Larry Harding is the quintessential gear head…and he can prove it.
“I’ve had a wrench in my hands since I was big enough to pick one up,” he says as he scans his sizeable collection of restored and waiting-to-be-restored vintage motorcycles, motorized bicycles and scooters.
“The first one I restored was a ’63 Sears Allstate, which was a Vespa. I enjoyed working on it, painting and fixing it up. I really liked the way that Vespa engine was made, and it sort of got me hooked. The rest is history.”
That was ten years ago. Harding’s been at it ever since, restoring his share of Vespas, Powells, Indians, Harleys, Whizzers and other machines, but eventually gravitating to his favorite: 1960s vintage Cushman Eagle scooters.
“They just ride better. One of the catchy things about Eagles is that back in their day, they were considered a miniature Harley. You can straddle them and you got foot boards for your feet, just like a Harley. Then there’s that special Harley-like sound they make. Americans like four-cycle engines, always have. It’s the sound.”
Fortunately for Harding, the Cushman Eagle is one of the most revered vintage scooters around. Adds Harding, “One thing that narrowed me down to Cushman is that you can get virtually anything you need for it.”
In the history of scooters, Cushman holds a special place for two seminal reasons. The company’s Air-Glide step-through model, introduced in 1937, was one of the first mass-produced scooters to be manufactured, and it was made entirely in America. Cushman sold thousands of these fun machines and ended its run in the 1960s with the Eagle. The Eagle turned out to be the company’s most popular and collectible model.
Because of its status among collectors, a number of companies have sprung up to satisfy the growing demand for parts, notably Dennis Carpenter Reproductions in Charlotte, North Carolina. It’s been said that Dennis Carpenter, who has made a fortune supplying reproduction parts for vintage Ford cars, trucks and tractors, somehow became enamored with Cushman scooters and decided to do the same thing for the two-wheelers.
This has turned out to be a boon for Harding and his fellow collectors, who can page through the Carpenter Cushman catalog and find virtually anything they need in its 142-pages of parts and accessories. And while it’s always preferable to have an original part, having reproductions readily available sustains the Eagle’s popularity.
As a restorer, Harding is a rare breed, doing almost everything himself. “I do it wrong until I figure out how to do it right. I make a lot of my own parts. I built my own machine shop, my own welding and fabricating shop, my own mechanics bay, my own paint and body shop. It’s all done right here, in this one room, from the bottom up, unless somebody has to help me lift something,” he says.
It’s a good thing that Harding, who owns and operates a refrigeration business, is so mechanically inclined. The Eagles he usually finds are, as Harding puts it, “rough. Most are terrible when I buy them. Just rust and rotten tires. You generally pick them up in bits and pieces at a swap meet or find them in a pile of parts somewhere. Sometimes, you just end up carrying them home in a bag.”
To assure authenticity in his restorations, Harding does his homework. He’ll order service, parts and owner’s manuals, sitting down and checking every size of bolt and matching it up with the right kind of washer and nut, unless it’s something he wants to change to suit his personal taste.
“I’m not fanatical. Some people have to have everything perfect. I don’t build mine to put in a show for competition; I build them to ride. So I make them nice, but not 100 percent factory.”
What makes it all worthwhile to Harding, including all the hours he puts into restoration, is the fact that he can ride his favorite Eagle with his buddies. “Our group has the greatest bunch of guys. We ride every New Year. We call it the Frostbite Ride. In the summer, we might take off on a Saturday and ride out somewhere for supper.
“I ride the Eagle several times a month when it’s warm. Our club, the Mid Carolina Cushman Club, has a group ride once a month in the summer. My rides have been in June for the last three or four years. We start out at the Fresh Market, and I take them out through Crab Creek, out to Brevard, up to Pretty Place, Caesar’s Head, out across Highway 11 then up and back over the mountain. About 100 miles. We have about 30 members and about 20 riders. We’re scattered all over North and South Carolina. We keep in touch through a newsletter that comes out about once a month in the summer,” says Harding.
One of Harding’s Hendersonville riding buddies is Merlin Beckham, who owns what can be best described as one of the most unusual two-wheelers you’ll find anywhere. It’s hardly recognizable as a scooter, let alone a venerable Cushman Eagle. That’s because Beckham and others have covered it with every kind of bangle, bead, sticker, reflector and assorted paraphernalia.
Says Beckham, “I bought it as a rolling chassis at a scooter meet…just a frame, wheels and a gas tank. Bought a Vanguard conversion kit that includes a Briggs & Stratton engine and drive train that fits into the Cushman Eagle frame. Built it up from there.” Asked why he took his restoration to what can be kindly called another level, Beckham says, “Just to be different. Why not?”
Harding is not amused: “Merlin and I go to a lot of places together. I’ve probably spent hundreds of dollars to paint my scooter, polish it up and all and guess who gets his picture took when we go somewhere?”