In the age of so-called "reality" television, there is a local antique Harley-Davidson motorcycle that actually has a real story to tell.
Shows like "American Pickers," "Pawn Stars" or "Antiques Roadshow" all highlight both fantastic finds and dubious duds when it comes to treasure hunting, preservation and restoration. Many of these antique treasure hunters are looking for easy money or the quick fix. In the case of the local Harley barn bike affectionately known as "Walter," the story goes a lot deeper and tells an emotional story.
It’s a story of Wisconsin’s hard-working early 20th century immigrants, a grandfather’s special relationship with his grandson, perseverance and a passion for one of the world’s most well-known brands. While there is some drama and debate behind the scenes, it’s not staged like many of those TV shows.
As the current owner of the 1913 Harley-Davidson 9G Forecar motorcycle, Mike Schuster of West Bend has truly valuable piece of history. In fact, the story of the vehicle has inspired James Cutting of The Edge Ltd. in Slinger to document the bike and its story on film.
The story dates back to 1913 when a relatively new Milwaukee company was looking to make motorcycles for commercial use. Harley-Davidson built 63 G model Forecars that year and a few hundred more over the next two years that sold for around $400 each.
The Harley Forecar had an unusual design with the cargo or storage unit on the front on the bike, compared to later models called "Servicars" that had them in the back. They were used as delivery vehicles and even by the U.S. Postal service. Apparently nearly all the early Forecars went out of service, and many were scrapped during the World War years.
The Forecar that managed to survive until today was originally used by Lemke Electric in Milwaukee until it broke down. Sometime in the 1910s, it was bartered for auto repair work and then stored in the barn of Joseph "Ally" Schuster for the next four decades.
Fast forward to 1964 when Ally Schuster, now in his early 70s, decided to restore the bike to its original condition. However, due to his age and health issues, Ally needed help, so he turned to his 12-year-old grandson, Mike Schuster.
"Increasingly, I began to become grandfather’s eyes, hands and feet as we began to disassemble the motorcycle," Mike Schuster said. "I was my grandfather’s constant companion as he helped innumerable people with the restoration of their antique engines and vehicles. We disassembled the motorcycle together."
One of the first things the Schusters did when their project began was to contact Harley-Davidson. They ended up in the office of Walter C. Davidson, Jr., an executive and son of one of the company’s four founders.
"I went with grandfather," Schuster said. "We were met by his assistant and treated like royalty as we were about to meet with the highest authority of Harley-Davidson."
After discussing details of the Forecar and the restoration, Schuster says that Davidson made an incredible offer of a $20,000 check, a new motorcycle and accessories in exchange for the yet-to-be-restored Forecar.
Ally Schuster politely declined the generous offer in order to take on the restoration project with his grandson, but the bike did gain the nickname "Walter" from the experience. The two worked meticulously on the mechanics of the frame and engine, but especially on the aesthetics of the bike.
"Hand sanding, hand wire brushing and scraping through the coats of lacquer and around the hundred of rivets, we finally got to a point where we could actually see all of the original gray paint with the decals, colors and all of the lettering," Schuster recalled.
He said the motorcycle was nearly all there within a couple years with the exception of the seat, or the "saddle" as Ally Schuster called it. It turned out that one of Schuster’s business rivals may have taken the seat out of the barn storage, but then it mysteriously returned shortly after Ally Schuster’s death in January 1967.
Over the next three decades, Mike Schuster and a host of friends, supporters and other in the community continued the Forecar restoration project before its first public appearance at the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary events in Washington County in 2003.
After appearing at other Harley events over the years, the last known Forecar in existence is spending this winter on exhibit at the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa. While the bike’s value has been estimated somewhere between $600,000 and $1.2 million, Cutting is hoping that his "The Missing Link" documentary project can tell the story of how a motorcycle can inspire people and conclude by finding a new owner(s) for this very rare motorcycle artifact.
"To my knowledge, this has never been done in a motorcycle-related documentary," Cutting said. "It’s the ultimate barn bike discovery story."
Harley Holidays: Celebrate the season, football and giving in Harley style this month at Wisconsin Harley-Davidson in Oconomowoc, including Santa photos on Saturday, Dec. 13 from 1 p.m. until 3 p.m.; former Packers player Gilbert Brown live radio show broadcast on Friday, Dec. 19 from 6 p.m. until 8 p.m.; and a blood drive on Tuesday, Dec. 23 from 1 p.m. until 6 p.m.
Mike Morgan rides retro, whether on his 1976 Harley Aermacchi 250 or Heritage Softail. Mike has been a motorcyclist since 2001 having ridden in Sturgis, Daytona Beach, the California coast, New England and everywhere in between, including in the last three Milwaukee Harley Anniversary parades.
Mike worked in communications and marketing at Harley-Davidson for more than 12 years, writing and editing all kinds of content, including award-winning media kids in 2009 and 2012. He had ridden the Harley several times before Brewer games at Miller Park, and ran in one of the last sausage races at the old County Stadium when he was Communications Manager for the Stadium District Board.