At 24, Matt Olsen of Aberdeen, South Dakota, is the youngest rider entered in the Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run. But he's used to that, since he's also the youngest Board member for the Antique Motorcycle Club of America. Matt will be riding a 1913 or '14 Sears in Class II (twin-cylinder, single-speed).
Matt Olsen with one of the Spacke engines he's purchased to power his Motorcycle Cannonball entry. This one was originally supplied to the David Sewing Machine Co. for use in its Dayton line of motorcycles.
I was kind of born into it. My dad has been taking me on road trips all over since I was in diapers. All of the places we went were old-bike oriented, so I just kind of grew up around them.
What was your first bike?
A Honda 50. After that, I had a 1962 Cushman Highlander, and then a 1948 Hummer that I built when I was 10. When I was 12, my dad gave me a 1945 Knucklehead in pieces. I built that and traded it for my '36 Knucklehead, in pieces, when I was 18. And I finished my '36 (with a 3½-hour public assembly at the 2008 AMCA meet in Davenport, Iowa) when I was 22.
Have you ever owned a modern bike?
Your dad founded Carl's Cycle Supply in Aberdeen, South Dakota, in 1982, and these days, you work with him there. What's your position in the company?
I don't have a particular title. We work with a couple of other guys, and all of us just work really hard to get everything done. We do whatever it takes - if I need to sweep the floors or if I need to weld a frame together, that's what I'm doing that day.
What bike are you riding in the Motorcycle Cannonball endurance run?
It's either a 1913 or '14 Sears - nobody really knows which because there's no documentation on serial numbers from the company. The bikes were sold right through the Sears catalog. It was a high-quality machine, but Sears could sell them pretty cheap, because they didn't have to worry about a dealer network - they just sold direct to the customer.
How did you decide to go with that bike?
I've always wanted to do an early bike, and when I heard about the race, I figured my best bet would be to build a Spacke-powered motorcycle that would be eligible in Class II (for twin-cylinder, single-speed motorcycles). Spacke made engines for about seven different companies back then, including Sears, Dayton, Eagle, Crawford and DeLuxe. Plus, they made basically the same motor for cars. So I figured that a Spacke engine would be pretty easy to find. You always see them around at AMCA meets. And if I couldn't find a bike engine, I figured I could find a car engine and weld some different motor-mounts on the cases.
In the meantime, I got my spot in the race, since I knew they were going to go quick. And right after that, (Wheels Through Time Museum owner) Dale Walksler found a Spacke motor for me at the AMCA Jefferson (Pennsylvania) Meet in October. I bought that and e-mailed pictures of it to a friend. It turned out that his brother had a Sears frame and fork for sale, so I bought those. Then I contacted a friend in California and he sent me a bunch of Sears parts to copy - a gas tank and a tool box, plus all the little hardware and linkages. He also sold me a set of handlebars.
Matt (right) and dad, Carl, at Carl's Cycle Supply in
Aberdeen, South Dakota.
Of course, most of the engine stuff is worn out after all these years, so when I got the chance, I bought two other motors from Tim Spacke, who's related to the founder of the company that made them.
I was really fortunate that all of this just fell into place. Vintage motorcyclists are really a tight-knit community. They're all good guys, and they'll do whatever they can to get another bike running.
What's been the biggest challenge involved in building the bike?
The bottom end is very strange. Conventional engine cases are split vertically, right through the cylinder. But on these Spacke cases, the cylinders is entirely within the left case. So in order to assemble it, there's a real weird setup that requires some delicate work. There's an outer flywheel and an inner flywheel that are held in place by ball bearings.
Plus, it has articulating connecting rods and drip oiling, and the cam is a what they called a face cam - it's about 10 to 12 inches long, and it just has this little tip that the pushrod moves on. It's probably state of the art for back then, but all the pieces I have are so worn out that I think I might end up having to make a new bottom end.
It's really cool - just totally different. That's what's so neat about this the period - everybody's idea was as good as anybody else's. None of this stuff worked like we're used to today, but you had to try everything to figure out what would work best. I'm having a ton of fun.
You note that you're copying parts from originals you've borrowed. How much of the final bike you ride will you end up having to build yourself?
Matt's bike today, with original Sears frame and fork,
plus the Spacke engine.
The frame, fork, handlebars and engine are real, but I'll have to manufacture everything else. I'm right in the middle of the gas tank now. I was able to order a clutch from Randy Walker, and it's really cool to think that somebody is still making new clutches for these things.
What's the attraction of this challenge?
A coast-to-coast race on a 100-year-old motorcycle sounds like so much fun. How could you not want to be part of it?
I've been taking a month off every summer since I turned 18 to ride motorcycles. I've ridden all over the place. When I was 18, I rode to Milwaukee for Harley's 100th anniversary, and then rode out to California. And I've kept that kind of thing up ever since.
Last summer, I did two Iron Butt (1,000 miles in one day) rides in a week on Knuckleheads. Those were a real challenge, and they left me wondering what's next. I guess this is the answer.