"Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse,”
is perhaps the most memorable thing about the 1949 Humphery Bogart
film noir ‘Knock on any Door’. Yet it wasn’t even
Bogey who uttered the memorable line, rather Nick Romano.
Among those who have taken this line perhaps too literally are
movie icons Norma Jeane Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe, and
‘Rebel Without a Cause’ star James Dean.
Monroe was 36 when she died of an overdose and Dean, who died
in a car crash, aged just 24. Separated by only five years in life,
and despite both being major Hollywood stars at the same time, it
is believed they only met once…
Had they met again, maybe history would have been very different.
Would Dean have brought his ill-fated Spyder 550, one of only 90
made, and had it customized by George Barris – the man responsible
for the original Batmobile and many other TV and movie cars –
if he’d had further liaisons with the blonde bombshell?
But then again, was the 1955 crash that killed him responsible
for his elevation to screen idol status despite having only made
a handful of films? What is certain is the effect the man and his
car had on Steve Willis, the Dealer Principle at Shaw Harley-Davidson,
who has built his own interpretation of Dean’s Porsche in
the form of a rebuilt Fat Boy named Little Bastard.
“The James Dean bike is something I had wanted to create
for some years, Dean’s original Spyder was an inspiration
with its clean and striking looks, all gained with such simplicity.”
As simple as Harleys are, it was going to take a lot of work
to turn a Fat Boy into a Porsche tribute, but then Steve is in
fortunate position of having the full workshop facilities of Shaw’s
Seep Shop at his disposal. That’s the same Speed Shop that
created True Strike II the bike that took the £5,000 travel
expenses to Sturgis prize at the Ace Café Motorcycle and
Custom show at Ally Pally earlier this year.
Another benefit that Steve has is a close working relationship
with US custom builder, parts designer and former GP racer Roland
Sands, who will be at selected rounds of the XR Trophy on Shaw’s
race bike. Not only does Sands have his only California-based shop,
Roland Sands Design, he is also the Head of Design for Performance
However, before a collection of Roland Sands and Performance
Machine parts could be pulled from the shelves, the first step
the 2003 Fat Boy down, to get the frame powder coated.
While it was all in pieces across the workshop floor the swing-arm
and forks were discarded. At the back a Performance Machine Phatail
was bolted into place to take a wider tyre, important for the race
care look, while at the front a pair of 2-inch under Paughco Springers
were bolted up to help get the ride height down.
To get the chassis rolling, a set of Performance Machine Domino
wheels were sourced, complete with matching rotors and pulley,
and just for added trickery a drive-side disc to keep one side
of the wheel clean. The space at the rear was then filled up with
a 240-section Metzler.
Given that Dean’s Spyder was essentially a street driven
race car, Steve needed to get some ‘go’ to match the
show. With the full range of Screamin’ Eagle performance
hardware but a phone call away, Steve took a pragmatic decision
to make it less likely to pay the ultimate homage to its namesake,
creating a practical road-going custom into the bargain, with the
Screamin’ Eagle big bore kit taking it out to 1550cc.
In order to help the motor breathing deep, a Performance Machine
air filter found its way from the shop floor and on to the engine,
matched up to a Vance & Hines Tracker exhaust – another
part designed by that young upstart Roland Sands – and to
make sure the fuel injection could keep up with the engine’s
increased demands, a Screamin’ Eagle download was patched
into the ECU.
Before the engine went back in the frame it was dressed in a
full set of Roland Sands Design Nostalgia covers to help create
correct period look. Okay, so there was no CNC machined billet
aluminium in James Dean’s day, but the organic curves of
the precision machining conjure up the finest sand-cast aluminium
of a bygone age
Likewise the open belt primary that Steve pulled from his heavily
thumbed Performance Machine catalogue charged with getting the
horses to the gearbox, concealed beneath a minimal PM hydraulic
transmission cover reminiscent of the contours of the Porsche’s
smoothed-out curves, and a full set of braided steel hoses.
Finally, before putting the Performance Machine catalogue back
in his desk drawer Steve did a it more shopping in the form of
hand controls, brake and clutch master cylinders, grips, and forward
controls. The final piece order from the Californian specialist
was a tyre-hugging rear mudguard to match the Phatail kit.
Next up was another visit to the Roland Sands collection, from
which the Vintage chopped fuel tank, frame cover and seat kit were
taken. The hairspring-mounted saddle was then covered in red leather
just as the seats were in James Dean’s Spyder, although it’s
highly doubtful that the ill-fated actor had ‘Little Bastard’ branded
into the leather of his seats, as Steve has in tribute to the name
he gave to his car.
Further tributes to the racing heritage of Dean’s Spyder
can be found with the 130 painted on one side of the Shaw-fabricated
oil tank, and the Nürburg Ring logo on the opposing side – a
copy of the one mounted on the wing of the original Porsche – but
the most obvious references are the reproduction Spyder badges
on the fuel tank.
While it may seem as though this extraordinary machine is simply
a collection of parts from various sources bolted together, the
sum of the bike is so much more. Take a look for instance at the
Renthal bars. Most people would surely just have bolted them on,
but not Steve, who’d done his research and had them painted
cream to match the Bakelite steering wheel in Dean’s car.
With Little Bastard following on from ‘Get Rhythm’,
a tribute to the Man in Black which took second in the Modified
Harley class at the Ally Pally, it would appear that Steve Willis
and his team at the Shaw Speed and Custom Shop have established
themselves on the UK’s custom scene, and I will certainly
be a regular visitor to the shop, looking to see what will roll
out of the workshop next…
to written word