Don Tilley Killed in Crash

Legendary Harley-Davidson engine builder dies in a motorcycle accident.

Don Tilley and wife

Don Tilley, extraordinary builder and tuner of racing Harley-Davidsons and long-time Statesville, North Carolina, Harley dealer, was killed Friday in a single-bike accident on the Blue Ridge Parkway. His wife Robinette, with him on the bike, was seriously injured.

Tilley’s understanding of engines was profound yet based on ordinary common sense.

“Young fellas love those big dyno numbers,” he once told me. “But it’s plain for all to see that what gets you to the next corner is averaged horsepower across the rpm range you’re actually usin’. We won a lot o’ races by ignorin’ the big numbers.”

With Dick O’Brien (long-serving head of Harley racing) Don developed the performance of the Battle of the Twins racer “Lucifer’s Hammer,” their finest hour coming when that bike posted a higher top speed than Harley’s cost-no-object factory Superbike, the VR1000.

Tilley got his start in high performance by hanging out with rum-runners.

“I’d say that’s the most fun I’ve ever had in my life—hangin’ out with ’em, ridin’ with ’em. I asked ’em, ‘How come you always run wide open? Wouldn’t you stand less chance of bein’ stopped if you run slow?’”

The answer came back, “Them revenuers set up in the woods. We come by about a hundred mile an hour, that way we got that much of a head start on ’em.”

He got into stock car racing, as well.

“I was there at the beginning, in 1948. I’d washed this mechanic’s car and he let me get in his trunk to get into the race track.”

Soon he was driving a race car on weekends and building engines all week. His knowledge grew with everything he built.

Don applied himself to business as effectively as he did to racing, operating multiple successful dealerships.

When I think of Tilley, I remember all that he taught me. He was a man I instinctively called ‘sir’ because his dignity and courtesy were those of a 19th century farm-country granddad and head of family.