Every picture tells a story. *

We have all, at some impressionable moment, been moved by a photograph.  And sometimes, the energy in the image misaligns with our own so perfectly it changes every molecule in our being.  Our expression of that impact might be as simple as a wardrobe change and new music on our playlist, or as profound as a wholly new direction in life.  For Wil Thomas, the discovery of a late 1940s image of two Black men on distinctive motorcycles was the inspiration for both study and creation: a close observation of what is shown and implied in that photo, the history suggested, the mood and lifestyle of those riders, their choice of machines.  Eventually, the photo inspired a replica of the Harley-Davidson Knucklehead bob-job under one of the riders – the one with the ‘thousand-yard stare’.

Lucius P. Dawkins on his Series B Vincent Touring Rapide, and his friend on a Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead bob-job. [Vintagent Archive]
We know the identity of one man in the photo: Lucius P. Dawkins purchased a Vincent Series B Touring Rapide brand new, presumably with pay from the military shortly after WW2.  He was not the only Black American motorcyclist to purchase the fastest motorcycle in the world at that date – several others can be seen in rare photographs from the era – but he was distinctive enough that his name is attached to this photo, and a few others with his Vincent.  The gentleman on the Knucklehead, though, remains anonymous.

Lucius P. Dawkins was not the only Black American rider with a Vincent: this early 1950s photos of a Columbus, Ohio ‘dress club’ shows two riders on Vincent Black Shadows. Both have been customized as full-dress machines, with extra lights and chrome, and flank a BSA Golden Flash. The rest of the lineup in this (cropped) photo are on Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glides and Knuckleheads. [Vintagent Archive]
The story implied in the picture resonated with Wil.  As an ex-Marine, he deduced that given the approximate date (late 1940s), and the oufits of the riders, both were likely recently returned from WW2.  While the men wear fashionable turned-up dungarees, Dawkins wears a Navy watch cap, while his friend wears something else – the look of a hardened combat veteran.  That thousand-yard stare might or might not have come from military service, of course, as Blacks in the 1940s were restricted from full participation in Jim Crow America, and plenty had traumatic experiences right at home.  That would include, dropping the veneer of a writer’s objectivity, my own brother-in-law Leon Allen, who left Shreveport Louisiana for good after his best friend was lynched in 1940, and headed to LA, like hundreds of thousands of others fleeing the South for work and an easier life out West in the 1940s.

The inspirations Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead bob-job of classic proportions and detail, that inspired Wil Thomas to build his own. [Vintagent Archive]
As a fan of Harley-Davidsons, Wil was especially intrigued by this very early EL custom, with its chromed springer forks, no front fender, high handlebar risers, bobbed rear fender, and fishtail exhaust.  It is the very definition of the postwar bob-job, still full of appeal as a perfected custom style, and still the most popular custom motorcycle trend, with two factories producing ‘bobbers’ even today.  Ultimately, Wil was moved to build a replica of this machine, as Greg Williams documents in his story below.  Wil’s hommage created a bridge spanning decades of  history, binding the past with the present, and adding a chapter to the almost untold story of Black motorcyclists in America. Where no heritage for our story exists or is celebrated, we must create our own from neglected scraps, that shine like diamonds for those with eyes to see them.

Wil with his Knucklehead homage at Perform Under Pressure in 2018. [Wil Thomas]
Greg Williams gives this report on Wil Thomas and his back story:

Cresting the gravel drive filled with weeds and ruts, a weatherworn wooden shed with a grimy window appears at the end of the road. A heavy door locked with a rusty padlock yields easily to a pair of bolt cutters. Creaking open on rusty hinges, dim sunlight shines through dust motes to reveal a piece of greasy old chrome. It’s a motorcycle, and not just any machine, but a custom 1947 Harley-Davidson stashed away by its builder, Wil Thomas.

None of the above is true, apart from Wil having built the Knucklehead. Rather, the Los Angeles-based creator says it’s a romantic vision; a possible scenario of what he’d like to see happen to the machine he built. “We all dream about finding an old motorcycle or parts in a shed,” Wil tells me. “That’s romantic, and that’s cool, and that feels real. The bike was here long before me, and it will be here long after I’m gone. Maybe someone with a grander vision will blow it apart and make it better, or maybe someone will think it special enough to preserve it. Somewhere in the middle of that is the truth, but for just this period of its history I’m its custodian.”

Wil Thomas at his Seal Beach garage in 2014, captured on wet plate by the MotoTintype team. [MotoTintype]
Long before Wil found his ’47 Knuck, he grew up fascinated by western movies and especially those including John Wayne. His favorite? The Cowboys, a film where Wayne’s rancher character employs a ragtag group of youngsters to help him drive his cattle to market. “Growing up in the ‘70s, there weren’t a lot of images that reflected us,” Wil explains. “But I saw that movie on TV, and in my mind, I wanted to be a cowboy – I never saw it as anybody else’s sport.”

