The Speer Special is a 1929 Harley-Davidson DL model built in the
mid-to-late 1930’s by Frank Speer, owner at the time of Frank Speer Harley-Davidson
in Paterson, New Jersey. First introduced in 1929, Harley-Davidson designed the D & DL
model 45” twin to compete with the Indian Scout.
Frank started in the motorcycle business in 1922 as an Ace dealer. When Ace folded,
Frank became a Harley-Davidson dealer. Famed factory racer Joe Petralli and Frank were close friends
and whenever Joe was in town, the two would go out and tie one on. Frank competed
in hillclimbing events and built the Speer Special to compete in AMA class C dirt
track racing. Between the late 1930’s and 1947, the Speer Special was piloted by
Woodrow Wilson “Woody” Gerish who held an AMA Class C license and raced the bike
on dirt tracks throughout the New England area.
The Speer Special has a 1929 motor and frame, but several racing
modifications have been done to the motorcycle. The front forks are from a 1936
RL model, the carburetor is a Linkert M6, and the engine has been heavily modified
with high compression heads and drilled connecting rods for lighter weight. Larger
intake nipples have been welded to the cylinders and a JD manifold has been added
to accommodate the 1-1/4” carburetor. The original sliding gear transmission
was also replaced with a 1933-1937 style constant-mesh “slant-top” gear box.
During a practice session in 1947 at the Newfoundland Speedway
in New Jersey, the transmission on the Speer Special locked up, pitching Woody off
the bike and bending the handlebars in the process. For the 60 years that followed,
the bike would sit idle.
Ownership of the Speer Special traded hands in 1963 when Joe Rybensky purchased the
dealership from Frank. Joe hung around Frank’s place as a youth, went to work for
Frank in 1958 and eventually purchased the dealership.
In October of 2006 at the Barber Vintage Festival in Alabama, Joe met Johnny Sells,
owner of Vintage Motorcycle Works. Joe noticed the restoration guide Johnny had
written for 1929-1936 45” twins and commented that he had no idea anyone had
written about the early 45’s. After Johnny explained that was the only period
and model that he restores, Joe told Johnny about the Speer Special and said
he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Johnny made the comment “If I owned the bike,
I wouldn’t “restore” anything on it. I’d fix the transmission and replace the
few parts that are missing, and I’d put it in my friend’s museum in Tennessee
for others to enjoy”. Joe admired Johnny’s respect for history and preservation
and the two quickly became friends. Over the months that followed, Johnny
became more interested in the motorcycle and Joe became more interested in
Johnny owning it. In the spring of 2007, it was a done deal and Johnny agreed
to purchase the motorcycle from Joe. On August 4, 2007, Vintage Motorcycle Works became the third owner
of the Speer Special.
With only 3-1/2 weeks to go before the AMCA meet in Davenport, Iowa, the “new”
motorcycle took center stage on the front bike lift at Vintage Motorcycle Works.
The following Tuesday, Johnny with close friend Mike Silvio, owner of Cyclemo’s
Motorcycle Museum removed the transmission to solve the mystery of why it had locked up some 60 years ago. After a complete disassembly and
a thorough cleaning of all components, Mike noticed one of the teeth on the
clutch gear had sheared, and no doubt became lodged between the clutch gear
and cluster gear. Johnny had a replacement clutch gear and new roller bearings
on hand and in less than 6 hours Johnny and Mike had removed, rebuilt and
re-installed the transmission, adjusted the primary chain and adjusted the
clutch. Over the next few weeks, work on the Speer Special continued. Parts
that had been scavenged over the years were replaced including the battery box,
ignition coil, handle bar controls, fuel line, and both chains. A short section
of exhaust pipe that had been collapsed completely was also repaired.
On August 21, Mike came over again to witness the re-birth. Vital fluids were
added, a new battery was installed, and after Mike gave her a few swift kicks,
the Speer Special came back to life. Once the high speed needle was dialed in,
she screamed down the road like there was no tomorrow. After sitting silent
for 60 years, Johnny and Mike have resurrected the once proud racer. With the
transmission repaired and once missing parts now replaced, the Speer Special
has a new lease on life and is in the same “as-raced” condition as the day it
The Speer Special now has a new home at Cyclemo’s Motorcycle Museum in Red
Boiling Springs, Tennessee where it is on display for all to enjoy her rich
history and sweet sound of power.