Wheels Through Time: The Museum That Runs

Story by Glenn Roberts// Photos by Glenn Roberts
June 1 2009

We rode past the parking lot twice before we finally noticed the flagpoles and the large outcropping of rocks with a rusting hulk of a motorcycle perched atop as if someone rode it up the vertical face and left it there to weather. I suppose I was expecting to see the museum building itself, but the rock display, along with the massive piece of granite with the museum’s name carved in it is a commanding sight, and not something you would expect to miss–twice. Granted it was raining hard and the heavy cloud cover and fog between the mountains might have had something to do with it. Add to that, it was dusk and we were cold and wet after a few hours of riding in the rain, and still wearing sunglasses.

Crossing the small bridge that traverses the babbling brook in front of the Wheels Through Time Museum led us into the parking lot. The building is not what I expected at all. I had visions of the museum being housed in an old barn of sorts, conducive to a vintage motorcycle museum. Instead, it was a modern metal clad box lacking any type of character. It would have been a little different had we arrived earlier, or in nicer weather as there would have been vintage American motorcycles lining the sidewalk into the front entrance, as we would find out the following day.

Regardless of the lack of character on the outside, once you walk through the doors, the bland non-descript metal covered box is forgotten and you are transported to another time. Glass cases filled with uniforms, badges, medals and any other motorcycle memorabilia imaginable line the walls, while immaculately restored motorcycles were randomly placed inside the foyer.

Dale Walksler, the museum owner and curator, met us in the reception area and provided us with a couple of dry shirts. I think it was Roger’s chattering teeth that were the giveaway. I at least had the foresight to put on my rain gear, while Roger didn’t and now resembled a shivering drowned rat.

Roger had been in touch with Dale a few weeks earlier and while Dale also has others, including his son, Matt, that gives tours of the museum, his promise of a personal tour had us looking forward to not only the ride to Maggie Valley, North Carolina. But I, being a sucker for vintage motorcycles, was pumped about seeing his museum that I had heard so much about over the years. Rumour had it, the museum was going to close down and move to, as of then, an unknown location so this might be my only opportunity to see it within a reasonable riding distance.

We arrived just before closing time and after a quick walk around we left to return the next morning.

Dale is a soft-spoken man who will talk your ear off about motorcycles, and that’s a good thing, because if you are in his museum, you’re there to learn and hear stories. He used to be a Yamaha and Harley-Davidson dealer for about 24 years, but while all of the bikes in his museum are of North American ancestry, he truly believes that a motorcyclist rides for the sake of riding, regardless of what name is on the tank badge.

Like a Kid in a Candy Store

The vintage motorcycles are seen immediately after entering through the doors that separate the museum from the foyer, and all thoughts of the modern metal building are dispersed. One of the first motorcycles you see as you enter the main room was one of the most exquisite motorcycles I have ever laid eyes on.

The 1909 Reading Standard, built in Eastern Pennsylvania and considered the most intricate early American race bike in the world. This particular bike, originally donated to the Henry Ford Museum in 1940 and later found in Orville and Wilbur Wright’s basement, sits atop a finely detailed wooden table, as if it is the centrepiece of a formal dinner. It’s immaculate–built before cables were standard issue. Being a mechanically-minded person, I found the linkage connecting the hand controls down to the mating engine components most intriguing. Small

‘U-joints’ and male-female slider connections allowed the steering to turn while twisting the manual oiler or adjusting the timing. The engine also utilizes a rudimentary form of supercharging. Very unique.

The tour continued, one bike at a time. There are hundreds of motorcycles on display within the museum walls. Most of the machines on display run and each one has a story that Dale relays to us in minute detail. Some come from swap meet finds, some are barn fresh finds, some come from families that simply cannot look after them, but know they will have a good home at the Wheels Through Time Museum.

The Museum That Runs

After the Reading Standard, Dale walked over to a couple of vintage Harleys and a 1917 Schwinn-built Henderson. This Henderson was a prototype with auxiliary oiling and valve covers, and the only one of its kind in the world. After a brief description of the four-cylinder Henderson, Dale swung out the kickstarter and gave it a kick. The engine tried to fire, but didn’t start, Dale looks perplexed and mumbles, “Hmm, that’s odd”. Dale gives it another kick and the engine fires to life. Dale says in a louder than normal voice in order to be heard over the valve clatter, “Most of the bikes in here will start on the first kick if it’s done right. Each one has a proper starting procedure.” Dale comments that a vintage bike, like people, has its own character and each one needs to be treated a little differently. The 1924 Ace sitting beside the Henderson did however, fire up on the first kick as expected.

I have always considered the Crocker to be one of my favourite vintage motorcycles, both in appearance and company history. I have only ever seen one before, but I knew Dale owned one so I was looking forward to seeing it. In fact, I had heard rumours that he rides it regularly and even does burnouts with it.

After seeing the Reading Standard I saw the Crocker only a few feet away, but contained my excitement. I knew Dale would get to it, and he did, right after the 90-year-old Henderson. He confessed that the Crocker hadn’t run in a while due to the fact that a valve keeper was in bad shape, making the possibility of a valve dropping very real. As it turned out, Dale’s example was no run of the mill Crocker. It’s rarer than rare, a hemi-head Crocker of which there were very few built and even fewer are known to still exist.

Seeing Dale giving us the lowdown on the Crocker, a crowd of visitors had by now gathered and then came the unexpected. Dale looked at Roger and I and said, “I haven’t done this for while, but since you guys came all this way to see the museum, do you want to hear it run.” Stupid question. It roared to life on the first kick. After a quick warm-up, he told Roger and I where to stand, and rode off around the museum toward the back. This was our first sight of the museum’s legendary straight-a-way that, as rumour has it, Dale does rolling burnouts on. The burnout with the Crocker was easily the highlight of my visit. Not only did I hear my dream bike run and see it in motion, I witnessed it lay a strip of rubber on the museum floor some 30 feet long. Simply outstanding.

