Dick Allen Springers Changed the World
As long as Springers have been around people have been making all kinds of modifications to these sweet little front-ends. They've been shortened, lengthened, widened, narrowed and hacked apart and reconfigured in dozens of different ways by countless chopper enthusiasts and fork builders but the Master of the Art was Dick Allen.
Nobody knows for sure when Allen first started to mess around with forks and most of the oldest photographs show him riding bikes with hydraulic front ends but I first talked with him in 62 about working on a set of Girder forks. I got his name from a friend of a friend of a friend so he must have had a considerable reputation by then. I found myself needing a set of narrowed Harley Springer forks in 1964 and tried to contact Allen again but he had become the invisible man. I sent out some feelers and found him working in a transmission shop in Southern California but he was still building bikes and doing custom fork work.
Back in those days virtually all custom builders were making narrow Springers simply by chopping up stock forks and then welding them back together. I said 'simply' because the theory is indeed simple but the work involved is complicated, time consuming and not always guaranteed to come out the way it should.
Here are a few links to articles about both the narrowing and extending process:
There are several dozen different ways of doing this but the links above will give you a good idea of what's happening in a general sort of way.
One problem with using the old parts is that the steel used by the factory and the quality of the cast/forged fittings is not consistent over time. Breakage was, and still is, very common both in the fittings and in the leg tubing, especially if using old Ford rear radius rods for legs. Back in day the usual failure number was about one in five for most builders after only a few weeks on the road. Dick Allen had a much higher success ratio which is one reason he became the 'go-to' guy but even he had a lot of failures. Some of his very early tube forks also had problems but he eventually solved those issues.
The photo below shows a set of forks he narrowed for me in 1965.
And this is a snapshot of his later work, probably around 68 or so.
As you can see the quality of workmanship improved greatly over time but the concept remained the same.
One day, Allen, in a stroke of pure genius came up with idea of making a Springer from scratch using round stock for the legs and flat stock for the trees while still utilizing the old original spring perch, slightly modified. By doing this he could reuse all of the old Harley parts like the rockers, springs, spring bushings, spring locators, spring rods, steering stem and even the top clamp if a person wanted to keep their old handlebar setup. This point in time, estimated by various 'experts' was around late 65 to early 67 and it marked the birth of what most people call the classic 'California Ultra Narrow Springer'.
I was in his shop one day in 66 or 67 and he was doing another set of forks for me but as he worked he explained that what he wanted to do in the future was nothing but tube leg Springers. He didn't have a set of these new forks to show me but he did have parts already cut and I bought three sets of everything and took them back to Vegas. He called the 'new' project the 'Rude and Crude' Springer and that's why we called our first fork projected posted here the 'Rude and Crude Old School Springer Build'.
It should be pointed out here that Dick never had a problem with other people building stuff based on his ideas so long as he 'gave' you those ideas and he got credit for the design. A lot of us were buying parts from Dick to make and market our own Springers. Al Myer (Sugar Bear) was one guy Dick helped out and both Phil Ross and Steve Sharp were other makers. Steve still makes them as does Lewis 'Levi' Dulin.
Dicks new idea was great so long as you didn't need to run a front brake, and I did, so I had to scrap the idea of using the stock spring perch and make a new one. I still wanted to use the old rod bushing so I came up with the idea we show in the referenced article. It works out very well and permits you to build forks to any width.
One problem with Dicks early tube forks was that they were only 4.75-inches wide, center to center, because that was the distance set by using the stock spring perch. Another problem was that you were limited to using 1-inch diameter rear legs.
The snapshot below of Joe Hurst's 'Hustler' bike shows one of Dicks early tube Springers that used the stock Harley perch.
On these very early forks he didn't even bother to grind off the old original headlight mounting ears. Once Dick realized the limitations of the system he also started to build using a custom made perch so he could alter the width of the forks.
The photo below shows a set of the 'improved' forks made with the new perch around late 66 or early 67.
Also note that he's still using a 'rectangular' spring bridge for these wider forks and hasn't adopted the 'round bar' that became one of his trademarks, later adapted from Dick by Sugar Bear for his own fork sets.
This snapshot taken around 68 shows another Hurst bike, this time running one of Dicks final production versions of his Springer forks.
Here's a copy of an old ad from the 1969 issue of 'Choppers' magazine. It shows Joe's Hustler bike with the early version of the tube forks.
