The Foundation

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Tom Johnson
Tom Johnson

Like a little “hot rod” with your chopper? Then you should know about: The Foundation!

I’ve always thought that choppers and hot rod engines went together like stretched frames and long forks – they’re a natural. Hot rod parts are almost as easy to get as spark plugs, but it wasn’t always like that. When you get down to it, four men, all pioneers, deserve most of the credit for creating the performance aftermarket.

Tom Sifton, George Smith, Doc Dytch, and Jerry Branch

“The best there ever was.”

Tom Sifton was born outside Buffalo, in 1903. He left New York for California, where he became a tool and die maker and discovered motorcycles. Like the others who created the performance aftermarket, he liked his motorcycles fast, and that led to racing. Tom competed successfully in TT, pro hillclimb, and roadracing. But getting an engine to produce enough power and stay together long enough to win races, especially in the days when aluminum heads bordered on alien technology, became a more interesting challenge. As well as he had ridden, Tom was even better at building and tuning engines. Dud Perkins, owner of San Francisco’s leading Harley dealership at the time, recognized his talents with indicators and micrometers, and hired him to manage a small sub-dealership that specialized in “sport riding”- a common acronym before the “white boy gone bad” wannabe days came along. It didn’t pay to frighten the public with aggressive terms like “racing.”

Tom’s riders won consistently and helped his shop prosper despite a global depression. As it turned out, he was as good at running a business as at racing motorcycles and building engines. Profits in San Francisco led to a move to San Jose, where he started a dealership of his own. A well-known logo of Sifton Harley-Davidson, and an accurate reflection of the owner’s character, was a handshake with “Sold by Tom Sifton” scripted across the front. Having a successful franchise in San Jose was good for business at Harley, although something of a mixed blessing because the Sifton race crew lived to outrun the factory team. Recognizing the PR bene t of having one of its motorcycles- factory-sponsored or not- win races, Harley decided to encourage Tom with a promise to match the purse earned by any of his riders who won a national event. A Sifton rider promptly took the San Jose Mile, but guess what? Milwaukee wouldn’t cough up the cash! Not one to take a broken promise lightly, Tom got real serious about beating the factory. To rub a healthy dose of salt into the wound he planned to deliver, he decided to go after H-D with a motorcycle from one of its leading rivals- BSA. Riding the Sifton Beeza for Sifton Harley-Davidson, Sam Arena beat the leather off the factory riders at the next race. David kicked Goliath’s ass, and rolled him over to make him eat dirt while he was at it! Tom mentored and sponsored many leading riders and engine builders during the years that followed, including AMA/Indy Car great Joe Leonard, Jim McClure, Bonnie Truett, Pete Hill, Carl Morrow, and Elmer Trett.

You’ll see that each of the four pioneers in this article made his own unique contribution to the world of hot rod Harleys. Tom Sifton was a mechanical genius, but best known for his camshafts and valvetrain development. He was among the first to recognize and understand valve oat, which occurs when the cam and springs lose control of the valve, and develop measures to control it- increasing both power and reliability. Tom injured both hips in 1954, when he fell from a racetrack tower. He also developed crippling arthritis, but stayed active for another 20 years. Despite experiencing the same love-hate relationship that outsiders usually do when they work closely with Harley, he went on to design cams for the factory race bikes- he found a formal agreement more pro table than having his cams bootlegged out the back door and copied by the factory, as happened during the Perkins days. Tom sold his business in 1971, after obtaining a promise from Dick Hilferty, the new owner, that the Sifton name would continue to represent quality, as it always had. Recent developments have brought that into question, but Tom died in 1991, so he wasn’t here to see them. Pete Hill described him as the Smokey Yunick of motorcycles, and Bonnie Truett went a step farther- “He was the best there ever was.” High praise, especially considering the sources.

“I want to make all bikes go faster.”

