Suicide Shift Survivor: 1952 Harley-Davidson FL

Suicide shift, jockey shifter, suicide clutch, whatever you call it, a hand-shifted Harley is a piece of nostalgia that some people crave. When this 1952 Harley-Davidson was new, it could have come with the “new” foot-shift/hand clutch, however, this bike appears to have been ordered with the optional hand shift set up. It can be found for sale here on eBay with a current bid of over $11,000. Located in New Ulm, Minnesota, the seller has had the bike for nearly a decade.

According to howstuffworks.com, “…the 61-cubic-inch (EL) version of the Panhead was dropped after 1952 due to lack of interest, leaving the 74-cid FL as the only Big Twin.” The seller says this FL has been completely rebuilt and only has about 1000 miles on it. It has been parked for a couple of years and the seller “remembers” some minor issues like the primary chain being loose and the clutch grabbing a little.

You can tell by the dust that has accumulated over the years, this bike hasn’t been ridden in a while. It looks like a solid post-war survivor, but if you’ve done any research on vintage bikes, you know that modifications/aftermarket parts can bring down the value dramatically. However, if you’ve been looking for a classic bike, this one looks like it might be a winner. What do you think? Is this one a winner?

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Comments

  1. Howard A Member

    I think these were/are called “Bobbers” and I read, it’s “suicide shifter, and foot clutch” although, “suicide clutch”, we all knew what it meant. I think Bobbers are really cool. The new fad these days, is to take an old GoldWing, and strip it down to the basics, like this. I bet this thing is fun to ride, if you could get the coordination down on the shifting. Gonna be a rough ride with that hardtail. Unless you’ve ridden one, it’s not much fun, but be a hit at the local watering hole. You and your buddies can all take turns kicking it. Trouble is, all that money they spent on booze will be wasted kicking it. I remember riding with friends that had older Pan’s, we’d all wait until the old Pan was going before starting our bikes. If it didn’t pop on the 2nd kick,,,”oh,oh, might be a while”,, I think the “chase van/pickup” originated with these bikes. Still, a cool bike.
    In a related item, I read today Harley is not well. Apparently, the H-D sales dropped significantly with the virus, a 27% loss in an already fledgling market for the bikes, possibly laying off 700 workers. We could very well see the end of the greatest motorcycle of all time, in our lifetimes.

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    • geomechs geomechs Member

      Yes, starting your bike while three sheets to the wind could get a little challenging. A well-tuned Harley should start in one or two kicks. Mine did–most of the time. There was always the time when it decided to become a challenge, and that was usually when the crowd was ten or more. And there was always some sidewalk commando who would step forward with suggestions as to what you were doing wrong.

      HD isn’t the only outfit with falling sales. The entire leisure transport industry is in the toilet right now. I talked to the local Honda dealer and he said that this is the WORST year he’s ever had, and that’s after 53 years in the business. His brother sells Honda cars and says that it’s also the worst year for car sales he’s ever had. And that’s while building a new dealership. Bad out there…

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      • Howard A Member

        Hi geo, I was watching Mecum’s Indy auction today, they had a feature of bikes. Naturally, the monsters brought big ( to me) money, a ’75 Z1 went for $18,500, a like new CBX, same but it was the lesser bikes that could be had for peanuts. A Honda 550-4, barely cracked a grand, a CB 360, a CB450, a 450 automatic, even a rough Maico 501, barely cracked a grand. Unless it’s unusual or something people actually want, bikes are a tough sell today.

        3
      • geomechs geomechs Member

        Bikes, RVs, powerboats, if they’re for pleasure cruising, they’re in trouble. HD has got one thing going for it: the European market. Sales over there are doing well so HD is building up its presence across the Atlantic. Kind of interesting because from what I’ve heard, the Rising Sun isn’t doing well over there at all. European makes are holding their own and HD is picking up–however slightly…

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      • stanley kwiecinski

        never owned a well tuned mag. fired 69 sporty chopper. should of figured when the name. devil. was painted into the stretched neck. 36 inch springer. 38 mikuni. cammed. kicked till i flew over the bars! stock framed it, got rid of it! two peopled have owned it since 90? maybe 1 mile put on it since? i helped kick start it for the last Harley Dude owner from the bar 09? i own a 1974 FXE 28yrs? happy as s@#@!$$

    • piston poney

      i 100% agree my dad has 2 panheads one is a 51 the other a 48 copper he built them both. when he was around 17ish he got into old Harley’s and told him self he was gonna have a pan head one day well he never thought in a million years he would have 2 and now he does. the 51 is around 90% original he colected parts over the years and he got a real 51 frame that was wrecked but fixed and he got a 48 motor then he got his chopper frame with a built shovel head motor in it and one day the motor droped a valve and he spent a couple grand re building the top end of the motor he still has the piston and every pice of that valve and piston that broke off in a bag, ok back to the pan heads he painted the frame and got a nice set of tanks and a fender and he put the 48 motor in it and then he has the 51 frame well he bought an all original shovel (don’t rember the year)(this was like 2-3 years ago) and he traded it for the 51 motor and we put it in the 51 frame they run good when they run right now the 51 has a blown head gasket but they nice little bikes. (sorry about spelling)

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      • Philip

        The spelling was fine, it was just the race to end to find the period. Good story, anyway.

