American Style: What It’s Like To Ride A 1949 Harley Davidson EL
Photography by Sam Bendall
Just west of downtown Los Angeles, Todd Blubaugh opens a gate and invites me into his workshop, The Chun. In the courtyard rests a half-built hot rod and just beyond, inside the garage overhang, sits Hayduke, Todd’s 1949 Harley Davidson EL.
At first glance one can tell this bike is no show pony. It’s been beaten, used. For the term of Todd’s ownership, the EL has covered countless miles over highways and fire roads across 10 states. It oozes character and has the patina to match. There is no doubt that it’s been worked on by the side of the road, coaxed to that next hotel, cursed at for its failures and then duly praised for the triumphs born from its mercurial nature. It wears these scars openly, and it’s a beautiful thing.
Todd Blubaugh is the author behind the book Too Far Gone, a modern pan-American journey via motorcycle that combines documentary photography, short essays, and select letters written from the road. So as somebody who can tell a story and has a cool piece of vintage American metal to talk about, I thought he’d be an interesting chat. I sat down with Todd to discuss this particular bike and afterward, he and I enjoyed a spirited ride through downtown Los Angeles, Echo Park, and Glendale.
Sam Bendall: This bike looks like it’s lived a long life, how did you and it cross paths? What was your intention for the build?
Todd Blubaugh: The project started back in Kansas when my buddy Jess was building the motor for his dad. They changed direction and built a big twin flathead instead, so I commandeered the abandoned panhead project. It then sat for a long time before I had a clear vision. I found some new-old-stock automotive tires from the ’30s at a car swap meet and coincidently the mission to make a wide obnoxious road dog. However, I burned through those tires pretty quickly after i finished the bike, and have not been able to find another set. I pieced the frame together from three nearly unusable scraps (heavily Bondo’d), a shoveled neck, and some schedule 40 steel pipe. I left everything else about the bike true to the condition in which I found it.
SB: What’s your favorite thing about it? What still excites you?
TB: I named the bike Hayduke, from the Abbey novels. Jess’s dad, Dennis (who originally started the project), designed and engraved the name of the bike onto a steel badge where the shift gate used to be. This, along with the seat are my favorite parts. My dear friend Ginger from New Church Moto made the seat. She is an amazing upholsterer and made it from a leather couch that used to be part of a cocaine smuggling operation. I’m not kidding, they used to put drugs in the couch cushion of a fancy sailboat and move the cocaine across the Caribbean. She may be lying but I don’t care. It came out far better than I imagined.
SB: Have there been any hiccups along the way in getting this bike running?
TB: Every damn day. It’s an old machine and with age comes gremlins. He’s a crotchety bike but one with character and style, one that keeps my mind occupied.
SB: Is the end machine what you had envisioned from the start?
TB: Yeah. I’ve modified it every which way so that it can run parts from almost any NAPA Auto Parts place. The points in the distributer are the same found on a Chevy, the oil and fuel lines are over the counter pieces, and I rigged an onboard 300psi hose and tool fitting that I plug into my rear cylinder when I need an air compressor in the middle of nowhere. I also run an auxiliary automotive oil filter and I hid a power steering cooler under the tranny that keeps my 60W cool in the desert.
SB: That’s rad. I like that you have this bike built out to be completely self sufficient. I have to ask, how does it ride? I looks like it could be a tad vicious.
TB: Vicious wouldn’t be too far off. Riding Hayduke feels like riding a bucking radiator blindfolded across a field of buried landmines. However it does well in deep sand despite the weight and spans distance quickly and comfortably. The two things I need it to do, because my primary residence is out in the desert.
SB: Why subject yourself to that kind of punishment?
TB: I cannot fully explain it but it means something when you feel like you earn every mile.
SB: I totally respect and understand that mentality. Tell me about your riding history, when did you first start riding and what got you into motorcycles?
TB: Besides drawing and painting, motorbikes have been the longest running obsession I’ve had. I grew up on the edge of a small town in the middle of nowhere, Kansas. Our backyard was a wide open field where people came to ride off-road and I would sit in the grass watching and listening to the bikes fly around. Us kids would ride BMX around the trails pretending we had motors, and eventually we all did. My first motorbike was a KE 100 Kawasaki. I was 12 when my dad agreed to let me mow lawns in the neighborhood to finance the toy. I wish I still had that little yellow bike.
SB: I’m sure you could score one off eBay and live up the halcyon days of your youth once again.
TB: Perhaps. It would be a fun little bike to mess around with in the desert.
SB: Until then, wanna get out of here and go for a ride?