The Bettencourt Special

This is a very touching story about a local vintage racer that we were asked to do some restoration on. Jeff Goodsell (the writer of this story) and family member to the Bettencourt family ask me to help build fuel tanks and some other odds and ends to complete the restoration project of a very special motorcycle with quite a history. Needless to say I was honored.

Greg Westbury An original Chopper, this "1926 Harley Davidson Trackster"  is an assemblage of various parts pulled from the wrecks and cast offs of one of the states earliest Harley Davidson Dealers, Nelson Bettencourt Harley Davidson of Vallejo California The dealership which was  established in 1924 (Dealer Plate MC 24). It was built, in its current configuration as daily transportation for Senior's son and my uncle, Nelson Bettencourt II and is now owned by his son Nelson Bettencourt III.

The bike recognizes  Nelson Bettencourt Sr.'s  self-taught engineering and resourcefulness.  A Portuguese immigrant from the Azores in the early 1900's, he learned out of necessity how to repair small engines and outboard motors. In 1924 He opened a Harley Davidson dealership in Vallejo California, and soon after a location in Napa.  By all accounts he was the "OG Chopper Godfather." "Senior" was somewhat of a regional  legend for his ability to get more horsepower, by stroking, porting, lightening the early singles, 45 and 74 inch motors.  The dealerships in Vallejo and Napa sponsored and supported flat track racers, hill climbers and Bonneville Teams.

The motor, a 1926 overhead valve single, was state of the art for its day and more expensive that the flat head version. It is likely that it was owned by  customer of the dealership used to race on weekends.  Apparently this motor, in its original 350 cc configuration in a1926 Single frame, competed in flat track competitions in the early 30's with an unknown local rider throughout  Solano and Napa counties.  Mr. Bettencourt soon after discovered that if you replaced the OHV crank and rod with the flat head version( longer rod, taller crank throw), you could potentially increase the displacement from 350cc to 500cc; an increase of 42%. Grind a set of custom cams (see attachment from the factory on subject) you could really make horse power.   Initially stroker plates were placed between the case and the cylinder upping the displacement to 500 cc. For a time the combination of "Wood Alcohol" fuel and extra 150 cc made the machine unbeatable.  But as news of this modification made it way around the pits, the bike was subject to additional scrutiny.   Considered illegal for the class, it was disqualified in tech inspection from the 350 class and made to run the 45" twins were it was at a distinct disadvantage.  To circumvent the prying eyes of race officials, Nelson Sr. and friend Shorty Yurovich, a machinist at Mare Island Navel Shipyard, decided to cast a "one off" cylinder which would eliminate the need for stroker plates and circumvent the scrutiny of race officials.  Using the full resources of the Federal Government,  a mold was created and cylinder cast.  The cylinder was bored and trued using the finest military iron and machine tooling of its day.  When finished, Nelson once again assembled the motor and although details are sketchy, it likely raced again successfully in the "350" class without the tell-tale stroker plates.

Nelson Sr. acquired the motor back in approximately 1937, shortly before WWII.  His eldest son Nelson Jr. was coming of driving age and looking for a bike of his own. Pulling a new unit of the showroom in 1937 was simply not an option of the day. With thrift and ingenuity, father and son set out to a bike to ride around town and back and forth  to work in the Vallejo and Napa dealerships.

Because the single cylinder frames were much lighter than 45 in frames, early racers would swap out their 45 in engines into the single frames leaving a "glut" 45 in frames available.   A 1931 D Model 45"  frame became the backbone of the machine. The 26" stroker race motor fit easily in to the '45 mounts, however with the new, taller cylinder configuration, the frame's middle support tube needed to be altered to accommodate the taller cylinder.  With scrap steel and a brazing rod this task was accomplished.  The transmission from a '32 R model was fitted without modification as were the front forks from a '29 Model D.  The bike was assembled and ridden by Nelson Jr. up to and after his service in the Merchant Marines during WWII.  The bike was passed onto his younger brother Merv, now in high school, and was ridden until the early 50's.  During it's street hay-day, Merv was clocked at between 85-90 mph!!. In early '49 HD introduced the German DKW designed 2 stroke 125 cc model.  This design was confiscated from the Germans at the conclusion of WWII and purchased from the government by the Harley Davidson Factory.   Selling for under $300.00 this bike became popular with returning GI's.  Merv opted to move onto this newer and more reliable bike to help boost shop sales. The 26 was sidelined in the basement of the Vallejo dealership on Marin Street where it was cannibalized for parts and left to deteriorate.

