Jon Szalay is one of those guys who seems to have been born just a few decades too late. His business as an antiques restorer keeps him firmly focused on the past. And when it comes to motorcycles, most of the projects he works on are bikes from the era before 1915.
So when he heard about the Motorcycle Cannonball ride, he had to be part of it.
“This is a pretty amazing thing that Lonnie (Isam Jr) is doing,” he says. “Pre-1916 guys are pretty rare birds, and to spend two weeks crossing the country with 67 of them is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Maybe we can spend our time talking about how screwed up we all are.”
While many of the other riders have chosen to increase their odds of finishing by riding the most advanced bikes eligible-twin-cylinder, multi-speed motorcycles that will run in Class 3-Szalay is taking exactly the opposite approach. His Cannonball motorcycle will be a 1911 Harley single-cylinder bike with no transmission and belt-drive.
“This is a project bike I started putting together about 15 years ago,” he says. “When I heard about the Motorcycle Cannonball, it was an opportunity to put that project at the head of the list.”
In June, Szalay had finished piecing together a basic, running machine and had managed a couple of test rides around the grounds of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America’s National Meet in Rhinebeck, New York. And although the bike was a long way from complete, he was pleased with the way it was coming together.
“I’m pretty confident in the bike,” he says. “I think if any single-cylinder motor can do this, it’s going to be a Harley. These motors have a really strong bottom end, and they were a proven motorcycle at the time.
“It’s a heavy piece of equipment, but I’m not looking for speed, I’m looking for durability. I want to get there in the time allotted, but I want to get there, and this is the first bike that came to my mind out of the several options I had to consider.”
In building the bike, Szalay has made a few modifications to, as he says, “make it more roadworthy.”
“We’re using modern wheels, modern drum brakes, and modern tires,” he says. “I don’t feel safe on the clincher tires from back then, so we’re going to run beaded-edge tires.
In addition, he’s working on ways to increase the bike’s fuel range.
“The plan,” he says, “is to extend the range by using the oil tank as a second gas tank. Then I’ll put on an auxiliary oil tank to give me a little more oil capacity.”
When it comes to the engine, though, he says the bike will be 100 percent the way Harley made it all those years ago. And he’s counting on the solid design produced by the company’s engineers, along with his own mechanical abilities, to see him through.
“I’m bringing half my shop and all my tools,” he says. “With the experience I have with this motorcycle, anything that happens on the road, we’ll figure it out.”
Of course, the bike is only part of the equation when it comes to a 3,300-mile challenge. But in spite of the fact that this will be his first attempt at a cross-country ride, Szalay is pretty sure he has what it takes to make it to the finish.
“I’ve only done short rides—mostly flea-market stuff,” he says, “but I feel confident in my physical ability to do it. I also feel confident in my mechanical abilities, and that my machine is good enough to do it.”
That leaves just one more element—the same never-say-die attitude that the ride’s namesake, Erwin “Cannonball” Baker, brought to his long-distance challenges all those decades ago.
“You’ve got to be convinced that, ‘Hey, I’m going to make it,’ ” says Szalay. “And I am. My bike’s going to win—we’re bringing home the trophy.