The Man Who Saved Harley Davidson – And Your Spine
Missourian Jim Schmig was on hand for one of the most important developments in motorcycling history.
“I was cruising down St. Charles Rock Road around St. Louis one day in 1977, and I saw the most unusual Harley frame,” Schmig said. “I stopped at a bike shop, it was called Osborne’s. I asked the cat working the desk about the frame, and he said it wasn’t for sale. I financially persuaded him to part with it, for like $650.00.”
Schmig had little notion that the frame he bought, and later used to build a bike, was one of the most important developments Harley-Davidson would ever discover outside the walls of their Milwaukee plant.
“I came back with my Rambler station wagon (I actually lived in Northern Illinois) and I built the scooter from a ’73 shovelhead motor, a ratchet top tranny. My Dad and a buddy of mine were machinists and we stoked out some good custom made parts,” Schmig said. “I went to the State Police, and they said I needed a builder’s title for the frame, so I called down to Osborne’s, but he had gotten himself killed somehow, so I called Bill Davis and told him my plight. He said he would only send me one, if I promised not to show it that year.”
So who was Bill Davis and why all the secrecy? Schmig had stumbled on to The Frame That Saved a Million Spines.
Schmig takes over the story again:
“I rode up to Al Muth’s in Blackriver Falls, WI, to his annual party, and ran into Willie G (Davidson) and his entourage, and he asked me if he could take a picture of the scoot. He offered me a shiny new leather jacket. He sat on it and got a few pictures and asked me how I came upon the design, I told him the story about St. Louis and told him (Davis) advertised in the back of “EasyRiders.”
Schmig’s bike, and those like it with the revolutionary frames built by Bill Davis and his company, RoadWorx, became the basis for the Harley Softail.
Not thrilled with the styling of his 1972 FX Super Glide, Bill Davis of Saint Louis, Missouri set to work crafting a custom version of his bike. The frame he came up with found so much love from other riders that Davis hired an attorney and filed US Patent 4087109 during March 1976, and that set the ball rolling. In August of that year, Davis met with Willie G. and Louie Netz of Harley-Davidson to gauge their interest in his design. While both men praised Davis’ work, they didn’t initially pull out their checkbooks.
Undeterred, Davis kept up work on his design, selling a couple dozen of his new frames and working on a version for the Sportster. It was also during that time that Davis entered into a business partnership with a person, at least according to Greg Field’s book “Harley-Davidson Softail,” whose name is lost to history and whom Davis refuses identify.
Six months passed, and unable to shake the experience of seeing the frame, Willie G. wrote to Davis to reopen talks. Davis met with Harley-Davidson again, but unimpressed with their opening offer, walked away empty-handed once again.
Davis forged ahead once again and continued to refine his design. This time, he placed the shocks under the transmission, lowering the bike, and found his latest design failed to meet one critical issue. On a shakedown cruise to Sturgis, Davis discovered that a build-up of heat broke down the urethane cylinders of the shocks.
Davis found that the Road Worx frames were labor-intensive to build and while his frames were selling well enough, the money wasn’t rolling in fast enough to cover a series of loans. Unable to find a way to scale up production, RoadWorx came to a sorry end and closed up operations. Unwilling to give up on his idea, Davis placed another call to Bleustein at H-D headquarters, and this time, the Men From Milwaukee wrote up a suitable offer. But there was one troubling caveat to the deal – all royalties would be capped. Davis, trapped between a rock and a hard place, signed the deal in January of 1982 , and the first bike featuring his revolutionary frame design (the FXST) rolled off the production line during the summer of 1983.
The Softail design was an immediate hit and provided H-D with a serious jump in sales. With the introduction of the Heritage Softail in 1986 and the Springer Softail a couple years later, Harley had discovered the formula for a bike which provided the level of comfort riders were searching for.
Davis’ quest for a bike with the look of a rigid and long-range comfort on the highway was ultimately a smashing success. His sketches of swingarm designs ultimately led to the triangulated swingarm which hid the suspension and improved the lines of the bike, and it went on to become the standard.
Even with a $7,999 price tag, the Softail provided Harley with an immediate 31% jump in sales during the 1984 model year and easily outsold every big bike in their lineup. While other factors were part of the equation which allow H-D to survive some lean years, it was the Softail design, more than any other single factor, which kept the Motor Company from disappearing down the rabbit hole of history.