        2
    • piston poney

      ohh and tbh i won’t be suprised if harley gets run into the ground right now they got a new guy up at the top and well it ain’t looking to good he wan’ts to cut like half there stuff or cutting the funds for it alot including the electric bike (tbh i kinda wanted one) that thing is gonna have almost no power and he wants to cut production numbers on everything and kill most dealer ships by doing an A, B, C, type thing example . . . lest say you go to a C dealer ship wanting work done well they might now be able to do it becasue they don’t have the parts (they cutting certain parts for certain dealer ships) so they gonna tell you to go to an B or A dealer ship so on and so forth pretty much they won’t close any dealer ships but they will starve them of business till’ they are run into the ground and have to close and they cutting production numbers so they can sell bikes for higher prices and so the used market goes up because there logic is there will be less to go around people will buy more and then they can sell more and at higher prices, (they learned form covid if there is less of something people will want it more and will pay more for it. tbh they are going running Harley into the ground and it will be sad when they do but can’t do anything about it. (i don’t know if this is all true or not my dad works at Harley THIS MAY NOT BE 100% TRUE TAKE THIS WITH A GAIN OF SALT IT MAY HAPPEN IT MAY NOT IDK THESE ARE STILL JUST RUMORS.

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    • ken tilly UK

      The greatest American motorcycle of all time maybe.

      3
  2. LarryS Member

    My Dad had a ’36 H-D when I was in grammar school. He (and everyone else I knew) described it as a tank shifter and a suicide clutch.

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    • Dave Mazz

      Larry, Your dad, being an “old timer” got it right. The shifter was called a hand shifter, tank shifter, or side shifter, depending on who was talking. The clutch became “suicide” when the tension nut was backed off of a foot-operated clutch so it would jump into full engagement when your foot was taken off of it. My first bike, a H-D EL was a bobber (or bob job) with this setup. Once you got used to it was no problem at all to ride. My take is that the term “suicide shift” was dreamed up by he TV reality-show crowd because they thought it made their creations sound more macho.
      And yes, like your Dad, I’m an “old timer.”

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  3. Vance

    I had a good buddy of mine, ” G ” was his name, he passed a couple of years ago. He had COPD, and his old panhead was a cold blooded MFer. He was good for a couple of kicks, and then it was a team effort. He finally got a electric start for his last few years of riding. RIP G, you were a good man and a great friend. I hope you’re riding wide open, sun at your back and wind in your hair.

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  4. Michael

    I like this. I’ve never ridden one with a suicide shifter. Back in the 80’s a co-worker bought a sportster that had been customized. Some of the custom touches were the throttle, handbrake and clutch were reversed. Throttle and handbrake on left, clutch on the right. I only rode it once. It was bizarre.

    1
  5. rjdjr

    a suicide foot shifter is one that has been modified so if your foot slips off the clutch is engaged. standard ones stay depressed until you toggle it.

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  6. Jim in FL

    Great bike, these are really fun to ride. I wish they weren’t so darn expensive. You can get a used sportster cheap, but it it isn’t the same.

    Couple comments on Harleys. Tank shifter and foot clutch – the clutches had springs to hold both ways. In other words, if you disengaged the clutch with your foot, it stayed that way. Suicide clutches had the springs that held them disengaged removed. So if your foot wasn’t on the clutch, it was engaged. Suicide, because if you put your right foot on the brake and your left foot held the clutch open, you would fall over.

    Jockey shift was a tank shift bike that had the linkage removed. You reached under your seat, more or less, and shifted right on top of the trans. Think of a jockey whipping a horse.

    Sportsters, until 1972 were all set up opposite from what you’re used to in regard to the brake and clutch. A law was passed in 72 manadating common control points on motorcycles. I had a mid 60’s XLCH sportster with a magneto, high compression, and a kickstart that would throw you over the bike. Wicked little thing, but very fast.

    Indian bikes had the throttle on the left and the shifter on the right, and were preferred by police departments because in the very common case where you need to shoot people while underway, your right hand holding the gun didn’t come off the throttle.

    Also worth noting, bikes over a certain cc are no longer allowed to have a kickstart from factory.

    May be folklore to some extent, but that’s how I learned it.

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    • Stu

      No folklore here. We still ride these old bikes.

      Stock, just like this one, there was a rocker clutch. Only one spring but the heel/ toe pedal swings over center so the spring holds it either way—engaged or disengaged. There are some friction discs and a diaphragm-style spring (I guess technically there’s the second spring if you’re looking for one) that gives the rocker assembly a little resistance, much like a steering damper on the front triple-trees of some bikes.

      Some guys would replace the rocker pedal with a single push pedal just like the motorcycle brake pedal or clutch pedal in a car. No rocking over center— just step on the pedal to disengage. As others have pointed out, the ‘suicide’ potential comes from needing to remove your foot from the clutch pedal to keep from falling over at a stop AND having failed to first find neutral.