George J. Smith was born in Blue Island, Illinois, in 1921. One bene t of the global depression that followed was that it left tons of derelict motorcycles available for George, and others with the motorcycle bug, to pick up for nothing or next to it, invest a little sweat equity into, and ride around raising hell on a few days later. As much as he enjoyed motorcycles, George’s interest turned to airplanes as the adventures of Charles Lindbergh, Amelia Earhart, and other flyers caught the public eye. Devastating as it was, World War II provided the perfect chance for George to learn flying at Uncle’s expense. He ew bombers and made pilot instructor before returning to civilian life with three interests- airplanes, race cars, and motorcycles. Post-war Chicago found him focusing on car racing, where he campaigned open-wheeled midgets (“little cars,” to be politically correct) to race on local dirt tracks. Still years away from S&S and the additional income it would bring in, he raced junkyard-bought Ford flatheads in place of the high-dollar, race-bred Offenhausers preferred by those who could afford them. As Merle Smith, George’s brother- in-law, mentioned one rainy afternoon while we were emptying beer cans and talking motorcycles in his basement, George built one of the few Ford-powered cars to beat the Offenhausers of Indy legend Andy Granatelli- not unlike smoking a Hayabusa with a kickstart Shovelhead. But stock- car racing was the coming thing and, in 1949, George bought an Oldsmobile sedan with the new Rocket 88 engine. After talking friend Bob Pronger into driving it, he entered the Olds in a big dirt-track race at Darlington, South Carolina. Because they arrived late, Bob started at the back of the pack. He quickly closed on the Southern boys up front, but an old back injury and pressure from Darlington’s high-speed turns caused him to pass out and crash the Olds, which George had bought under the pretext of using as the family sedan. From what Merle said, his sister Marge, George’s wife, wasn’t overjoyed by what transpired at Darlington. She strongly suggested that George go back to motorcycles, which were dirt cheap in comparison and more likely to bring money into the household than take it out.

Done with cars, at least on the race track, George dove into another new sport- drag racing. He put dual carbs on a 61” Knucklehead and bumped displacement up to 80” with bored cylinders and ULH flywheels. George and the Knucklehead, which he named “Tramp” because of its ragged appearance, became regular winners at Chicago area drag strips. Looking for a bigger edge over the competition, he decided to try nitromethane- a self- oxidizing fuel originally developed for rockets. Nitro helped make Tramp one of the fastest motorcycles in the country, which led to Land Speed Racing. With the help of friends Stan Stankos and Leo Schindler, George created a set of 3-11/16” cylinders and pistons, took Tramp up to 92 cubic inches, and headed west. That first trip to Bonneville, made in 1954, earned a record of 152.02 mph- not bad for an engine as much George Smith as Harley-Davidson. (S&S haters – do you get it yet?)

George kept his day job as a die-sinker and made supervisor,but still worked on motorcycles after-hours. Unknowingly,Harley helped put him and Stanley in business when it replaced solid lifters with hydraulics. They were quieter than solids, butt ended to collapse in performance applications. George and Stan developed a solid lifer conversion kit with rigid, light weight aluminum pushrods that worked so well in their own motorcycles they decided to produce them commercially. In 1958, they started a business called S&S Cycle Equipment. Stan left a year later,leaving Marge the new partner. She handled administrative duties,so George was free to focus on expanding the product line. His goal was to make building a stroker engine as simple as a stock rebuild,which didn’t take long. Next came a move that would affect theSmith family for generations to come- he decided to address the growing demand for a simple, high-performance carburetor for Harleys. Aided by drag racer Leo Payne, George designed two-one for gasoline, the other for nitromethane. The resemblance to Linkert’s die-cast, side-bowl carburetors is obvious, but holding aDC Linkert in one hand and comparing it to an Early or L-SeriesS&S in the other is like comparing a shot glass to a beer mug. And when it comes to hot rod Harleys, bigger is almost always better.

