More than 20 years before he established himself as a great
novelist with The Bonfire of the Vanities; 30 years before
he followed it up with the critically acclaimed blockbuster
A Man in Full, Tom Wolfe walked into A.D. Farrow’s Harley-Davidson
dealership in Columbus, Ohio, attracted by a Chevy-powered
motorcycle sitting in the front window. That motorcycle and
its builder, Tom Reiser, were later memorialized by Wolfe
in a series, titled “The New Life Out There,”
he wrote for the New York Herald Tribune. In “The
Mild Ones,” the December 19, 1965, installment that
discussed the booming motorcycling scene of the mid-60s, Wolfe
declared, “Reiser is an underground hero in the new
motorcycle life-style.” The “New Life” series
represented an original style of journalism that delivered
real-life facts through an array of writing techniques borrowed
from fiction, making some of the readers doubt that Wolfe’s
characters – including Reiser -- could be real. But
they were real, and a decade later, Wolfe’s New Journalism
style delivered “The Right Stuff,” a landmark
tale of America’s Mercury astronauts.
Bomb, as described by Tom Wolfe in "The Mild Ones"
in 1965, now sits quietly in the window of Reiser’s
Cycle Service in Columbus, Ohio.
Photo by Brian Blades.
Like Wolfe’s writing of that era, the antics of Tom Reiser’s early adulthood might well be confused with the stuff of fiction. Utterly obsessed with his V-Eight-powered monster, which Wolfe coined “Tom’s Bomb,” Reiser turned his bizarre motorcycle project into an all-consuming addiction that cost him his job and a marriage, sent him on a brief journey to the Coast and back, and even got him his job back – plus fame in The Herald Tribune – all in a span of less than five years. Then, eventually cured of his 327-cubic-inch addiction, Reiser refocused his creative energy on the development of some of America’s most powerful Big Twins. Since that rebirth, his competition machines have won national and world championships in both Top Fuel drag racing and Top Fuel hill climbing.
Reiser was born in Columbus, Ohio, in 1938. In 1954, his father purchased a ‘48 FLH with sidecar to use as family transportation. Reiser says, “We couldn’t afford the whole rig, so we just bought the used bike with a naked sidecar chassis, and we built a plywood sidecar body. Dad and I went all the way to Sault Ste. Marie in that outfit. We fished and cooked out and camped. It was really some good times.”
Having that FLH at his disposal, Reiser learned to ride before he was of legal age. He says, “Dad didn’t like to ride the bike without the sidecar, but I wanted to learn to ride a solo bike, so I got pretty good at removing and reinstalling the sidecar.” A smile crosses his face as he says, “I remember my first ticket. I wasn’t speeding. I was this skinny kid on a big motorcycle, obviously too young to be riding it. I had to go to court.”
In 1956, Reiser went to work at Farrow Harley-Davidson, detailing motorcycles. “I didn’t actually work for Don Farrow,” he recalls. “A guy who was Farrow’s top salesman hired me as his assistant. My job was to get bikes cleaned up fast enough for him to sell them. Reiser soon developed a reputation around the shop as a good mechanic, and the service manager persuaded Farrow to let him to work in the service department at night and on weekends.
With this opportunity, Reiser quit school in 1957 to become a full-time motorcycle mechanic, earning $30 per week. R.C. Johnson, a local hill climber who rode out of Farrow’s, recruited Reiser to be his mechanic on race weekends. But standing at the bottom of the hill and listening to the sharp bark of open-pipe Harleys and Indians was not very satisfying for Reiser; he wanted to be the one twisting the throttle and attacking the hill. So, he built his own hill climber, powered by a Harley KR engine. Some years later, in 1964, Johnson would win the Canadian National Championship aboard a Reiser-tuned hillclimb machine, and as a rider, Reiser himself would win his first National that same year in Muskegon, Michigan.
By that time, however, Reiser had already slipped into the dreadful pit of his V-Eight addiction, having decided in 1961 to build a Chevy-powered drag bike. “Somewhere, I got the idea that God put me on this Earth to build that motorcycle,” he says today. “It took over my every waking moment. It was all I could think about.”
Reiser had married near the end of 1958 and had a son in 1960. His new family-man status and good work at Farrow’s had elevated his earnings to $60 a week. But his middle-American dream would not last for long, as the job, the marriage and the picket fence with two cats in the yard would all be gobbled up by the dreaded V-Eight bike. “All I did was work on that motorcycle,” he says, “even on company time. Don Farrow would come in early in the morning and I would already be there working on that motorcycle. He would just give me this hard look and not say a word. I didn’t get the hint, or maybe I just didn’t care.”
Consistent with his compulsive behavior, Reiser had set a deadline for getting the big V-Eight running. When that date arrived, he rolled the bike outside and recruited everyone else in the shop to help him, leaving customers standing in the show room. It didn’t matter that he had not yet fabricated exhaust headers for the monster; the big block was in the frame, the induction system was intact, there was fire in the electrics and gas in the tank. As far as he was concerned, it was ready to go, all 800 pounds of it.
