Words and Photos by Edd Thorpe

Well, this feature gives us the kind of vibe that only exploring the great unknown can give, of teetering over a precipice, looking out into the great wildness before you, stretched far and wide, a moment for reflection and contemplation, anticipation and expectation.

Now. What we have before us here is not only a simply gorgeous Harley-Davidson Shovelhead chop, but our very, very first bike feature in these hallowed pages.

Since we first got our heads together as friends and decided to venture onto this journey that is Air Monkeys, we’re sure you’ll agree that we’ve come a long way and that we’ve always prided ourselves on pushing the envelope of our Air-Cooled Volkswagen hobby. The word ‘hobby’ really is underselling this lifestyle and culture to which we’ve all become so engrained. 

We are very fortunate that this culture allows us to express ourselves so freely, and that we can give you guys a real insight into the way we live our life. It’s perhaps more of a secret to you, the reader, that I have always been a sucker for bikes as well as air-cooled VWs. Yep, ever since the grand age of 11 when I had my first field thrasher, there’s just something about motorcycles that got under my skin.

So, fast forward a few, bike-less, years due to an unfortunate accident on a demo bike and the itch for getting back into bikes was due a scratchin’ once more! It was through joining a group of like-minded enthusiasts and general deviants that I was blessed to meet one Mr J Scott Curlin, the very owner of this aforementioned ‘Shovel’ (see my long winded rambling story had a point to it, right?). Ever since I clapped eyes on The Mariner, as the bike is known, at the Back Street Heros Custom Extreme show at Donington Park Raceway, I just knew I had to share this with you lucky lot!

I’ve taken a lot of notice during these past few years of creating Air Monkeys of how our ‘family’, as we call you readers, react to trends and changes within our scene and the broader, wider custom vehicle culture. Yep, it would well seem that you guys are a sucker for a Hot Rod, Gasser, and custom bike too. So what better way to dip our toe into that very world than this gorgeous, metal flaked chop.

In building this bike, Scott has truly inspired me to go on to create something of this calibre in the future. I can only hope that maybe this will inspire something in you too! Unbelievably, this is his first foray into the world of custom bike building. All the more appropriate to christen our bike coverage, then!

Ever the humble gent, Scott has always been forthright in thanking So Low Choppers, whom we will be bringing you a full feature on too, and the bunch known as Hero Garage in bringing his inspiration and ideas to life.

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Let’s start by explaining that this bike is a true one-off. Now, we’re very much used to modifying things in Volkswagen land, but only the engine, gearbox and lower portion of the frame (to retain the motor and ‘box mounts) ever called a Harley home!

The inspiration behind this build, finalised after many trips to hassle So Low as Scott puts it, and a few false starts with Jap bike projects, can really be credited to two things.

Firstly, Scott just dug Nick Restys’ Haint Shovel. Something about that bike just nailed how he wanted to build his. Secondly, Iron Maiden. Yep, you guessed it “The Mariner” was so called thanks to Scott’s liking of the bands 1984 hit The Rime of The Ancient Mariner.

This song, however, takes its root much deeper in history, with the Samuel Taylor Coleridge poem of the same name, written in c.1797–98 and is cited as the longest major poem in English history.

So, a heady combination of a Mariner’s tale, a dash of The Haint Shovel and a whopping measure of talent and creativity from So Low and the afterhours Hero Garage sessions, bring this jaw dropping creation to life. Scott tells us that The Mariner was almost something very different, after a few stints of buying up half cooked projects and a lot of mind changing as he forayed into the unknown. A lesson here in sticking to your guns and creating a solid plan to follow through can be taken of all here I think!

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Sometimes inspiration can come from the strangest of places, or sometimes you literally need to put yourself on a journey of inspiration to find what it is you’re looking for. Scott credits two of friends, James Church and Chuck Evelo, colleagues of his from the American air base they’re stationed on at Lakenheath, for putting him up to finally organising the trip he’d been mulling over for quite some time. A pilgrimage, as it were, to the statue of the Ancient Mariner in Watchet, Somerset. Somewhere along the planning stage this road trip evolved somewhat into an Irish jaunt, before rounding off their journey to the statue. The guys were apparently taken under the wing of the Irish locals along the way and many a lock-in ensued in a local establishment or two! As the guys progressed along the Irish coastline, one simple rule prevailed; “If at any point the road looks like it’s taking us away from the shore, turn left!” 

I just can’t explain how magical it is to listen to Scott roll off the tales of this trip and the memories which it gave rise to – it’s just the kind of inspiration that you have to go out there and take for yourself! At the finale of the trip which finally saw the guys round the Ancient Mariner statue, the idea finally clicked for Scott that the custom bike he was about to set out building should be christened The Mariner!

These 3 guys crossing paths has lead to the awesome creation that is Hero Garage. Evolved in the mind of Church, essentially a legitimate excuse for these amigos to screw around with bikes, drink beer and generally chat b******s with a form of purpose! Through their close brotherhood with So Low Choppers and afterhours use of their equipment and facilities, a series of magazine featured, trophy-winning bikes have been born of this gathering, evidence if ever there was of the fact that anything is possible with the right crowd around you!

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Scott can’t thank Clive and So Low enough for helping him through the difficult task of creating metal work from imagination, and his patience as Scott went through the motions of figuring out what it was he wanted from the end build. One such difficulty faced in this project, and the single biggest snag in the build, was the decision on Scott’s behalf to go with a solid rear axle, rather than the conventional adjustable type, which gives the chain tension adjustment necessary on the bike. To compensate for a static spindle, a tensioner is required to allow for adjustment in the chain. After a gruelling session of trying to configure such a contraption, the decision was made to go back to the adjustable rear spindle as seen on the finished article. Now, this is only down to Clive and the So Low Choppers guys’ experience of custom fabrication that the knowing-when-to quit instinct kicked in.