The Dealership passed on from father to sons Nelson Jr and Merv.  The dealership rights were sold to Vallejo Harley Davidson in the seventies. However the original building on Marin St. was owned by the family until 2006. The ' 26 sat languishing for over 50 years in the damp and dusty basement. His health failing, and the building soon to be sold,  "Uncle Nels" asked me if I would clean out the collection of odd parts and bikes (mostly old Aramachi's)  from the Marin St. basement.  He mentioned one bike in particular;  "a rare single in a 45" frame." " That one is special, my first motorcycle it is probably worth something."  In the next few weeks, I  did as it was asked and sold all of the Italian bikes to restorer and enthusiast, while waiting for a decision on the '26.  It was Thanksgiving of  that year when Nelson Jr's son, Nelson III and I  got the go ahead to do what ever we wanted-sell or restore.
It was that weekend we decided that we would attempt to resurrect the '26. I was already the benefactor of my Uncle Nels's  generosity having been gifted a 1959 Model 165 which I restored and keep in my office.  Getting the '26 gong once again was a labor of love and respect for my uncle who fueled my passion for motorcycles 45 years ago when he gave me my first ride on a gleaming blue and white '65 Electra Glide.  I jumped headlong into the project have virtually no experience in antique restoration, sourcing of parts or contacts in the antique community. I just wanted to do this.

The resurrection (note the use versus restoration) was begun in earnest during the winter of 2007.  During the months preceding his passing I attempted to glean as much information as possible about the origins of the bike. Details were vague and as his health declined and i felt less inclined to press for information and more inclined to just spend time time talking with uncle about what ever was on his mind at the time.
Restoration, with such a disjointed collage of parts, seemed difficult at best.  As my cousin and I discussed the direction of the project one thing was clear: we wanted to capture the essence of "Thrifty Engineering" style, look and parts available to my uncle, his father and his brother at that time.  While at the same time making modifications to the bike that would make it smoother and safer for my cousin Nelson III, the owner of the project, to ride. Having made countless mistakes with my time and my cousins money, especially with the fuel tanks and after seeing an episode of "Biker Build Off" I sought help and guidance from Greg to get the project back on track.    Greg's engineering, design eye and craftsmanship are unparalleled among high calibre custom bike builders. He enthusiastically took on the project of completely reproducing factory looking original 45" gas tanks from scratch that fit this one-off application. Greg engineered the brake, shift and clutch assemblies to work better than factory specs and set an overall design theme that will serve this project well.  Greg is forever patient,  non pretentious and generous with his time.  He has helped guide us in a "resurrection" direction with this project, not to mention fixing my less-than-stellar engineering and design applications.  I am very grateful for his help.
Sadly, my Uncle Nels passed away in October of 2007, with the bike nowhere near completion.   While his interest in motorcycles declined in his retirement, he listened intently and offered insight on my projects over the years.  Though during the last months i spent with him, he would rather talk more about the current steelhead run on the Trinity River than the valve mechanism in a Ducati Desmo.   If my cousin will allow it, once finished, I think I will ride this bike up to his memorial and thank him for a more great memories than one man deserves. I will thank him for being a mentor to me after my own father passed at a young age.  Thank him for reinforcing what my parents taught me; put your family first, to be a good and honest person, treat other with respect and be resourceful, not wasteful.  On the other hand, maybe we'll just talk the one that got away.

"26 Flat Track Bettencourt Special"
In memory of Nelson A. Bettencourt II (aka Junior)
Nelson A. Bettencourt III
Mervin J. Bettencourt


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