s favorite part of the bike, if pressed, is the custom frame, made from 1-1/8-inch DOM (drawn over mandrel) steel tubing artfully tapered in places by being strategically turned down to 1 inch. While it’s definitely not the original EL piece, the stance and proportions ring true, and nobody even thought about ditching the original springer front end. Nearly every part on the bike was either made by hand or highly massaged. In fact, says Olsen, “I would really have preferred not to assemble it at all, but just hang all the parts on a pegboard where you could see them. Putting it all together hides so many good parts and covers up so many hours of work.”
What comes through in Michael Lichter’s photos is the kind of attention to detail that can only come from being raised to deal with not just perfectionist classic motorcycle enthusiasts, but also by a father who makes his living catering to them and who has a degree in advanced machining (and who taught those skills in vocational school). Knowing what the ancients knew, and where to lay off the nickel plating in favor of cadmium or polished aluminum, gives this bike the look of something that Harley might have built in 1947, had its standards been considerably higher. That green is a ’36 Knucklehead color, and the scheme was inspired by an H-D option available in 1932. Patina may be in, but you won’t find any on this motorcycle save the ’67 South Dakota license plate.
While much of the hardware comes from other machines and maybe other eras, many parts are absolutely handcrafted, including that tanktop console full of compound curves worked into the aluminum. The primary cover was built up from 19 pieces of aluminum, and a high school bud of Matt’s took two weeks to sand down its welds. Matt spent a week-and-a-half on the old 61-incher’s cooling fins. The oil tank’s a thing of beauty also, along with a hundred other details.
“The question everybody always asks is ‘How long did it take?’” says Matt. “I don’t like to keep track; if I did, I’d realize how much money I was losing and I’d probably have to get a real job.”
Part of the prize for winning the Born Free show is a trip for Olsen and the bike to the Moon Eyes Hot Rod Custom Show in Yokohama, Japan, this coming December; after that, the bike will be sent to the guy in Pennsylvania who commissioned it.
Lichter’s pictures are worth a thousand words each, at least. Enjoy.