In 1969, the Smiths moved to a farm outside Viola, Wisconsin, where George planned to become a part-time farmer, part-time high-performance parts manufacturer. Accompanied by Leo and a new rider, Warner Riley, he and the S&S crew bee-lined it to Bonneville immediately after the move. There, Leo become the first person ever to break 200 mph on a conventional motorcycle. That put everyone on notice in the motorcycle world, and Harley- Davidson decided to go after the Unlimited Streamliner record. In 1970, Dick O’Brien, head of the factory racing department, asked George to provide one of his carburetors and return to the salt with the Harley team to mix nitro. Cal Rayborn would pilot the Denis [ED. NOTE- “DENIS” IS THE CORRECT SPELLING] Manning-designed and built streamliner, while Warner Riley would supply the engines. Built with Sifton cams, S&S flywheels and carburetor, Dytch cylinders and pistons, Branch heads and a handful of Harley parts, Warner’s bored and stroked Sportster engine pushed the streamliner to a record of 255 mph. A few days later, the back-up engine, which had come out of Warner’s street bike, got its turn and bumped the record to 265. Afterwards, George continued to expand S&S’s product line. Since Doc Dytch, a good friend by then, had sold his cylinder business and retired, George decided to make big-bore cylinders, which led to S&S’s landmark Sidewinder engine kits. Take my word- you had to be there to appreciate how much of a breakthrough those kits actually were. Interviewed by Ed Roth for a 1969 issue of Choppers Magazine, George summarized his ultimate goal with eight words: “I want to make all bikes go faster.” I don’t know about all bikes but, installed by my friend Pete Hill, parts that George Smith designed and produced sure made mine faster- and reliable enough to ride daily, then crisscross the country with at will.

After suffering a gradual but steady decline in health, George died of heart failure in 1980, during a Scandinavian cruise withMarge, Merle, and Merle’s wife, Jean. The four had planned to walk through a town where the ship docked, but George didn’t feel well and stayed behind- insisting that the other three proceed with their plans. When they returned, Merle found him dead. Interms of surprise comebacks in the American motorcycle industry,S&S’s recovery ranks second only to that of Harley-Davidson,following the 1981 buy-out from AMF.

The Mystery Man

Also a Midwesterner, Doc Dytch was born in Mason City, Iowa, in 1904. He discovered that motorcycles were the best thing life had to offer- well, second best, maybe third- while still a teenager, and spent the rest of his life with them. He worked on them, made parts for them, raced them, and sold them at the Harley-Davidson dealership he established in Ames, Iowa. Doc left his business and family behind to enlist for World War II, and worked as an airplane mechanic. Afterwards, he opened a Harley dealership in Des Moines. Doc had always enjoyed “sport riding,” and couldn’t wait to get one of the new overhead-valve engines Harley developed for the ‘57 Sportsters. (The flathead KH engines had lost their edge on the street to the more advanced 650 Triumphs and BSA’s.) Doc knew that the 54-inch overhead valve engines should put his brand of choice back out front, but the best news was yet to come. After a meeting in 1956, when H-D officially introduced the new engine to its associates, Wade Lentner, a dealer from Ottumwa, Iowa, told Doc of his plan to stroke one with 4-9/16” KH flywheels. The KH ‘wheels would take the new engine from 54 to 65 inches, giving it a 25-inch edge over most of the British bikes. By 1959, Wade and Doc’s Sportster was cranking out 11-second quarter-miles at over 110 mph- amazing performance for the time, and impressive enough even now. Next, Doc and Wade created big-bore steel cylinders that raised their Ironhead’s displacement to just under 75 cubic inches. But because steel retains vast amounts of heat, it’s a poor choice for engines that run for more than a minute or two at a time, as on the street or at Bonneville. In 1961, Doc started work on cast-iron cylinders, still considered by many to provide the best combination of heat dissipation and rigidity. With heat issues covered, Doc faced another problem- the lack of a reliable source for big-bore pistons. George and Stan had addressed that problem on a small scale in George’s home garage in Blue Island, as had Burt Munroe at his shop in Invercargill, but Doc took a different approach. He cut existing pistons into cross sections, machined spacers to make them bigger, put all the parts together with sheet-metal screws, and sent his mock-ups to Jahns Pistons, now J&E, for commercial production.