As Tom Wolfe described the machine, ...”half the block sticks out of one side of the bike and half out the other, right out of the frame there, right in front of the rider’s legs and just in back of the front wheel. The proportions are like a boulder rammed through a sheet of plywood."
On the long-awaited day, Reiser and his cohorts bumped it off, and to the surprise of some, it actually ran. It also actually moved, its open exhaust ports issuing a violent racket, belching fire fore and aft … and setting ablaze the battery located just below Reiser’s crotch. But his dream had come true. Tom’s Bomb lived.
And Don Farrow fired him!
Now faced with the need to earn a living, Reiser became an apprentice iron worker and leaned how to weld. He liked welding but couldn’t get work. So he became a drywall worker, then an apprentice heavy equipment mechanic, working at that for about a year.
By 1963, Reiser had managed to get back on at A.D. Farrow as a free lance mechanic, working only at night so he couldn’t be a bad influence with his V-Eight craziness. Farrow had a basement full of frames, engines, sheetmetal and other miscellaneous bits of Harley-Davidsons, and he paid Reiser $100 each to transform them into complete motorcycles. “I made more money building those bikes than I had ever made working as a mechanic for scale,” says Reiser today.
In the meantime, he continued to develop Tom’s Bomb. After running the 800-pound brute into a corn field for lack of adequate brakes, Reiser concluded that it was time to employ a bit of drag-chute technology. He bought a 15-foot parachute from a local surplus store, and he and friend Edgar Thomas hooked it up to a sidecar rig to test its effectiveness. “Thomas sat in the sidecar with the chute in his lap, and I ran the rig up to about 80 miles per hour, then Edgar tossed out the chute,” recalls Reiser. “For a long time the chute just kind of snaked along the highway behind us, then WHOOF! It popped open and the whole rig came off the ground. The sidecar was completely up in the air and the back wheel of the Harley was off the ground too. Meanwhile, I was doing everything I could to steer and keep from getting tossed over the front of the motorcycle.”
Concluding the 15-footer gave too much braking, Reiser bought two five-foot chutes. This time, Thomas sat backward on a solo Harley, strapped around the chest to Reiser, one chute under each arm. Incredibly, it worked. “If we had been any smarter,” Reiser says, “I’m sure we would have gotten ourselves killed.” Taking what he had learned, Reiser built a chute deployment system for the V-Eight that attached one chute to each side of the motorcycle.
How the V-Eight behaved under acceleration, though, perhaps was best summarized in Wolfe’s “The Mild Ones” article in 1965. Wolfe wrote:
“Well, when I started off,” Reiser was saying, “the back wheel bit down so hard it threw me back and it felt like the whole motorcycle was going to go over backward. It was like the whole thing was just going to lift up and go over backward. It was like the whole thing was covered in smoke, me and everything. I couldn’t see nothing. The guys thought the engine had exploded or something. It was the rubber burning, but they thought the whole thing was on fire and they were going to have to get me out of there with a fire hose. It was a weird feeling. It started off with a whole row of jerks. I don’t know what that was, unless there was so much power, it was just running over the top of itself, and then all of a sudden it shot out of the cloud, and after that there wasn’t anything to do but hang on –“
Reiser’s goal with the V-Eight monster was to break all existing motorcycle drag racing records. At his first National Hot Rod Association meet, the officials actually sent the crash truck down the strip into the huge white cloud of smoke, thinking Reiser had crashed. He hadn’t, but the NHRA declared Tom’s Bomb was unsafe at any speed and invited him not to come back, tactfully.
The final chapter of the V-Eight dragster was written when R.C. Johnson wrecked the it, abandoning ship at close to 100 miles per hour because it wouldn’t stop. Johnson was unhurt, but Tom’s Bomb was a mess. By this point in time, Reiser had pretty much learned what could and could not be expected of a V-Eight drag bike, and his enthusiasm for the machine had begun to wane. Besides, the big red-blocked monster had taken a terrible toll on his life. After his marriage failed, in 1964 he headed for the West Coast where he worked for Harley dealer Skip Fordyce in Riverside, California.
Reiser ended up staying on the left coast for less than a year, in part because Don Farrow encouraged him to return to Ohio and work as general manager at his dealership. Farrow had not only made his peace Reiser; he had come to terms with Tom’s Bomb, as well. He didn’t care to ever see the beast run again, but he told Reiser he would foot the bill if he would restore the wreck to original condition and put it on display in the show room window. Reiser willingly complied. That’s where the bike was sitting in 1965 when a young Tom Wolfe, with his soft Virginia accent and trademark stylish clothes, walked in and introduced himself to Reiser.
Large rode Reiser’s Top Fuel bike to AMA hillclimbing
championships in 1997, 1998, and 1999.
Photo provided by Tom Reiser
Reiser’s need for speed did not end with the passing of his V-Eight obsession. Instead, it became much more productive and less destructive as he turned his interest toward the engines that had been right there under his nose his whole life: big Harley-Davidson V-Twins. He even began putting the rest of his existence back together, marrying his second wife, Beulah, in 1966. These days, Beulah and daughter Chris take care of the front counter in the Big Twin specialty business the Reisers opened over 25 years ago in Columbus, while Tom runs the machine shop.