The Thing – 1954 Twin Knucklehead Drag Bike

June 29, 2010
Bryan Harley
Bryan Harley
Cruiser Editor |Articles|Articles RSS|Blog|Blog Posts|Blog RSS

Our resident road warrior has earned his stripes covering the rally circuit, from riding the Black Hills of Sturgis to cruising Main Street in Daytona Beach. Whether it's chopped, bobbed, or bored, metric to 'Merican, he rides 'em all.

The twin Knucklehead dragster made a name for itself on the drag strips of Northern California and the dry lake beds of Nevada and the Mojave Desert.
The twin Knucklehead dragster made a name for itself on the drag strips of Northern California and the dry lake beds of Nevada and the Mojave Desert.
Check out the flat-out  Superman-style riding position. Howd you like to be spread out like this doing 140+mph in the quarter-mile
Check out the flat-out, Superman-style riding position. How’d you like to be spread out like that doing 140+mph in the quarter-mile?
Gentleman  start your engines. Bozzie and The Thing used to raise some hell on the drag strip  racing cars and motorcycles alike.

It built its legend on the New Jerusalem and Kingdon Drag Strips in Tracy and Lodi, California. Nothing on the strip could touch it. The big shots in their hot rod cars refused to race it. The crowd loved it. ‘The Thing’ is the only one of its kind, a dual Knucklehead drag bike that was running high 8-second and low 9-second runs at over 140 mph in the quarter-mile back in the 1950s. On dry lake runs in Reno and the Mojave Desert, ‘The Thing’ is claimed to have broken the 200 mph barrier in a flat-out run. It was so fast that sometimes the old air hoses that tripped the clock at the end of the race wouldn’t register it blowing by.

To launch ‘The Thing,’ John Bozzie, would lay straight out on the seat pad that stretched out over the tank, arms reaching for the low handlebars used to complement the flat-out riding position. The clutch pedal was mounted on the right rear, and with the stiff springs the drag bike had on it, Bozzie would have to push on the bars as hard as he could to get the clutch in. Once he let the clutch out, they used a feeler button on the bars to shift it. There was a conventional hand gear shifter to the left of the tank, but the way this ‘Thing’ pulled, it was nigh impossible to fight the g-force created by its acceleration. Basically Bozzie would take off in second gear, and then shifted into high because it had the horsepower to pull it. Then it was a matter of playing with the throttle to make sure the tires didn’t spin too hard to get all the traction he could out of it. It had so much horsepower it’d leave a black line a solid quarter-mile. After races, Bozzie and his partner Walter Ross would walk out on the track and they could see where he had shifted because there’d be a little clean spot. Bozzie could tell how clean he’d shifted because if there wasn’t more than a foot-and-a-half patch, then his shifts were spot-on. You could tell how many runs he had made that day by how many black lines there were in the quarter-mile on the track.

The drag scene in the 1950s was raw and unrefined. The crowd stood trackside with no walls between them and the racers. There were no Christmas tree lights. A flagger started the races. An air hose, like the one that rings the bell when you pull into a gas station, tripped the clock. This was long before they started using the eye beam. Even when they switched to the eye beam, sometimes those wouldn’t register ‘The Thing’ either because of the chrome air cleaners messing with the beams. In that era, everybody was trying to do something different. Back then, racers did what they wanted to do. They didn’t have to wear helmets. Some of them used to wear bathing suits to race in. You’d see some of the craziest things running there.

‘The Thing’ came about when John Bozzie met Walter Ross at Claude Salmon’s Harley-Davidson in Oakland, California. Bozzie was already establishing a reputation for racing a Triumph on the New Jerusalem Airstrip and for setting speed records on a single Knucklehead drag bike at the Reno Dry Lake Races. Ross was a foreman at Claude Salmon’s Harley-Davidson over in Oakland, where Bozzie had recently been hired on. One day Ross went out with Bozz to Kingdon and race organizers shut the track down on them because they refused to run

Back in the day The Thing was so fast  the hot rod car guys refused to race it on the drag.
Back in the day,’The Thing’ was so fast, the hot rod car guys refused to race it.

against a motorcycle. It was a big rivalry between cars and motorcycles back then. The car guys packed up their trophies and went home, pissing and moaning that the bike wasn’t a dragster. So Ross and Bozzie went back to the shop and built ‘The Thing’ and brought it back out to Kingdon and said “Now it’s a drag bike. You can’t argue that it’s not a dragster.” After that, nothing on the strip could touch them. The car guys stopped racing bikes not long after that.

Bozzie and Ross spent many hours in Claude Salmon’s Harley-Davidson shop working on ‘The Thing.’ The engines are both 1947 Harley-Davidson 74 cubic-inch overhead valve FL models with a standard bore and stroke. Sourcing the iconic Knucklehead engine only adds to ‘The Thing’s’ mystique. And this bike’s got two of them. The engines have polished and ported heads and oversized valves. It uses high compression pistons with a 9.25:1 ratio, fed by four model M-88 carburetors, one carb per cylinder. Bozzie and Ross also used pressure-lubricated roller bearing lower ends and reworked high pressure oil pumps. The chain-driven drag bike uses a custom primary set-up that the two came up with that is still a ‘half-assed’ secret to this day because nobody can figure out how they got them to run together. It has a standard coil ignition, something seldom seen on other drag strip racers of the era. The stretched-out frame sports an incredible 85-in. wheelbase.

