Long-time engine and bike builder Mike Lange revives a 1946 Harley-Davidson WR Factory Racer
Words by Joy Burgess
Photos by Ron Brefka and Mike Lange
Some people are just born with steel and oil in their blood. There’s no explanation for it…just a magnetic pull they can’t get away from, which was how it all started for long-time engine and bike builder Mike Lange.
“By the time I was five,” Lange told us, “there was something that just drew me to motorcycles. I can’t put it into words, but I feel like it’s in my blood. They’ve always fascinated me, and I’ve been riding since I was 10 years old, so I’ve been riding for 54 years now.”
His very first bike was a tube-framed minibike, a bike he miraculously found again on eBay and is restoring. He’d ride it past a local Harley-Davidson shop, which he describes as more of a backyard shop at a nearby apple orchard.
“The guy that owned it was a drag racer,” he said, “and I went in there and started hanging around and saw a bike I liked. I bought my first Harley from there, or rather, he sold it to my mom because I wasn’t old enough. It was a 1948 UL Flathead, and once I had it I raked the frame and turned it into a chopper while still in high school. Once I graduated, I rode that chopper to California and back.”
Engine work went right along with that very first bike build. “The first internal combustion engines I worked on were lawn mower engines,” Lange said. “I’d take them apart, put them back together, and find leftover parts on the floor. They were junk anyways, but that’s how I learned the basics of engines. I’ve always been drawn to that and made a career out of engine building and building motorcycles. I still do it today even though I’m retired because it’s what I love to do, and I’ll never stop.”
While spending all his time during the 1980s building engines and bikes, Lange already had a 1950 H-D WR factory racer he’d built. “But I wanted another one,” he told Thunder Press. “I restored my 1950 as it would have come out of the factory. That’s cool, but I like some of the more flashy paint jobs that some of the privateer racers had.”
Through a friend in Milwaukee, Lange happened across the ’46 H-D WR factory racer, and decided to restore this one with a completely different look.
“As long as I can remember,” Lange recalled, “I’ve had a good-standing open-door policy with Harley-Davidson archives, and they’d let me go down and take photos. I probably have 200 photos of privateer race bikes. I saw some of those paint jobs I liked, so I decided to restore the ’46 with a blue and white scalloped paint job. I probably chromed more parts on the bike than they would have back then, but I have many pictures that do show chrome on the bikes back in the day.”
When asked about any challenges with the restoration, Lange only mentioned one. “I’ve been a long-time member of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, and when I restored the bike back in 1986, I took it there. Everyone gave me a lot of flak for it, saying it had too much chrome. People criticized it instead of appreciating the work that’d been done. It irritated me, so I took it home and never showed it again until about six or seven years ago, when the Mama Tried show started up. I’m a lifetime invitee to the show, so I cleaned it up, took it there, and people loved it. I’ve been taking it and showing it everywhere since.”
Beyond Mama Tried, he’s shown the bike at Sons of Speed, and the bike recently won the Best Vintage Bike award at the High Voltage Show in Milwaukee.
The bike looks beautiful, but we had to know what it’s like to ride it. “It’s exhilarating,” Lange responded enthusiastically. “The power the bike has is a cool feeling. People think the engine is just a H-D 45, but the factory race motor is triple the horsepower of a regular H-D 45, so the sound and feel are totally different. It has a close-ratio three-speed gearbox, so you’re shifting much quicker and you can feel that horsepower.”
Even though the bike is a rare find, Lange is all about having fun on it. “I raced it at the Davenport Half-Mile when I built it back in ’86. And recently at the High Voltage show, there was a burnout contest…and I won best burnout! I’m not afraid to abuse my bike. I like using my bikes – running them or racing them. If I can’t ride it, well, I don’t want to own one like that!”
We agree! Ride ’em, don’t hide ’em!