The Dytch-Lentner team scrambled straight up the learning curve and managed to go faster almost every race. An all-out drag bike by 1961, their monster Sportster clocked a 10.42 with a trap speed of almost 130 mph. About the same time, Doc began what would become a long-lasting friendship and business relationship with George at S&S. With the KH flywheel supply steadily drying up, as Bonnie Truett and Paul Osborn were discovering in Wichita, George’s flywheels couldn’t have come at a better time. Turnip Eater, Leo Payne’s 80-inch XL drag bike, was sporting parts from both sources- along with Sifton cams- when it broke 200 MPH. Warner Riley also used Dytch cylinders and S&S flywheels in his engines, including the two that powered the Manning/ Harley streamliner to its records. Doc sold his business to Shorty Axtell, a friend and employee, two years later and retired. Shorty renamed it Axtell Sales, which remains in business today, under the ownership of Shorty’s friend and former employee, Ron Dickey. Another Dytch alumnus, Randy Torgeson, went on to establish Hyperformance, which manufactures cylinders big enough for a grown man to stand in. Don’t believe it? Click up kingofcubes.com and see for yourself.

After retiring, Doc moved to Clear Lake, Iowa, and from there to Colorado, where he joined his daughter and son-in-law. But as always seems to happen with hot rod Harley guys who quit the business, he didn’t stray far. In 1981, Doc helped George Forsythe, his son-in-law, set a 150-mph record at Bonneville. Doc died a few years later, in 1989. I called him “The Mystery Man,” because I could find almost nothing about him when I started looking. Giving up on the Internet, I tried Ron Dickey, who referred me to Randy. Randy remembered that Doc had moved to Colorado, and I managed to track George Forsythe down by calling a few shops on the off-chance that someone might know him. My long shot paid off, and George told me everything you just read. Mystery solved.

More flow, more go.

When you bump a Knuckle, Pan, or Shovel up to 90 inches or so and give it a decent cam, carb, and exhaust, the performance gain is amazing. The problem comes when, if you’re like me, you get greedy, want more, and decide to stuff in every last cubic inch you can almost afford. You’ll get more power but, usually, not nearly as much as you’d hoped for. That’s because those last few inches call for lots more air. No one has done more to advance air ow in Harley-Davidson cylinder heads than Jerry Branch. Jerry comes from Memphis, where he was born in 1924. He walked past Bar eld Harley-Davidson every morning on his way to school, and eventually wandered in for a look around. After a few visits, the owner stuck a broom in his hand and put him to work. Jerry found that hanging out around motorcycles, and the people they attract, was more fun than going to school, and dropped out. (Ditto.) He eventually scraped up the money for a 74” Knucklehead, but left it behind to join the Marines for World War II. Of the 255 men he shipped out with, 96 came back. Jerry returned to Memphis after the war, and jumped back into motorcycles with a vengeance, drag racing a nitro-burning Knucklehead. He won a big event in Illinois, and then traveled to Dodge City for a go against national motorcycle champion Bobby Serkegian. After beating Bobby, he moved to California and found a job at Slim Carnes’ H-D shop, in Long Beach. There, Jerry met a local racer who invited him to a big motorcycle meet at El Mirage, the dry lake bed north of L.A. Several race-model KHR flatheads happened to be in Slim’s shop for work, and he offered Jerry one to prepare and ride at El Mirage. “There were over 1,000 motorcycles there, a thousand motorcycles,” Jerry said when we talked, still barely able to contain his excitement, “And I managed to turn second fastest time of the day- 141 mph on a 55-inch gasoline engine!” When Troy Lee, another racer from El Mirage, asked Slim for sponsorship, Slim hooked him up with Jerry.