During summers, Wil worked on a horse ranch near Potosi, Missouri, a community 72 miles south of his hometown of St. Louis. For $10 a day, he labored in the barns and looked after tack and equipment. “There’s a culture around horsemanship – and the motorcycle is similar. There’s a command of the horse, and there’s a command of the motorcycle; it’s a perfect analogy.”

Wil Thomas in his Marine Corps days with his coveted Harley-Davidson tee. [Wil Thomas]
Wil grew up without a father figure in the house, and didn’t have a mechanical mentor. While his grandfather and his uncle would tinker in a basement workshop, no one gave him hands-on tutelage. He and his friends did wrench on their BMX bikes, and he tells a story about helping his neighbor remove the governor on a riding mower before racing it down the alley. But he didn’t grow up around motorcycles or have much to do with mechanics, either.

After high school, Wil played university-level soccer for a couple of years, but gave up athletics and school when he enlisted in the United States Marines. Aboard the USS Ogden, he saw active duty for four years, and inactive duty for another four. Initially, he was stationed in California and was involved in the first Gulf conflict during 1990 and 1991. “When you’re sitting on a ship, during down time or while cleaning weapons you tend to dream off of the real world and we were always talking about one of three things; food, chicks or motorcycles,” Wil explains. “I was walking around in a Harley-Davidson T-shirt, but felt I was living a lie and said I would never wear another motorcycle shirt until I got a bike.

Wil’s first real bike: a Kawasaki Eliminator ZL600 that served him well. [Wil Thomas]
“Now, you’d expect the minute I got off the ship I’d get a bike but that still didn’t happen right away,” Wil says. Instead, he moved to Chicago and got a job in the security field. It wasn’t until 1998 when he was back home in St. Louis to visit a girlfriend that a motorcycle materialized. Walking down Forest Park Parkway, Wil saw a Kawasaki Eliminator ZL600 parked outside a motorcycle shop. It was for sale, and exactly what drew Wil to the Kawasaki with its transverse four-cylinder engine and shaft final drive he still doesn’t know. “But, it called to me,” he says, and continues, “with $600 in my pocket, I went into the shop and asked if I could buy the bike on layaway. They took the $600, and the bike stayed in St. Louis. I’d send money to my then girlfriend and she’d go and pay it down – she wasn’t too stoked about this, because I wasn’t focused on the relationship.”

Although the girl didn’t last, Wil says he kept and rode the Kawasaki for quite a few years. And, because he didn’t know all that much about motorcycles, he took a part time job working weekends on the parts counter at Illinois Harley-Davidson in Countryside. That’s when he invested in a Big Dog chopper – a bike he says didn’t end up meaning much to him. “I got a Sportster shortly after that, and once I started tinkering with and modifying the Sportster I never rode the Big Dog again. When I started working on my own bike, and modifying it to my aesthetics, that’s when it really started to evolve for me.”

A selection of Wil’s early bikes, including a couple of H-D Panhead customs. [Wil Thomas]
To get his fix on the scene, he’d head to the magazine stand at Tower Records and pore over motorcycle and hot rod titles; the hot rod books because there were occasionally bike stories on the pages. One weekend in April 2004, while cruising Chicago on his Sportster, Wil says he pulled up on a show with old cars and motorcycles. He recognized one of the hot rods from a magazine and started talking to the builder, but he drew up sharp at the sight of two custom bikes parked behind the car.

“He told me if I liked the bikes, I had to go to the Flatiron Building at Six Corners (a well-known convergence of three streets in Chicago) and go in the basement,” Wil recalls. “He said there were two guys there who built them. So, one day I found myself on that corner and I walked on down there. I talked to a guy about learning a bit more about the bikes, and he just said, ‘Bring beer.’” Wil spent $44 a week on Bud Light and, while listening to live traditional roots and blues music, learned even more about motorcycles and the custom-building community. Shortly after, he spotted an ad in the Chicago Tribune newspaper.

Wil’s garage today, where a Sportster chopper lives with his Knuck in the garage. [Wil Thomas]
He says, “In this little classified were the words, ‘1952 Real H-D Chopper’ and a contact number.” Calling the seller, Wil was invited to see the motorcycle. It was, according to Wil, something of a 1980s monstrosity with disc brakes but it was a Harley-Davidson Panhead engine in a rigid frame. Just like he did with the Kawasaki, Wil managed to pay a substantial deposit, telling the seller he’d be back on August 6 with the balance; the day he’d get his bonus check from work. “The beginning of all this for me was that Panhead from northern Illinois,” he adds, “none of the other bikes matter until that one.

“Over that winter, I put my aesthetic on the Panhead, and I drew heavily from images of a green Panhead on the cover and in the pages of DicE Magazine’s issue No. 4,” he says. “It had Z-bars, and I modified mine with a set of those, a Frisco Sporty tank and a Wassell fender. My Panhead granted me entrance to the lifestyle and the people, and I was invited to shows and runs, including my first El Diablo Run in 2006.”