Note that the address is shown as 1900 Artesia which was the location of his second shop.
You won't find any advertisements for Dicks early products when he was still in the first shop on Manhattan Beach Blvd. in Lawndale simply because no chopper magazines existed prior to 1967 when Ed Roth first started to self-publish his small format publications.
One of the big problems with 'chopper history' is that most bikes are dated by the point in time when they were first published in a magazine but the reality is that a lot of bikes, and products, were already in existence several years before publication. This makes it hard for a historian to develop an accurate chronology for both bikes and products.
Dicks first so-called 'custom' forks were built using 1-inch diameter rear legs made from tubing and then for what should be obvious reasons he switched to 1-inch solid bar stock. The longer forks still tended to bend so he next moved up to 1.125 bar and finally settled on 1.25-inch solid bar for the final production run.
Another ad, this one from 1971 shows the 'new' version of the forks being sold out of the third shop located on Normandie.
Almost all of the early Springer makers had to rely on trial and error to determine what would and what wouldn't work. Everybody had a ton of experience working with old extended stock Springers and knew where the common failure points were. Bent legs were common as were bend spring perches. Lower tree fractures were also seen on forks that had been extended. Armed with this info most makers didn't bother to start 'small and work up' but chose instead to start with massive overkill in the size of the components and then 'work down' to find a good balance between weight and strength. Allen's early forks used 1.5-inch material for the trees which was a little extreme to say the least. His later forks used 1.25-inch for the lower and 3/4-inch for the upper but in usual 'Allen style' his selection of materials was largely dictated by what he had on hand when he needed to build something.
There is an old myth that Allen selected the material for the legs on his Springers by going to the steel suppliers yard and standing on the various racks of tubing and bar stock until he found a piece that had the least amount of deflection. That's probably pure bull since we all know that all steel of any given diameter, having the same section modulus, including 4130, has the same amount of deflection regardless of grade. It's a great story but I know for a fact that he experimented with a variety of material sizes, both tubing and solid bar stock to be used on his forks. Most of the guys I knew just settled on 1.25-inches being the largest bar or tubing diameter used for the rear legs on forks simply because it 'looked good'. Not much 'science' came into play.
Another myth is that his forks were 'extremely heavy'. I guess it depends on how a person defines the term 'heavy' since his Springers average about seven-pounds more than a set of identically extended hydraulic forks. Some Springer's actually weigh less than a set of comparable telescopic forks.
Allen was still a 'custom' builder at heart and so he built to the customers specifications and he did a lot of fork sets, including his own, that varied significantly over the years. It wasn't until he introduced his so-called 'production' forks around 1970-71 that he had something to offer that wasn't made from the ground up. I'm not to sure he ever really liked this idea, of not being able to be 'flexible'.
Keep in mind that Allen wasn't just a fabricator. First and foremost he was a machinist and mechanic, in fact his fabrication skills and his sense of 'aesthetics' left a little to be desired but he was great with anything 'mechanical' and a set of Springer forks are basically just a simple mechanical device. Art De Ross used to do the fork welding for Dick on the 'production' sets so that they were 'professionally presentable'.
Dick Allen Springers didn't become 'famous' just because they looked good. They became sought after because they actually worked extremely well. Comparing an Allen Springer to any others would be like comparing a Cadillac to a Yugo and this is why he never really had any competition from the dozen or so other Springer manufacturers competing with him. The other thing that separated Dicks later forks from the compitition was that his parts were actually 'machined' as opposed to being flame-cut on a pantograph and then dressed-down as were most others. To be honest I have no idea how he ever made any money on his forks because the cost of just making the parts, welding and then chrome work, in my opinion, was pretty nearly the same as what he was selling the forks for. But on the other hand Dick was never known for being 'profit' oriented in the least bit. He very likely gave away, for free, more work than he ever 'charged' for. Part of the reason may have been just because he hated the 'paperwork' that goes along with doing business.
This brings me to another thing about Dick Allen. For my experiences with him I'm not sure he ever really looked at what he was doing as being a 'business' to begin with. For him, what he was doing with his life was just 'living' and it was coincidental that his life involved working on Choppers.
For several years Dick Allen Springers were so in demand that it was impossible for him to keep up with the orders. People actually got into 'bidding' wars trying to move up the list. As a result Dick often called upon friends to help him out with putting together fork sets. I understand that a lot of these forks were built 'off-premises' in small garage shops and this might explain why you see variations in some of his forks.
