Custom motorcycles get pretty weird. As you’ve probably read here before, builders will do such wild things as pair a motorcycle with radial engines, diesel engines, or turbines. And who can forget the bonkers car-engined bikes out there? Perhaps no custom motorcycle has anything on the RoaDog, a motorcycle built by William “Wild Bill” Gelbke to be the ultimate touring machine. It’s 17 feet long, weighs 3,200 pounds, requires hydraulic jacks to stand up, and appears absolutely terrifying to ride.
Last month, the National Motorcycle Museum closed its doors after 34 years of providing the world with motorcycle history. After the museum’s closing, the collection of motorcycles within the museum’s walls was auctioned off to new homes. We now know where a couple of the machines went, including the legendary RoaDog.
Sean from YouTube channel Bikes and Beards picked up a couple of motorcycles from the museum. He didn’t initially score the RoaDog, but he bought it from the person who did. Sean then took the motorcycle to the Wheels Through Time museum in North Carolina, where it was brought back to life.
Today’s Autopian Drive-In shows the triumphant revival of the RoaDog from the perspective of the museum, followed by its first ride in who knows how many years. Check this out:
Wheels Through Time is a non-profit museum of massive scale. It was founded in 1969 by Dale Walksler. At its start, the collection was located in Glen Ellyn, Illinois, before moving to Mt. Vernon, Illinois in 1977. There, the museum shared some space with the Harley-Davidson dealer run by Walksler. In 2002, the museum moved to Maggie Valley, North Carolina, where it remains today. The museum boasts a collection of over 375 motorcycles spanning 25 makes and it even has rare vintage cars as well. Now, it has the RoaDog.
The RoaDog’s Creator
To understand how awesome the RoaDog is, we should talk about who created it. William “Wild Bill” Gelbke was an aeronautical engineer for McDonnell Douglas and also a motorcycle fanatic. Combine them together and you get one of the wildest motorcycles to ever hit the road. I’ll let the National Motorcycle Museum explain:
Needing outlets for his motorcycle building passion, he also had bike shops in Illinois and Indiana. Taking all he was worth, the restless inventor sought to build a dependable, long distance cruiser, even start production on them. Probably not finding any available component up to the task, Gelbke designed his own massive leading link, or “Earles” type fork, similar to those on Greeves and BMW motorcycles. His aviation experience lead Bill to use chrome moly steel tubing for the very long frame which is nicely bent and welded. (Just imagine laying out the components, frame pieces and building this in your shop.)
Matt Walksler, the son of late founder Dale Walksler and Wheels Through Time’s current curator, notes that Gelbke’s role at McDonnell Douglas involved work on guidance systems for missiles. As Mecum Auctions writes, he became disillusioned with his profession when the government allegedly withheld the confidential blueprints of the missiles his guidance systems were in. After leaving the aerospace industry Gelbke opened some Chicago, Illinois and Hammond, Indiana-area motorcycle shops and eventually designed his RoaDog and his Auto Four. Later, he would hit the road as an owner-operator of a semi-truck. Reportedly, his usual haul was vegetables.
In 1972, Walksler says, a photographer catches Gelbke on the RoaDog. The photo (above) ended up being circulated all over from magazines and shops to pictures in bars. The bike and Gelke became legends, and there was a mystery among riders about just where the bike was.
Allegedly, police suspected that Gelbke hauled marijuana in the trailer of his semi. On November 17, 1978, a dozen or more police officers arrived at Gelbke’s farmhouse near Green Bay, Wisconsin. The officers demanded Gelbke to toss his gun on the ground. From there, the story takes two forks. One version of the story says Gelbke fired at the officers. The other version of the story says Gelbke complied with the order and dropped his weapon, then an officer slipped on ice. Either way, the officers fired a barrage of bullets at Gelbke and then left the scene. Gelbke died of his injuries.
The RoaDog seemingly disappeared after this. The National Motorcycle Museum continues the story:
Buzz Walneck, publisher and swap meet promoter, knew of the bike from its early days and went on a hunt to locate it, asking his readers for tips. RoaDog, it turned out was with Gelbke’s mother, safe in a garage. Up for a challenge, Buzz bought RoaDog, made the machine roadworthy and set about learning to ride it, which is captured in a video.
Walneck would later sell the motorcycle to a collector and that collector donated the machine to the National Motorcycle Museum. Someone bought the motorcycle in the Mecum Auction after the closure of the National Motorcycle Museum just for Sean from Bikes and Beards to pick it up. So, the bike’s been through a lot of owners over the years.