Troy raced as an AMA Amateur, meaning that he hadn’t earned enough points to make Expert. The Spring eld Mile was the AMA’s top dirt-track event, enough so that the winner was awarded theNumber One plate for the following season. Here’s how Jerry told the story. “All the big names were there- Joe Leonard, Bart Markel,Everett Brashear, even Carroll Resweber. Troy started off kind of slow to get a feel for things, but then he dropped the hammer and started picking them off, one by one. He was way out front when one of the straps that held his steel shoe on broke. The shoe would drag and then y up and hit him in the leg when he put his foot down in the turns. He had to slow down, of course, and all the riders that he’d passed got back around him. He finally managed to put his foot up on the gas tank and get the shoe off. Then he picked off everybody who’d passed him- again- and won the race! The crowd went wild, and Troy became the only Amateur who has ever won theAMA Number One plate.”

Jerry became friends with Dick O’Brien, head of Harley racing, at the same time. Acutely aware of Jerry’s skills after Troy’s big win, Dick recruited him as an independent to work on the factory entries at national events. That was exciting enough in its own right, and turned downright intense when H-D introduced the overhead- valve XR750 racing engine that would replace the obsolete KR. But despite the thought and effort behind them, the first XR’s came up several horsepower short of what everyone had hoped for. Part of the problem was traced to overheating, caused by using iron cylinders and heads on an engine that mostly ran WFO, but the rest remained a mystery. Harley-Davidson wanted a more exclusive relationship with Jerry, and Dick suggested they have him finish 300 sets of raw

XR head castings- remember, they were cast iron- to keep him tied up. That led Jerry to the most important discovery of his career. The iron XR heads owed 145 cfm, which should have been plenty for the XR-750’s at the RPM they were turning, but they peaked at 68horsepower. They would rev farther, but steadily lose power past6800. As Jerry explained, still excited and sounding like the born and bred Southerner that he is, “One Sunday morning, I discovered that ow velocity was only 110 feet per second. That might be fine for a5500-rpm engine, but not for the kind of RPM we were turning. I put clay in the ports to make them smaller, adding some here and taking it away there. I also made new valve seats and started shrinking the intake valves down. By the time I finished, the intake valves were 1⁄4”smaller and I’d gotten velocity up to 230 feet per second! I calledDick on Monday, and when I told him what I’d done his response was, ‘What the hell are you guys smoking out there?’ or something like that, but he thought about it and then ew out on Wednesday. He took the heads back with him to Milwaukee, and when Harley tested them, horsepower jumped to 78 at 8000 rpm, with no other changes.Flow volume was down but velocity went way up, and velocity is what a high-rpm engine needs.”

With an even stronger insight into Jerry’s talent, Dick assigned him to a team that was refining the roadrace XR’s chassis and fairing-which leads to another Branch anecdote. “Harley rented the windtunnel at Cal Tech, and we found that the XR fairing had an enormous amount of drag. Frontal area is everything, so we started shrinking things down. We built a motorcycle we called “The Midget,” because of its size, and then rented the Willow Springs racetrack to test it.“The team riders all went two to two-and-a-half seconds faster than on the regular XR’s, but none of them except Rayborn were willing to race it. (George Smith once called Cal Rayborn the bravest man he’d ever met.) The Midget was so low that it put the rider’s head 18”closer to the ground, and that doubled the sense of speed. I’m sure it was scary to ride, but man, that was really a disappointment.”

Like Tom Sifton, George Smith and Doc Dytch, Jerry began his career as a rider honestly passionate about motorcycles and went onto start a successful business. Founded in 1968, Branch Flowmetrics, now Branch-O’Keefe, has worked with Harley-Davidson and thousands of Harley owners as well as domestic and import car manufacturers, even the U.S. government. Jerry is semi-retired, but still active and living life to the fullest. He can be described with the same two words that t Bonnie, Pete, and Carl Morrow- LivingLegend.

Thanks to Carl Morrow, Bonnie Truett, Pete and Jackie Hill, Ken Smith, Sid Smith, Merle Smith (RIP), Floyd Baker (RIP), Dan Kinsey, Warner Riley, George Forsythe, Paul Osborne, Ron Dickey, Randy Torgesen, and Jerry Branch for their help, and to Carl, Ken, Bonnie, and Jerry for the use of their photos. You guys- and gals, Jackie- are great, and we owe you a lot.

The End

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