Allen taught a lot of us about things such as spring rate, preload, spring balancing, rocker geometry and how to adjust for rake and trail and nobody else in the industry, including some pretty well known builders, had any idea about these concepts. As far as I know Dick was the only 'old-timer' who knew that you could rake a bike out past 45-degrees and actually get better handling out of it by doing so.
Dick was the first guy to understand how rocker design affected all of the other factors. He understood the 'science' behind their design while other makers just saw rockers as being something they could 'style'.
Dicks early forks typically utilized stock rockers, or his 'version' of a stock rocker, with trunions made from short sections of tubing, or the more common rudimentary hand-cut flat rockers but starting around 67 he started developing a single rocker style that enabled him to alter trail without having to cut custom rockers for each and every job. The photo below shows one of these original models from my stash of old parts.
I personally have never really liked the looks of this style with it's big bulbous 'nose' out front but what this design did was enable dick to drill the axle hole in several different locations, up, down, and longitudinally to modify trail. Flop was controlled by drilling the hole high or low and then changing the angle of the rocker relative to the rear legs of the forks. You'll see some of these old rockers with the axle hole drilled out almost to the upper-front edge.
Later on for the production bikes he simply started to drill three axle holes in the rockers and left it up to the buyer to change trail as they saw fit. Sugar Bear still offers those rockers for his forks as seen below. Many people don't realize that these were originally designed by Dick Allen.
In many ways Allen's 'fancy' rockers, as we called them, were probably the ultimate for long-lasting custom Springers. The trunnion added a significant amount of strength to the rocker and the larger bushing area contributed to long service life. As far as I know Lewis Dulin is the only guy still making these great rockers as seen below. You won't run across these to often as they are fairly rare. They were expensive and time consuming to build so not to many of these were sold on the production forks.
Allen spent a huge amount of time in developing these rockers and they suited almost every conceivable type of bike. Unlike Sugar Bear, Dick controlled flop by changing the 'attitude' of the rocker instead of making several different configurations. The picture below shows one of his typical setups in what he called a 'dropped' attitude. Note that the axle is considerably above the rear leg pivot point.
On a bike having less of a flop problem the rocker would be configured so as to be more 'level'.
Dick made and used a variety of different spring perch designs, including the old stock Harley perch as seen below.
As he refined his design he began to fabricate a perch of his own design and I've seen several different variations over the years. It's hard to get good detailed photographs of the perches from the web because in most cases they are obscured by the springs and headlamp but I'll keep trying. Basically there were two popular versions. One has integral lamp mounts machined into the sides of the perch in a fashion very similar to what you see on a stock perch. Another popular version was more 'streamlined' and only had a hole drilled in the center for the lamp mounting bracket.
Phil Ross, a close friend of Dick's who owned an upholstery shop, helped Allen out when he was doing some time for a drug bust by building front ends to help fill orders. In order for people to know they were getting Phil's work instead of Dick's he utilized 'hex' stock for the spring bridge. I also know for a fact that Phil made some trees having a .875-inch offset but using Dicks round bridge and people sometimes mistake these forks for work done later by Sugar Bear. I'm pretty sure I have a pair of those trees in storage. Steve Sharp also makes Allen forks having offset trees on a custom basis.
Here is magazine print from C.K.'s site showing one of Phil's bikes with the Allen/Ross forks. If you look closely you can see both the hex-bridge and the thick trees with offset.
Now that I had a chance to review the page I realize that the image is just to small to see anything so click here for the bigger image. As I understand it Phil continued to build his 'version' of the Allen forks, including the offset trees, after Dick got out of jail. As with the original Allen Springers there were several iterations of the Ross forks over time.
Most Allen Springers, both the old versions and the newer production forks are sold today via word-of-mouth from one friend to another but you can still find sets showing up on ebay and at some of the big regional swap meets. They are a good investment if in good condition. Beware however that his 'design' has been reproduced over the years by several different companies and numerous individuals, including myself, so you may find what looks like an old Allen Springer but there is no guarantee that Dick actually made it. This fact doesn't make the forks any less valuable since Dick's design, in any of it's several different configurations, is an excellent front end for any bike.
(Thank Irish Rich, Joe Hurst, Darcy Allen and Chris Kallas for the photographs)
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