That brings us to today, when on October 20, Wheels Through Time uploaded a video detailing the RoaDog’s revival.
Teaching An Old Dog New Tricks
Walksler starts by explaining what we’re looking at here. Built in 1965, the RoaDog is built out of Chromoly steel tubing. Housed in the massive frame is a 152 cubic inch Chevy II four-cylinder engine. This is connected to a Powerglide transmission, a 1-ton truck differential sliced in half, and Corvette brakes. The two-speed automatic transmission retains its reverse gear, necessary for reversing the 3,200-pound beast. Yep, the RoaDog weighs more than the car that gave its engine to the project. That’s not all, as Gelbke designed the massive front leading link, or “Earles” type fork. The fork alone weighs 700 pounds. That’s more than many entire motorcycles! Gelbke was rumored to ride this machine at 100 mph.
Sheryl and I got to see the RoaDog at the National Motorcycle Museum and frankly, the proper words to describe the monstrosity simply do not exist.
In reviving the motorcycle, Walksler starts with the easy stuff. Walksler and his team filled the engine up with oil, checked compression, and checked spark. Also on the list was getting the motorcycle’s hydraulic jacks to work. Without those jacks, the bike cannot stand on its own. And did I say it weighs as much as a car? So, the team had to get the engine running so they could power the jacks.
While Walksler’s team was working on the bike, Sean hit the starter, revealing the engine to be free and ready. Hitting the starter again revealed no spark. The team checks the coil, which tests fine. The distributor had heavy corrosion and cleaning it up was enough to bring spark back. Next, Walksler and team primed the mechanical fuel pump and examined the carburetor. Thankfully, the carb was dry, and Walksler determined it wasn’t necessary to rebuild it.
Now with the engine about ready to go, the guys decided to rebuild the brakes. I mean, you probably want your 3,200-pound motorcycle to be able to stop. With the brakes about ready to go, the team fired up the motorcycle for the first time in who knows how many years. The National Motorcycle Museum stored this bike well because it didn’t require much work to get it running again.
With the engine running, Walksler and team began bleeding the bike’s brakes. The brakes weren’t clamping down every time, but they sort of worked. More bleeding appeared to fic the brakes. They also needed to fill the Powerglide with transmission fluid to get the jacks to function again.
With the motorcycle now working well enough to take it for a short jaunt, it was time to ride it for the first time in years. Amusingly, both Walksler and Sean were afraid to hop onto the RoaDog. Neither wanted to ride and both tried to convince each other to take a ride. Ultimately, Sean and Walksler played rock paper scissors, where Sean won.
Pulling out, Sean talked about how heavy the motorcycle felt and as he crawled his way down the museum’s entrance path, he even kept his legs down on the ground. Eventually, he came to a stop and the bike fell onto the ground. From there, Sean handed the motorcycle over to Walksler, who hopped on and put the bike on the road. Aside from a wobble that you could see in the camera, it was chugging down the road.
Still, Walksler said riding the motorcycle was the scariest thing he’s ever done. Just turning into a parking lot was a terrifying experience. Meanwhile, Sean said the RoaDog horrifies him. The men continue playing with the bike, taking turns that look like a cruise ship trying to pull a 180. Walksler says the motorcycle has to be the hardest motorcycle to ride. The guys also say turning left is harder than turning right, probably because of the beefy differential.
It’s unclear how Gelbke somehow put 20,000 miles on the RoaDog in just a single year. What is clear is that he built a mammoth, mind-boggling machine. It’s a motorcycle that weighs more than a car and is longer than two Harley-Davidsons parked end-to-end. The engineering of this thing is amazing all on its own.
Once the RoaDog got back to the museum, Walksler asked Sean if he could buy the terrifying machine. Sean agreed to the deal, so now the bike will be a part of Wheels Through Time. If you want to see the RoaDog, Wheels Through Time is located in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. The museum is open Thursday through Monday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The last day of the museum’s season is November 20, so get out there while you can!
Otherwise, check out the Wheels Through Time YouTube channel for more vehicle history.
(Correction: Though the sites detailing this motorcycle’s history say the engine is an Iron Duke, readers are correct that the engine actually predates the Iron Duke. We regret the error and have corrected it.)
Thanks for reading another installment of Drive-Ins, our daily look at a cool video we saw on the web. If you spot something you think we should share, email it to me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Screenshots: Wheels Through Time, unless otherwise noted.)
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