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Fred Ham, Ironbutt Motorcyclist

Fred Ham, Motorcyclist

Muroc Dry Lake

1825 miles, 24 hours, 76.6 miles per hour…one broke dick chain.

April 8-9, 1936

Frederick Ten Dan Ham, better known to motorcycling enthusiasts as AMA Hall of Fame member Fred Ham, died at the age of 70.

In the early 1930s, Fred went to the United States and found work as a driver in California. In his spare time, he learned that motorcycle riding was his ultimate calling.

Fred raced competitively in distance competitions, winning the Big Bear Endurance Run in 1933 and 1934, but he was always looking for new challenges. He once put his wife on a train in Los Angeles, then hopped on his bike and met her in Chicago when the train arrived 42 hours later, according to the August 1985 issue of AMA Magazine.

Fred was aware that Wells Bennet had set the Three Flag Endurance Run (Canadian border to Mexican border) record in 1922 in 51 hours and 4 minutes on a Henderson, and he believed that this was a suitable challenge. The AMA forbade any further attempts to beat this time because they would require driving much beyond the speed limit on public highways, but Fred persisted.

In 1936, he traveled from Washington to the Canadian border with a prepared 1935 EL knucklehead and proceeded to beat the record, covering the same distance as Bennet and arriving in Mexico in under 28 hours and 7 minutes. He broke the previous record by nearly a day. Bennet achieved a new record for mileage traveled in 24 hours in 1922 (on the same Henderson), traveling 1,562.5 miles on a board track in Tacoma, Washington.

Fred made the decision to try for that record as well. Fred drove his freshly acquired 1936 Harley EL to Muroc Dry Lakes in California in April 1937 to attempt to break the world’s 24-hour endurance record. Fred smashed Bennet’s distance record in just over 20 hours, continuing to complete a record 1,825 miles in one day, thanks to sponsorship and tuning from his local Harley dealership. Fred got off his bike, ate dinner, drove two hours to his house, showered, and then went to the movies, according to the same AMA magazine article. Merle Shank, riding a Honda 750 at Pocono Raceway in August 1972, broke the record, which had stood for over 35 years.

His exploits were the best available promotion for Harley-Davidson and silenced skeptics who had dismissed the Harley EL knucklehead engine as problematic. Thanks in part to Fred’s heroics, H-D sales improved and the company preserved the knucklehead design as its engine. Fred used the bike as his daily police motorcycle while a patrol cop in West Covina, California, until his death (aboard the bike) while on duty on December 10, 1940. Harley-Davidson later acquired the record-breaking engine and gave Fred a brand new one, which he proceeded to install into the same 1936 frame he used to set the endurance record, and Fred used the bike as his daily police motorcycle while a patrol cop in West Covina, California, until his death (aboard the bike) while Knucklehead sales carried H-D through lean financial times until World War II broke out.

The reliability demonstrated by Fred throughout his travels sparked the development of the Panhead and shovelhead, both based on the previous knucklehead design, which helped Harley-Davidson heavyweight bikes survive until the mid-1980s. Fred had the ultimate Iron Butt, riding tremendous distances in his spare time and getting paid to ride 40 hours a week for his job when he wasn’t competing.

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