Thunder in the Valley has solidified many friendships over the years, but the motorcycle rally spawned a connection for two Johnstown retirees they never expected.
In 2007, motorcycle enthusiast Herbert Beas, 80, of Woodvale, was eager to show off his newly restored 1941 Harley-Davidson bike to anyone who would look.
One interested bystander was retired Johnstown police officer John Kiser, 79, of Walnut Grove.
Kiser went on to tell Beas that the three-wheeled Servi-Car was the exact model he rode as a member of the city’s motorcycle division from 1965 until 1972, when the unit was dissolved.
Kiser started as a patrolman and five years later he joined the motorcycle division and spent the next seven years on the seat of a Harley.
He later went on to become a detective in the juvenile division and worked as the department’s photographer.
“Even with three wheels, it was easier to tip over than a two-wheel motorcycle,” Kiser said. “You have to lean into a curve instead of away from it as you would on a two-wheeler.”
The 1941 Servi-Car, an early generation trike, came complete with a large storage trunk on the back.
The storage compartment held the essentials Kiser needed while on duty.
“We stored our rain gear, parking meter covers, nightstick, gloves and heavy clothing if it got cold,” Kiser said. “We were issued wool coats, much like a Navy pea coat, which came in mighty handy for those cold days.”
The city maintained the motorcycle fleet and kept the bikes in a storage garage behind home plate and beneath the seats of the old Point Stadium.
“On many cold mornings, we had to tow the bikes to jump-start them,” Kiser said. “We would let them run all day because they were so difficult to kick-start in cold weather.”
Both men continue to ride motorcycles. Beas can be found each day of Thunder in the Valley near Subway on Main Street.
Beas inherited the 73-year-old motorcycle from his late uncle, John Dollak.
“My uncle bought it used from Zepka’s because that’s where the city would trade in their police bikes,” he said. “This bike was traded in 1947.”
He inherited the bike in 1953 and has owned it ever since.
Beas was 19 and about to be married.
The Harley was in fairly good condition and sported a blue paint job when Beas obtained it.
“Someone painted it because the city only ran white motorcycles,” Kiser said.
Time took its toll on the bike.
It sat in a garage for nearly 30 years before a refurbishing took place.
Beas’ neighbor, Roy Oswalt, offered to help restore the bike.
The men had no fear of tackling such a project since they are expert mechanics.
Beas spent 44 years working as a mechanic at SCM Metal Products Inc. at 101 Bridge St. in Johnstown. Oswalt, 68, retired as a mechanical welder and electrician from FreightCar America.
Oswalt advised Beas that before anything could be done mechanically, the old motorcycle would have to be disassembled and sandblasted.
“Herb went up the next day and bought two bags of Black Beauty sandblasting sand,” Oswalt said. “With that $16 investment, we were on our way.”
But it would be nearly two years before the motorcycle was roadworthy.
The prime needs were refurbishing the wire wheels and salvaging as many of the original parts as possible. The front rim was too rusted to save.
The men traveled twice to Butler to shop at Motorcycle Warehouse, a specialty shop that carries Harley-Davidson parts dating back to 1909. They also got a new dash kit from Tom’s Chop Shop in Woodvale.
“I did a lot of welding, and we worked for over three weeks just on the fenders and the storage box,” Oswalt said.
The motorcycle is equipped with a 45-cubic-inch motor that produces 25 horsepower.
But all of the men agreed that the motor had more than enough power to keep up with traffic, even today.
“It was all in the gearbox,” Beas said.
Kiser agreed, saying that the old bike could “keep up with any Harley-Davidson on the road.”
Kiser still has a deep affection for Harleys and rides a contemporary model complete with a sidecar.
Other refurbishing jobs required putty work, turn signals, powder coating on several pieces, a different seat and new cables. The only major mechanical change made to the bike was a switch from the original suicide clutch to one that operates more like an automobile’s assembly.
The gearshift is located on the tank, and the original clutch assembly remains.
“The clutch was changed to allow Herb to shift easier,” Oswalt said.
When it came to choosing a color for his motorcycle, Beas saw a snazzy pickup truck near his home and knew immediately that maroon was the color he wanted.
“We painted the bulk of the body maroon and used pewter for the trim,” Beas said.
Luckily, in all the years the motorcycle was in storage, Oswalt made sure the engine’s crankcase was filled with oil.
“An original ‘45’ is a pretty rare engine,” Oswalt said.
Kiser estimates that it would be a one-in-a-thousand chance to find an engine that is in such good condition.
“There are a lot of aftermarket 45-cubic-inch engines, but this is the real deal,” Beas said.
“The ones that do exist are probably hidden away in some barn, garage or basement."
Oswalt said the one thing he learned from tackling the restoration is that he doesn’t ever want to do another.
“We spent a lot of time on the road looking for and buying parts, plus we have countless hours of labor on the Harley,” Oswalt said.
All told, Beas estimates he has $3,000 invested from major parts and another $2,000 for miscellaneous upgrades.
The first year he took the Servi-Car to Thunder in the Valley, it had an immediate impact.
“A man walked up to me and offered me $20,000,” Beas said.
“I could have sold it a thousand times since then.”
Beas isn’t the only enthusiast to bring a Servi-Car to Thunder in the Valley.
“I see three or four each year,” Beas said. “I always park in the same spot on Main Street,” he said. “When Thunder rolls into town, I go downtown every day for the fun.”
Beas, Kiser and Oswalt have a passion for Thunder and just enjoy taking their motorcycles downtown, looking at all the other bikes and sitting in the park people-watching.
Kiser said the only other Servi-Car he can remember seeing in Johnstown other than a police motorcycle was used by Sanitary Dairy for promotions and advertising.
Tom Lavis covers Features for the Tribune-Democrat. Follow him on Twitter.com/Tom LavisTD.