tirsdag 24. oktober 2023

To The North Pole with a Harley Davidson


The above is a recent article I wrote for "Sidevogna", 
NVMC`s (Norwegian Vintage Motorcycle Club) membership magazine.

A translation of the article from Norwegian to English;


What most people probably know is the fact Harley Davidson is just not a motorcycle, it is just as much a brand, a myth and a way of life.

This has all been laid foundation off by Harley-Davidson over a long period of time, and early as

in 1916 they began publishing their own magazine, where the target audience was the owners of

Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The magazine was named "The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast".

In this magazine they covered most of what Harley-Davidson was involved with in the

motorsports scene in the United States, as well as a little from the rest of the world. There were technical tips, and the Magazine subscribers could submit their own photos and stories from

trips they had with their bikes. A self-evident part of the magazine was to promote

Harley-Davidson's various accessories, such as riding gear and bits and bobs to make your ride standing out from the crowd.

In "The Enthusiast" No. 15 from 1918 one can read on page 22 the following heading;

« To The North-Pole witha Harley-Davidson."

In the text that follows is a letter submitted by the dealer Sørensen & Balchen

from Kristiania – Norway. They announce; "We would like to inform that we have sold a Harley-Davidson motorcycle to Captain Roald Amundsen, the explorer of the Southern Pole”.

The Harley`s engine no. is 13428-M (Check your engine no`s folks!), and the bike is now on board the

new polar ship "Maud" that will leave Norway and head for the North Pole shortly.

"The motorcycle will be used for pulling a motor sled in conjunction with a small winch to

pull up a longline that is used to measuring great ocean depths".

“We will send a picture of the polar ship and a picture of the motorcycle as it looked after assembly here in our workshop, where it was tested before being brought to the Ship.

Dr. Sverdrup, one of the expeditions members, have promised us pictures of the motorcycle in use, as soon as the ship is back in Norway."


Having read the text above, the obvious question is, what on earth should Roald Amundsen with this Harley Davidson on his North Pole expedition with the exploration ship Maud? Even a quality machine as a Harley-Davidson should get problems working under weather conditions close to the North Pole?

This was all too interesting not to dig further into, and where is then better to gather information than the www? As I started gathering more information on this Polar expedition and the purpose of the Harley it soon became clear to me there was either a linguistic misunderstanding when the Enthusiast editors printed the letter from Norway, or there was an intentional misunderstanding to create more buzz on the Harley Davidson brand name.

Harald U. Sverdrup was the North Pole expedition`s oceanographer, responsible for pretty much anything related to meteorology and observations. In the years after the North Pole expedition Mr. Sverdrup published several books and scientific articles, most of those are available online in the Norwegian National Library.

When reading Sverdrup`s book, “Three years in the ice with Maud”, one will learn the meteorological observations took place by launching a huge dragon with various recording instruments.

To get a dragon air born is quite simple, but when the same dragon is to be pulled down from 3000 meters height and strong winds, then we are talking off serious work.

In his book Sverdrup explain how he and a team during 1917 & 1918 purpose built a sledge including a winch to be able to pull back the dragon. This winch was made so that it could be run by three various means of power. Those where either by hand with a crank, a Bolinder marine motor OR the 5hp Harley Davidson drive train.

One can read further in the book the Bolinder was no success, as a result four men had to swing the crank for two hours during March and April – 1919, to get the dragon pulled back to the ship after each launch, even if it had only been brought up to a height of 1000 meters.

And at this point with four men exhausted from manual labor the Harley Davidson motor gets it chance and gets mounted on to the toboggan.

During June & July 1919, the dragon would on several occasions climb up to 3354 meters, a height that by no means scared the trusty Harley motor.

During the autumn of 1919 the toboggan is packed away and does not resurface until the winter of 1922/23.

At this point the average temperature is as low as -50 degree Celsius, and the Harley motor will no longer start. Again, the manual crank and four men is needed to bring the dragon down.

The cold weather starting problems where soon to be found caused by the Magneto`s lack of willingness to make sparks at ice cold. As a result, Mr. O. Dahl who in the book is described as a pilot of trade and an educated engineer, build a new ignition system for the Harley motor. It is now a coil powered by a huge 120 V spare battery for the ship Maud`s Delco lightning system. To get the spark at the correct moment of the motors cycle, Mr. Dahl constructed an entirely new ignition distributor system.

Sverdrup describes; "The distributor was made from the simple means at hand," Dahl's effort was to be described as an impressive piece of work.

The engine now worked fairly-well, tough one still had to preheat both cylinders with a kerosene blow torch before ant start attempt. By 1924 the motor worked flawless even at temperatures -50 degrees, and it had no problem pulling down more than 3000 meters of steel line.

Having learned this much on the engines use and modifications, the obvious question to raise; are there any pictures to be found of this Harley Davidson powered winch toboggan?

And the good luck stood me by. A handful of photos from the expedition where the motor is shown was found in our National library.

The pictures prove the exaggerations in the Enthusiast magazine, only a Harley Davidson drive train followed Mr. Amundsens North Pole expedition, not an entire bike.

I guess this is still another victory for Harley Davidson, it could after all have been an Indian motor that came along to the North Pole.

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