Wil’s Panhead as modified to his taste as he joined a new generation of chopper fans in a revival of early-style chopper aesthetics. [Wil Thomas]
From that point, Wil essentially built 12 bikes in as many years but one of the most important might be the 1947 Knucklehead alluded to earlier. That all starts with his mom, and it’s a long story. “When I was in college, I picked up an affinity for Asian aesthetics, and I told my mom about it. This was a case of be careful of what you say,” Wil explains, and continues, “my mom is a junker, she loves to go to thrift stores. For a long time, I got every tea set or trinket that looked Chinese or Japanese – she just wouldn’t quit. At some point, I said, ‘Don’t buy another thing.’ But that’s just mom, she was looking out for me. So, instead, I told her, here’s something you cannot find – try locating a 1942 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead.”

Wil chuckles, “From that day on, if someone had a big beard or looked like they knew something about Knuckleheads, my mom would go up to them and ask if they knew of one for sale. She focused her energy on that search.”

And, wouldn’t you know it, Mom came through. Once after visiting Wil, while flying home, she had a copy of a motorcycle magazine in her hands. Sitting next to her was a fellow who asked if she was into motorcycles. Not personally, but she had a son who was, and say, you wouldn’t know anyone with a Knucklehead for sale? “This guy knew a guy who did, though, and I got a contact number,” Wil says. “I called him, and talked to him for a bit. He wasn’t looking to sell it then, but about a year later he phoned me up and said he was moving on, and offered me the Knuck.”

The Knuck transformed. The patina today gives the impression the machine has always been in this configuration, lending a kind of gravitas to its simplicity and lack of flash. [Wil Thomas]
A poorly constructed chopper with a butchered neck and 10-inch over front end, Wil says he rode it like that until the frame broke nearly in half between the sidecar loop and the front motor mount. Considering what he’d do next with it, he began to draw inspiration from a photograph of Lucius P. Dawkins astride his Vincent Rapide. Alongside Dawkins is another rider, but instead of a British machine, he’s on a Harley-Davidson Knucklehead bob-job. The front fender is gone, the rear has been shortened at the hinged joint, and Stellings & Hellings bars and risers sit atop the chromed springer fork.

“I have that photograph framed and on the wall in my garage and in my office,” Wil says. “I walk past them every day, and there are not a ton of images of brothers on bikes. I’d always trip off the brother on the Knuck, and wonder about the story. It looks like its 1947 or 1948, and I wonder if they’d just got back from the War and said, let’s buy bikes and ride to New Orleans. I’m making up the story, but they look like military men to me. The guy on the Knuck, he’s so intense, and in his eyes, he looks like he’s seen beyond.”

Wil Thomas today as proprietor of TriCo Store in Los Angeles, among many other projects he pursues in film and advertising. [Wil Thomas]
It was the era of narrowed forks and tanks with a whole lot of metal flake paint jobs on the tins when Wil began reconstructing the ’47 Knuck. “I didn’t see a whole lot of originality or honesty in those builds,” Wil says. “It’s in my nature – if everyone’s going one way, I’ll go the other way, and the Knuck in the photo was speaking to me in an honest, different way.”

He started with the frame, getting help to return it as close as possible to stock dimensions. With those repairs completed, he mounted a set of stock gas tanks, a chromed springer fork with Stelling & Helling risers and bars and an abbreviated rear fender. All of the parts were well-used pieces he’d picked up over the years at various meets – none of the bits came from sources such as eBay. The exhaust set up, Wil says, was not his favorite part until he put it on the Knuck to cut it up. “I went from hating it to liking it, and sometimes the piece you don’t like is the thing that ends up making the bike,” he says of the exhaust, and adds, “I let the bike tell me exactly what it wants to be.”

Wil looking vintage himself on his Knucklehead homage, captured in a (solarized) wet plate/collodion by the MotoTintype team.

Wil emphasize that he’s still no mechanic. He relies on others with specialized skills to ensure a motor or transmission is built and set up correctly. When it comes to building a bike, however, Wil’s specialty is his innate sense of line and what looks ‘right’ and his ability to fit the pieces together. Since finishing the ’47 Knuck, it’s essentially not been changed, and the machine truly has an identity of its own. After spending years living in an L.A. loft where he can pull into the garage, load a bike into the freight elevator and bring it up to his living room (he currently has eight bikes up there), Wil is contemplating a change.

“It looks like something out of a dream, but there’s a heavy dose of reality that goes along with living where I do,” Wil says. “It’s a very cool chapter of my life, but I always said I was going to go back to the country and horses. If I do, I’d like to put that Knuck away in a shed, perhaps leaving it there for someone else to find long after I’m gone. Now, that feels real.”

*from Rod Stewart’s seminal 1971 song and album of the same name.

Wil Thomas more recently with his Knucklehead. [Tumblr]
Greg Williams is a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics

 

Paul d’Orléans is the founder of TheVintagent.com. He is an author, photographer, filmmaker, museum curator, event organizer, and public speaker. Check out his Author Page, Instagram, and Facebook.
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