      Now, the top cover of the trans which contains the shift drum for these hand shift models is commonly called a ‘click-top.’ The drum has a detent ball that clicks into each gear position. Like so many things the stock set-up, properly adjusted, shifts great with the help of the shift gate on the tank. Some people remove all the linkage and just run a lever straight off the click top. Most refer to that as a jockey shift, as described here by others.

      Then, beginning in 1952 Harley offered a foot shift/ handlebar clutch lever option. Even though this is standard today, it took awhile to catch on. The foot shift option came with a new ‘ratchet top’ trans cover that shifts much more positively than having to feel for the detents in a click top. As more used ratchet tops became available some guys started using them on their hand shift bikes—either as a jockey lever setup straight off the trans or with a tank shifter just the way this bike has been modified. That’s the reason there’s no longer a shift gate on this tank. It’s more like a ‘slap’ shifter, one way to upshift, the other direction to downshift. To add even more fun and safety, someone now makes a shift drum that puts neutral all the way at one end (N-1-2-3-4 rather than 1-N-2-3-4) making it pretty safe and easy to find neutral the first time, every time. One thing about ratchet top/ rocker clutch combination is the shifts are a lot quicker than the rocker clutching.

      To me, it’s hard to beat riding a tank shift/ rocker clutch, rigid frame, pogo stick, solo seat bike with foot boards on a curvy country road.

      So, hopefully no more talk referring to anything other than the on/ off clutch pedal as a “suicide shift.”

      For further information join the Antique Motorcycle Club of America (membership is world-wide.) We’d love to have you!

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      • Jim in FL

        Hey Stu, thanks for the great info. I will be joining! I learned about older bikes through a friend of my brother. He and my brother used to machine racing heads for cars in NJ and this guy was a big panhead fan. I rode a knuckle at the time and he introduced me to the full spectrum of bikes. This was in the late 80’s in New Jersey.

        3
      • Stu

        Jim, the AMCA has over 11,000 members worldwide. It covers all makes of bikes 35 yrs and older—so currently up to 1985. The club magazine alone is worth the price of the dues. During a non-Covid year there are lots of swap meets, road runs, and an excellent free archive full of old advertising copy, owner’s manuals and shop manuals. Two of my sons are long time members, too, and they interact with even more antique club members through social media.

  7. John S.

    I ran a ’59 Panhead for 30+ years… coolest bike I ever owned. 1st or 3rd kick started it every time… even with a stout Andrews “A” cam and a Bendix carb. 2″ drag pipes made it sound wicked! 4″ extended front end, “Baby Apes” and a Bates solo seat. (Many times a young lady would look at it and say “There’s no place for me to sit!… I’d say “Exactly!”) It had a rocker clutch (like the one shown) and a Jockey shifter. I put a ratchet top on the trans to make shifting flawless. I replaced it eventually for a super low mile ’69 Electra-Glide, but I’ll always miss the old Pan!

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  8. Dave Mazz

    One more thought….I’ve heard some of some TV-show nitwits refer to a side/hand/tank shifter as a “jockey shifter.” I’m no horseman, but I *never* heard of a horse that had a gear-shift lever.

    • John S.

      You’re right about the “Nit-Wits”! The “Jockey Shifter” was a term used (at least in the Chicago area back in the day) to describe the position your body would be in when you were reaching under the seat to shift… like a jockey with a crop urging the mighty steed forward. They also get it wrong calling anything a suicide shifter… but hey, they weren’t there… they wish they were, but sayin’ dumb stuff like that proves they weren’t!

  9. LarryS Member

    I definitely was there. Tank shifter – yep. Hand shifter – yep. Foot clutch – yep. Suicide clutch – yep. Suicide shift – nope.

  10. Marco

    With the confusion about the suicide shift (it Does refer to the tank shift, not the clutch) let’s not forget the “dead mans throttle”! Basically no spring return on the throttle- just sort of a “set it and forget it” or early Harleys version of cruise control! Great for toolin’ down the highway with hands off the handlebars or leaned back with arms crossed.

  11. Rick

    that is not suicide shift…that is a rocker clutch and had shift,both stock…a suicide involves a single”dead” pedal,which only operates in a forward direction… and a shifter,typically affixed the the trans lid itself…

  12. Azplumber

    I don’t know what part of the country you’re in but in Arizona car sales are booming dealers can’t keep them on the lot it’s been that way for 3 months, obviously there’s a shortage cuz the factorys shutdown we just bought a new Jeep Wrangler end of May we had to wait in line for a Salesman used car prices here going crazy too hardly anything on Craigslist, for a decent price, maybe because new construction is booming

  13. Bwickfl

    When I was around 11 or 12 we moved out to the country and our next door neighbor was an old hard drinking biker guy, he was sober for the most part but would go off the rails every so often but the stories he would tell of his hard drinking days. He said these old bikes saved his life more than once being feisty when he tried to start them when he was drunk ” That thing would backfire and the kick start would launch me over the handle bars. I’d lay there passed out or someone would scoop me up and drive me home. Probably keep me from killing myself more than once riding home” He had some way cool pics of him and his bikes just like this one from back in the day.

    1
    • Stevieg Member

      Sounds like my Dad! May he finally rest in peace.

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