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Spyder Man

"Live fast, die young and leave a good looking corpse,” is perhaps the most memorable thing about the 1949 Humphery Bogart film noir ‘Knock on any Door’. Yet it wasn’t even Bogey who uttered the memorable line, rather Nick Romano.

Among those who have taken this line perhaps too literally are movie icons Norma Jeane Baker, better known as Marilyn Monroe, and ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ star James Dean.

Monroe was 36 when she died of an overdose and Dean, who died in a car crash, aged just 24. Separated by only five years in life, and despite both being major Hollywood stars at the same time, it is believed they only met once…

Had they met again, maybe history would have been very different. Would Dean have brought his ill-fated Spyder 550, one of only 90 made, and had it customized by George Barris – the man responsible for the original Batmobile and many other TV and movie cars – if he’d had further liaisons with the blonde bombshell?

But then again, was the 1955 crash that killed him responsible for his elevation to screen idol status despite having only made a handful of films? What is certain is the effect the man and his car had on Steve Willis, the Dealer Principle at Shaw Harley-Davidson, who has built his own interpretation of Dean’s Porsche in the form of a rebuilt Fat Boy named Little Bastard.

“The James Dean bike is something I had wanted to create for some years, Dean’s original Spyder was an inspiration with its clean and striking looks, all gained with such simplicity.”

As simple as Harleys are, it was going to take a lot of work to turn a Fat Boy into a Porsche tribute, but then Steve is in the fortunate position of having the full workshop facilities of Shaw’s Seep Shop at his disposal. That’s the same Speed Shop that created True Strike II the bike that took the £5,000 travel expenses to Sturgis prize at the Ace Café Motorcycle and Custom show at Ally Pally earlier this year.

Another benefit that Steve has is a close working relationship with US custom builder, parts designer and former GP racer Roland Sands, who will be at selected rounds of the XR Trophy on Shaw’s race bike. Not only does Sands have his only California-based shop, Roland Sands Design, he is also the Head of Design for Performance Machine.

However, before a collection of Roland Sands and Performance Machine parts could be pulled from the shelves, the first step was strip the 2003 Fat Boy down, to get the frame powder coated.

While it was all in pieces across the workshop floor the swing-arm and forks were discarded. At the back a Performance Machine Phatail was bolted into place to take a wider tyre, important for the race care look, while at the front a pair of 2-inch under Paughco Springers were bolted up to help get the ride height down.
To get the chassis rolling, a set of Performance Machine Domino wheels were sourced, complete with matching rotors and pulley, and just for added trickery a drive-side disc to keep one side of the wheel clean. The space at the rear was then filled up with a 240-section Metzler.

Given that Dean’s Spyder was essentially a street driven race car, Steve needed to get some ‘go’ to match the show. With the full range of Screamin’ Eagle performance hardware but a phone call away, Steve took a pragmatic decision to make it less likely to pay the ultimate homage to its namesake, creating a practical road-going custom into the bargain, with the Screamin’ Eagle big bore kit taking it out to 1550cc.

In order to help the motor breathing deep, a Performance Machine air filter found its way from the shop floor and on to the engine, matched up to a Vance & Hines Tracker exhaust – another part designed by that young upstart Roland Sands – and to make sure the fuel injection could keep up with the engine’s increased demands, a Screamin’ Eagle download was patched into the ECU.

Before the engine went back in the frame it was dressed in a full set of Roland Sands Design Nostalgia covers to help create the correct period look. Okay, so there was no CNC machined billet aluminium in James Dean’s day, but the organic curves of the precision machining conjure up the finest sand-cast aluminium of a bygone age

Likewise the open belt primary that Steve pulled from his heavily thumbed Performance Machine catalogue charged with getting the horses to the gearbox, concealed beneath a minimal PM hydraulic transmission cover reminiscent of the contours of the Porsche’s smoothed-out curves, and a full set of braided steel hoses.

Finally, before putting the Performance Machine catalogue back in his desk drawer Steve did a it more shopping in the form of hand controls, brake and clutch master cylinders, grips, and forward controls. The final piece order from the Californian specialist was a tyre-hugging rear mudguard to match the Phatail kit.

Next up was another visit to the Roland Sands collection, from which the Vintage chopped fuel tank, frame cover and seat kit were taken. The hairspring-mounted saddle was then covered in red leather just as the seats were in James Dean’s Spyder, although it’s highly doubtful that the ill-fated actor had ‘Little Bastard’ branded into the leather of his seats, as Steve has in tribute to the name he gave to his car.

Further tributes to the racing heritage of Dean’s Spyder can be found with the 130 painted on one side of the Shaw-fabricated oil tank, and the Nürburg Ring logo on the opposing side – a copy of the one mounted on the wing of the original Porsche – but the most obvious references are the reproduction Spyder badges on the fuel tank.

While it may seem as though this extraordinary machine is simply a collection of parts from various sources bolted together, the sum of the bike is so much more. Take a look for instance at the Renthal bars. Most people would surely just have bolted them on, but not Steve, who’d done his research and had them painted cream to match the Bakelite steering wheel in Dean’s car.

With Little Bastard following on from ‘Get Rhythm’, a tribute to the Man in Black which took second in the Modified Harley class at the Ally Pally, it would appear that Steve Willis and his team at the Shaw Speed and Custom Shop have established themselves on the UK’s custom scene, and I will certainly be a regular visitor to the shop, looking to see what will roll out of the workshop next…

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