1945 Harley-Davidson Big Twin

Excerpt from an upcoming article in Heavy Duty Magazine.

A Shore Thing

You know you’re working with a highly desirable motorcycle when someone offers to buy it while it’s being photographed.

Al Magarry’s stunning…actually, no, stunning doesn’t cover it…perfect restoration of a 1945 Harley-Davidson Military U model ‘Big Twin’, in genuine US Navy Shore Patrol livery, is indeed such a desirable motorcycle.

The folks at the Maritime Museum in Brisbane kindly gave us permission to photograph the bike in their dry dock area. We set up adjacent the historic River Class Frigate, HMAS Diamantina, also a war (launched 1944) baby and survivor.

We trailered the bike in to the city.

Now, before you get on your high horse about trailering it, both Al and the bike are definitely up for the ride. But I wanted it ‘ship-shape’ for the photos, and as early as possible, for the sun.

It starts first kick (check the video) and Al’s a capable ‘Patrolman’. But asking any modern rider to cope with 1945 controls in 2013 Brisbane peak hour traffic shows no compassion at all.

I found the gears being the ‘wrong side’ on an old Bonneville a complete mind-f… altering experience till I got the hang of it.

The ‘Big Twin’ has the front brake on the left, the clutch is heel and toe - and not sprung. It (clutch) has to be manually engaged/disengaged – and it has a suicide shift, 4-speed gearbox.

All this has to be operated while advancing and retarding the timing on the fly with the (additional) left hand twist grip.

In other words, pat your head, rub your stomach - while juggling eggs and dodging the dorks in white vans who are running late for work.

Your Grandad had some skillez, Sonny.  Me, I would need land, lots of land, and sunny skies…

The point of mentioning the trailer is Al’s ‘Military Trophies’ business phone number is on the side of the truck. But was parked away across on the other side of the dry dock from our shoot.

Almost overhead was the ramp to the Goodwill Footbridge across the Brisbane River - and its associated Museum viewing platform.

One enterprising entrepreneur upon high put the bike, the truck and a mobile phone together - to interrupt our performance of the photographer’s folk-dance. ‘Hi-ho, on one knee we go. Push that bike to and fro.’  (Some of my favourite photogs sing opera while they work.)

Al moved away to field the call. He came back bemused. “You wouldn’t believe it. A bloke on the bridge said ‘I’ve GOT to have that bike’. I told him it isn’t for sale…yet.”

Not long after, we sat down and talked about the process of the restoration.

We didn’t discuss price either. Other than my suggestion that it ‘might have been too big a surprise for someone on the edge of a bridge!’

‘Hundreds of hours’ was the currency we did talk in. ‘Hours and hours of getting it right’.

Sitting next to one of the sites of the Japanese surrender in WWII, discussing such an iconic American wartime motorcycle, I was tending to… well, marvel.

Not only a bit lost in the detail and integrity of the restoration, but in its links to the surroundings. Trying to comprehend the epic deeds these machines had been party to.

‘One of two hundred and sixty two units built for the US Navy’ said Al.

And I landed back in 2013 with such a thud that I almost kicked over the tripod.

‘Half were built with sidecars. Half without. They were used by the Shore Patrol – Military Police – on bases in continental USA. They came out in two versions, 74 cubic inch and 80 cubic inch. This is an 80.’

You may recall Al’s previous bike featured in Heavy Duty was an equally stunning ‘42 WLA in US Army livery.

So he has a pretty good point of reference that the difference in power from the 80 cube motor is ‘quite noticeable’ when compared to the standard WLA.

This bike had been converted to civilian use and the previous owner kept it for 20 years. He also kept all of the parts. Its history from the war to then is unknown.

‘Although some of the military components were hard to source, now it’s all original. Even the Firestone Tyres are correct for the period’ added Al.

Down to every bead-blasted nut and bolt and ceramic coated component. Comprehensive is another word that came to my mind.

‘It’s a big job – if you want to do it properly, which is what I like to do. Hundreds of hours.’

After shooting and pawing closely over the photos of two of his restorations, ‘properly’ is something of an understatement for these outstanding works. Seriously.

Then I mounted a Go Pro on the instruments and invited Al to go for a quick spin around the dry dock.

Sure enough the Harley started first kick again and it sounded surprisingly tight and tidy as it cruised efficiently around a warship – not for the first time.

For a lot of the time I was fussing about with my cameras, Al was in conversation with the Curator of the Museum. (After fielding sales calls that is.)

As we finished up and were packing up our respective kits, Al told me he was going to ‘go over and sign on as a Volunteer at the Museum’.

From the moment we confirmed the location of the shoot I actually suspected he might. It was a fit. Highly skilled preserver and restorer – National treasures.

Heavy Duty Magazine: working for your heritage, Australia.

Full technical specifications appear in Heavy Duty Magazine.


Big ups to the Queensland Maritime Museum. Go and visit when you come to Brisbane.
It’s at the start of Southbank.

It’ll make you proud.