Giving us the lay of the land, Dale describes the floor plan of the museum. The 2008 feature display was of police motorcycles entitled ‘Motorcops’, which resided in the centre of the first room. The next room is also broken in themes, complete with dioramas of vintage workshops, set up with period tools and partial bikes on the workbench. Displays of war bikes, followed by various years of Harley’s flathead 45s. The 45 ci was Harley’s longest running production of a single model beginning in 1929 and continued to 1951. The same basic engine was still in production up to 1972 in the three-wheeled Servi-car. Dale claims to own almost every flathead 45 production year of motorcycle, most with original paint. He does, however, own at least one of every year of 45 engine.

At the back of the museum is a display of board track racers that are mounted on shelves three high, the highest of which is just above eye level. Above that is a photograph spanning some 25-feet of actual racers on a board track with spectators standing above. Without any safety precautions, many racers and spectators died during these races resulting in the board track being outlawed in the early ‘20s.

At the centre of the museum is a huge mound of dirt and the bikes positioned there serve as a dedication to honour the history of North American hill climbing. I mentioned the name John Williams. A smile came over Dale’s face and he immediately walked over a few feet and proudly hoisted up one of John’s STP jerseys. John Williams is one of Canada’s motorsports heroes, winning many hill climbing titles including multiple American Grand National Championships and an astounding five World Championships.

Most of the race bikes, whether board track, hill climb, flat track or road racers, have very significant history and were ridden by the crème de la crème of American racers including Maldwin Jones, Dudley Perkins and Carroll Resweber.

Many of the bikes in the museum are extremely rare, and in most cases of the ‘Works’ racers being purpose-built from the factory, it means that only a few of them were ever made. These bikes that were built in very limited numbers, for one reason or another, have all but disappeared. Like all of the race bikes in the museum, these are some of the rarest, most famous, one-of-a-kind motorcycles in the world.

Regardless of the motorcycles rarity, very few of the bikes are roped off. Visitors are allowed to get up

close and personal and a 360-degree inspection of the bike is possible.

While all the bikes have a story, one of the bikes on display is one of the rarest motorcycles known, and knowledge of the bike is equally obscure. The 1916 Traub was found inside a brick wall completely intact in Chicago in 1967. The name of the motorcycle is known only from the script on the gas tank. There are only three parts on the whole bike­–the seat, carburetor and magneto–which are interchangeable with any other early motorcycle, meaning every other part is manufactured for this single one-of-a-kind motorcycle. The 80 ci Traub runs flawlessly at speeds in excess of 80 mph.

Dale graciously gave Roger and I a tour of his workshop where Matt and Dale spend many hours. He explained that all restorations are done with period hardware and tires and the shop is set up with hundreds of bins, large and small, holding nuts and bolts and larger parts designated by years. He would prefer to keep a motorcycle in original condition if at all possible. “A motorcycle is only original once, but it can be restored many times,” Dale mentioned. A comment that rings true by the physical state of many of his museum bikes.

Other interesting bikes, to name just a few.

A 1915 Dayton, dubbed the “gentleman’s bike”. Dale commented on a few technical features of this bike and that it was years ahead of its time with leaf spring front suspension hidden under the front fender, and a flexible sidecar mount that allows the bike and the sidecar to lean into corners.

How about a series of 1912-1915 Harleys, all with original paint, or a 1920 flat-opposed twin-cylinder Harley-Davidson that Dale started on the first kick, after which he rode it away through the museum to display on the sidewalk outside.

A 1913 Excelsior twin that, of course, started on the first few revolutions of the bicycle-style pedals.

Dale has three 1936 Harley flathead 80 prototypes that were test machines for the 1937 UL production series. They are the only three in existence.

The Woolery Bullet, the only name, other than Harley-Davidson, ever to be put on a gas tank from the factory. The Woolery Bullet also deviates from the norm as it has a lower frame and a vertical generator, all from the factory. A true one-off factory custom. Dale has all the documentation and photos from the Motor Company to back up this claim.

Second Floor

The upstairs of the museum follows a racing theme for the most part with race bikes from the remaining genres. Also on display on the upper level is one of Evel Kneivel’s bikes, a 1970 XR750. Many of the bikes upstairs are WR flat trackers, but also include legendary one-of-a-kind road race motorcycles.

A lounge resides upstairs for those that need a break from walking. The big screen plays videos that are featured on the Wheels Through Time website, or there are hundreds of magazines to browse through of various vintages. Dale’s website (www.wheelsthroughtime.com) has hundred of videos in a section he calls The Time Machine. These videos capture the essence of late nights in the workshop, how-to technical shows and vintage racing, or just having fun on an antique motorcycle.

The museum has more than just motorcycles. Remember, this is the Wheels Through Time Museum, so there are some fine examples of cars and trucks as well as examples of other obscure uses for the internal combustion engine. Regardless, if you are into engines and mechanics of days gone by, especially the American kind, this museum and everything it has to offer is for you. If there is something that you would like to see operate and Dale has it in his possession, chances are pretty good he will fire it up for you, because it is the ‘The Museum That Runs’.

Editor’s note:

As of last fall, Dale considered closing the museum and relocating it, but as it turns out, the museum is staying put. I spoke with Matt, Dale’s son, just before going to press and he assured me that Maggie Valley, NC would continue to be home to the museum. They do close for the winter and he was not sure when they would be open to the public so keep an eye on their website (www.wheelsthroughtime.com) for opening details and hours

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