Both the clutch and brake levers are mounted on the rear axle. Its ultra-long clutch lever linkage extends down the right side to the rear axle. It has mechanical brakes, with no hydraulics at all. Bozzie said the best brakes on that ‘Thing’

The Twin Has Ponies was the title of a two-page spread on The Thing in CYCLE magazine. The Thing was featured on the cover of CYCLE magazine in 1954 before it had even run a race.
‘The Twin Has The Ponies’ was the title of a spread CYCLE magazine ran on ‘The Thing’
in 1954 before it had even run a race.

were the engines. He’d run on the front brake until it stopped grabbing and then he’d lay on the rear brake, going back and forth, but said “you never could absolutely stop it.”

A Harley-Davidson school was being held at Claude Salmon’s and one of the attendees was Walter Davidson. One afternoon when Bozzie and Ross were putting new cylinders on ‘The Thing,’ Davidson came by. Impressed by their work, he said that H-D would sponsor them if they could hit 200 mph. They looked at Davidson and said “We’ve already been 200 mph on this bike. Take us over to Bonneville and we’ll give you 200 mph on this thing.” Unfortunately, H-D wasn’t into sponsoring that type of racing much and didn’t take them up on their offer.

Among the many memories ‘The Thing’ fostered, one of Ross’ favorite stories was one race where they took the bike to Reno. After piloting the first run, Bozzie warned him that it was a short track, so Ross was thinking “maybe it’s around 7/10 of a mile or so, short of a full mile, so I’ll just get it up to speed and shut it down.” A blown motor in the front engine on the first run meant they had to jury rig it so they could get in a double run, basically running on three cylinders. Ross piloted it for the second run and found out the hard way what Bozzie meant by a short track when his run was so fast he quickly ran out of room and couldn’t get it stopped in time. As he rolled out of the throttle, the bike settled a bit running around 164 mph. Ross gave the bars a little shake which flips the bike into a slide at around 120 mph. As he comes back on the throttle, the bike swings around, facing in the complete opposite direction toward the pits, so Ross just rolled it slowly back to the staging area. Getting off the bike, Ross tells Bozz, “Don’t you ever do that to me again. Next time you make yourself clear what is short.”

Even to this day, people’s reactions to ‘The Thing’ are nuts. A few years back, Bozzie’s son Dave, owner of Bozzie Custom Performance, restored the bike, machining many of the parts that had gone missing or worn out over the years.

John Bozzie works his mastery to get the maximum performance out of almost any engine.
John Bozzie was a master at getting the maximum performance out of almost any motorcycle engine.

He and his father took it to Reno, Nevada for the Street Vibrations show. Dave said it was absolutely insane. He’d pull up to a stoplight and everyone would mob the bike, standing between the trailer and the truck. They stopped at one light and a cop who was writing a ticket stopped what he was doing and set his ticket book on top of the car so he could come over and check it out. Dave had to push his way through the crowds just to get the bike off the trailer. They also took it to the annual Kingdon Reunion, returning to one of the first tracks the twin Knucklehead Harley ran on 50 years later as ‘The Thing’ came full circle. There, many people approached the Bozzies saying, “I remember that bike when I was 12-years-old.”

After Dave restored ‘The Thing’ to its former glory, he believes the bike’s still ready to compete and could push 200 mph today. His 80-year-old father John wants to make one final glorious sprint down the Salt at Bonneville, where it never got an opportunity to run before. But he is quick to remind his dad that it does have a 1947 chassis. It currently sits in Dave’s shop, Bozzie’s Custom Performance, but they have considered one day donating it to a motorcycle museum. They’ve talked about offering it to the fabulous Harley-Davidson Museum while John is still alive so that he could see where it would sit for posterity’s sake.

There were actually two similar twin Knucklehead drag bikes from that era as Bud Smith built a motorcycle called the ‘Green Monster.’ But back then the two were

The Thing was rebuilt a few years back by Johns son Dave of Bozzie Custom Performance. Dave machined many of the parts that had either fallen off or worn out.
‘The Thing’ was rebuilt a few years back by John’s son Dave of Bozzie Custom Performance. Dave machined many of the parts that had either fallen off or worn out. The AFT Customs girls also breathe new life into the venerable drag bike.

competing on circuits in different parts of the country and they didn’t have the means of communication like we do today. They both knew there was another bike out there, but it was spread by rumors and word-of-mouth. In 2007, Bozzie and Smith ran into each other at Bonneville. When they got talking about it at the Salt Flats, they discerned that Bozzie was the very first to build one. Both, though, are pioneers of the sport.

There will never again be a racing era like the drag scene of the ‘50s. They didn’t win money, they just won a trophy. Bozzie would take the trophy one time and Ross would take it the next. It was just a bunch of guys out having fun who did it for the love and spirit of it. It gave them a chance to hang out and run their bikes. Everybody knew everybody so there was a strong sense of camaraderie. You could see a guy’s art in the bike as they stamped their signature on them with their craftsmanship. ‘The Thing’ was born because two guys just wanted to race and have fun. But because of its historical significance and the free spirit that brought it to life, ‘The Thing’ and pioneers like John Bozzie and Walter Ross deserve their legacy to be preserved in the annals of the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.