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A 2009 take on 1903

June 5, 2009 |  6:40 pm

The oldest known Harley-Davidson is so valuable, it’s sealed in a glass box at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. No one at the museum will venture a guess as to the value of its Serial No. 1, but with higher-production later model years going for hundreds of thousands of dollars, it’s probably at least a mil if it’s ever let out of its cage and sold to the highest bidder.

At least poor-man riders who want to fake the experience of that vintage Hog have some options, one of them being the $2,500 Ridley Motorcycles 1903. 1903 is the year Bill Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson decided to build their first bike, of course, using a 25-cubic-inch single-cylinder motor fueled with two tanks -- one for the gas, another for the oil -- which needed to be pumped into the engine by the rider while it was running.

Ridley’s 1903 motorized bicycle isn’t quite so challenging. It’s retro, rather than vintage -- built from an already existing bicycle that’s been converted to run on a single-cylinder, two-stroke, 49 cc motor -- a motor that is (thankfully) rubber-mounted to the frame. Both the bike and its engine are imported from Taiwan. It’s assembled into a motorized bicycle at Ridley Motorcycles, a small Oklahoma manufacturer that’s best known for its automatic-transmission cruisers.

Like its automatic bikes, which haven’t been emissions tested to allow them to be sold new in California, the 1903 is of dubious legal status in our fair state. According to California Vehicle Code Section 406(a), which governs motorized bicycles that are under 2 horsepower and travel no faster than 30 mph, it would need a headlight, taillight, brake light, horn, mirror and special license plate to be legit.

The 1903 has none of those things. That’s a good thing for aesthetes and purists. They don’t muck with the profile of this machine, which, with its antique white tires, springer fork, shorty fenders and Cruiselite aluminum frame, is so elegant and eye-catching it was impossible for me to travel more than a few blocks without getting at least a honk and, more often, a wave, smile or scream.

 I rode this thing all over northeast L.A. for a few days, and kids who could barely talk and old guys who could barely walk were barraging me with questions: "Is that a Schwinn?" "Where did you get that thing?" "What year is that?"

An even better question: "What’s it like in L.A. traffic?"

Tricky, to say the least. The 1903 isn’t a bike for techies or the meek. There’s no starter, so it takes some pedaling and clutch popping to bring it to life. It’s also a two-stroke, which means riders need to mix their own fuel and funnel it into the tank; a gas nozzle from a station pump won’t fit through the billeted porthole in the bike’s backbone, which was sealed off so it could double as a fuel hold.

There aren’t any displays or signals, so I had no idea how much gas I had. Nor did I have any sense of how fast I was going or any means to indicate where I was headed. I’d been told the bike reaches a top speed of 25 mph, which isn’t fast for admitted speed junkies such as myself, though it was a blessing since the only brakes on this bike are coaster style. There’s a single-speed Shimano brake hub on the rear and it is, for the most part, useless -- especially going down even moderately sloped hills. Ridley is working on a front brake that is supposed to be stock for the 2010 model year.

To owners of the 2009 model 1903, I wish them Godspeed, lest they be cut off by a semi.

Ridley Motorcycles 1903
Base price: $2,499
Powertrain: Rubber-mounted, air-cooled, 2-stroke, single cylinder
Displacement: 49 cc
Claimed mpg: 128

-- Susan Carpenter

Photo/Video of Susan Carpenter on the Ridley 1903 by Don Kelsen / Los Angeles Times