A minor detail in the grand scheme of things, yes, but a golden lesson to all newly christened project builders out there for sure!  At least the rest of the build was a little more straight forward. Scott was convinced of building a hardtail, short, springer forked Harley-based chop, with a sissy bar big enough to prop your arm on while stood next to it right from the get go. As previously described, only the lower frame rails came out of the Milwaukee factory, with the rest being expertly crafted by So Low, to accommodate those 2” under stock DNA springer forks, and wrap round that gorgeous SU carb fuelled shovelled motor. Now would probably be as good a time as any to explain the Shovelled nickname to our new-to-Harley friends. Put simply, bikers tend to call things as it is. Harley engines have always been called by the configuration of the cylinder head and rocker cover arrangement. The first of the ‘big twin’ Harley engines was called, even by the founders, the Knuckle Head.

Easy to see, when looking at the right hand side of the engine, the rocker covers resemble the shape of your knuckles, looking at the back of your hand, with a closed fist. The Pan Head simply resembles the shape of a traditional sauce pan at the rocker covers, and so the later Shovel Head gives rise to the impression of a Malt shovel, when viewed from the top of the rocker cover assembly! Scott scored his shovel in a lucky chat to his cousin, still living in the U.S, when Scott mentioned he was looking for an early wish Harley motor. Luckily his cousin had what was effectively a new 78 era cone-shovel (the cone shape on the lower of the engine cases housing the Points). This motor had been shipped to renown Harley tuners S&S to give it a good breathing over, increasing capacity from 74cu/i to 81, and replacing the stock cast pistons with forged items, before balancing the newly installed, longer-stroked crank and lightweight flywheel. The end result is a strong pulling motor that starts first kick every time! The decision to keep with the SU carburettor is sometimes called a controversial decision, with many choosing to swap out to an S&S Super E carb, especially if the SU becomes troublesome. Scott tells us he’s never had a problem so will be leaving well alone! The ‘fishtail’ exhaust that this heady packages breaths out from is not only a period custom touch, but elegantly ties the mariner theme into the build. Scott tells us how ‘raspy’ they sounded at first, so a prolonged session of opening up the tips ensued to get rid of that tinny sound and open the exhaust note to a deeper rumble!

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The more experienced Harley connoisseurs among you will be able to identify the Sportster petrol tank aloft this motorcycle – and you would be correct. However, this is a new production item and not a factory original that Scott tried to save. During this build, Scott has surprised himself with his emotional attachment to things and an ever increasing yearn to create parts from saved and recycled components, and integrating their stories into the build as they go along. However, as cool as the original, severely beaten, Sportster tank was it was just too far gone to save – it just kept on leaking, time after time of being welded, straightened, and welded again. Proof that old Harley’s never die came to light when Scott finally had enough of that tank and hurled it across the yard at So Low, to eventually rediscover it unscathed!!

The paint theme on this aforementioned Sportster tank elegantly ties in the Mariner theme, without over egging the pudding. A gorgeous metal flake blue, again in keeping with a 70’s era chop, and a suitable working in of fish scales complete the whole package. Blue, glitter packed bar grips, foot peg rubbers and kick start complete what is otherwise a very subtle custom bike, running with no front fender, and an elegant continuation of the paint scheme onto the rear fender and oil tank. The number “76” here gives a nod to the year that Scott was born, a detail that finishes off this traditional tank nicely. The base coats and solid colours were actually applied by Clive, with Hilary from Hurricane Air Brush Art completing the numbers, fish scales and those awesome yet subtle bubbles in the paintwork.

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That great, tall sissy bar is exactly as Scott envisaged it, and took a little work to get symmetrical, but is nothing for the talent of Clive’s son, Jay. Working alongside his father, Jay has churned out a veritable collection of custom bikes since he was 14 years old, and now aged only 23, I think it’s fair to say there’s a lot more to come, yet! Jay also turned his hand to helping Scott create the one-off Z-bar handlebars perched on The Mariner, so called simply by the shape they denote. These bars put you right where you need to be to pilot the ship, er, bike (sorry!), and again tie in the period custom bike theme. A real time effort came in to play here as Scott worked out the geometry of where he wanted these to sit, and ground the angles to allow the slight pull back. It was Jay that then heated them up, with Scott bending the uprights, before Jay laid down the final welds to create these awesome, truly one-off bars.

The result of this bike is a package which is simply timeless – a custom which could have easily been born in much earlier decade! Built to be ridden, the shovel has more than earned its stay with Scott attending many bike shows and rallies throughout the year. This could certainly be seen when I arrived, in the pouring rain, for the photoshoot at So Low, when Scott removed the filthy, muck covered shovel from the van. We did chuckle as the trusty Mr Sheen came out for the ‘preparation’ – evidence, if ever there was, that that thing is is ridden, and ridden hard! We’ll be keeping our eyes on The Mariner as plans are already afoot to create a ‘Mariner 2.0’ with some quite radical plans already in circulation! Again, a tribute to Scott’s So Low’s and Hero Garage’s unique way of forward planning builds and integrate components which complement the full package.

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In bringing you this feature we really hope to expand our culture of custom vehicle lifestyle, and create more of a hub for all things creative in the automotive world. Hopefully this can give rise to more bike features in the future, as we can honestly pride ourselves at Air Monkeys for listening up when the people speak! Maybe this has inspired you to tackle the custom bike project you’ve built in your head many times, or maybe you’ve got that special something tucked in a garage that we’d be crying out to get in these pages? Either way, in a world of increasing hostility, any opportunity to unite in a sub culture constantly at battle with regulations and rules is a chance to be grabbed by both hands!