Will This Harley-Powered Tiller Start After Sitting For 80 Years?



If you’re a tinkerer, you’ve probably been seeing things a little differently than others around you for most of your life. Now, some people are born to tinker, and others discover they have the knack through sheer necessity. Still, once you start taking random things apart and putting them back together, you can’t help but look at most new things you see in a completely different light.  

Let’s say, for example, it’s the 1940s. You happen to have an old 1919 Harley-Davidson Model J sitting around, unused and unloved because no one’s ridden it in a while. You also know that you need to get some spring planting done. Times are tough, money’s tight, but you absolutely need to get those crops in the ground or your family’s not going to eat. 

As is sometimes the case when you don’t have a lot of money, you do thankfully have your hands. Not only that, but you also have a good set of tools, as well as a vision. So, you do what a lot of people with more time than money do: You handcraft a solution to your problems. The end result works better than you ever could have hoped—even 80 years after the fact. Folks, you’re looking at a Harley-Davidson Model J-powered roto-tiller, handmade by persons unknown, sometime in the 1930s or ‘40s. 

Over at Dale’s Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina, there’s a very special section called Handmade America. It’s dedicated exclusively to American ingenuity, featuring repurposed American motorcycle engines that tinkerers from years gone by used to power all manner of devices. For example, there’s a Harley-Davidson-powered ice saw, as well as a mining cart on display. Not everything in this section runs—yet. Given time and opportunity, though, the museum will do its best to start it all up. 

Anyway, back to this particular Model J-powered roto-tiller. Up until Matt Walksler and crew shot this video, he said the thing hadn’t run in about 80 years. The builder crafted a lot of this tiller by hand, apart from the engine. For example, a hand-turned wooden spindle is part of the pulley and fan mechanism prominently displayed up front.  

Keep in mind, we’re talking about a time when leather washers were factory-fitted parts. Still, Walksler knows what he’s doing, and this one-of-a-kind piece couldn’t possibly be in better hands. After installation of a new, period-correct Bosch magneto, appropriate spark plugs sourced from another Harley in the collection, a new fan belt, and a little elbow grease, they’re ready to fire it up. A pull-start rope goes right on the front, and the tiller starts up on the very second pull.  

Now, you can’t ride a roto-tiller—but you can probably till soil with it if it’s in good working order! Besides, what fun is it to start up a vehicle if you don’t take it out for a test drive, anyway? Once the tiller was moving under its own power, Walksler took it over to a grassy part of the yard, dug right in, and began tilling. He noted that it takes a lot of upper body strength to turn, but your work horses would probably be relieved that the Model J was on the case. Best of all, the Museum is now ready for spring planting. 



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