Horace the Harris Magnum worth all the effort

Howie Davison Harris Magnum

It’s April 1979, and an 18-year-old Howie Davison has got hold of the latest copy of Bike magazine.

On the front cover, the magazine’s famous Ogri cartoon character is pointing at a photograph of a Harris Magnum with the caption, ‘Ere! Feast yer eyeballs on this!

“I read about the Magnum inside, and thought ‘I’m going to have one of them’,” says Howie, chatting in his garden near Lincoln with the Red Arrows practising overhead.

“Ogri made me do it”

“Ogri made me do it – that’s the joke I’ve always used. It was something different instead of universal Japanese motorcycles – oh, another across the frame four that doesn’t handle, so I thought I’d have one of them.

“Their one had a Z1000 engine in it, so I went into Lincoln to the Kawasaki dealer. They were selling off Z1-Rs for £1800 because the mark two had come out, so they were surplus stock.”

On May 5, 1980, at 11.35am, Howie remembers picking the Z1-R up and riding it home – but it would be another 15 years before it was finally used as the basis for the Harris Magnum 2 you see in these pictures.

Howie, who was serving as an engineer in the RAF at the time, clocked up about 50,000 on the Kawasaki, at one point riding the 800-mile round trip from his base at RAF Leuchars in Scotland to a fitters course in Aylesbury.

“I was racking up the miles come rain or shine, and it got a bit ratty and tatty,” he says. “I had to paint the tank any old colour to keep the rust off – there’s no point in concours when you’re going through a British winter with the salt and the spray and the mess.”

When he was posted to Germany, Howie took the bike to pieces to repaint the frame, “because it was a bit rotten”.

“I was rubbing it down with sandpaper and my fingers went straight through,” he says. “There was an unfinished weld at the top of the frame where the swinging arm went, so there was a gap and the spray had been getting in there and filling up the tube for years.

Time for a Harris

“I got it all welded up as a temporary measure, because at the time I’d saved up enough to get a Harris…”

Once back on British soil in 1995, at RAF Lossiemouth in north east Scotland, Howie got on the phone to Steve Harris, asking for a Magnum 2 for a Z1-R, only to be told they don’t make them anymore.

“But he said ‘are you really serious about wanting one?’” he says. “I said I’d wanted one since I saw that magazine back in 1979, and he said ‘if you ring us back in half an hour, I’ll see if I can find the jigs’.

“So I rang him back and he said ‘I found the jigs, they were up in the loft, we can pull them out if you’re serious, we just need a deposit’. I sent him a cheque for £600, because that’s all I had, and he said ‘right, OK, we’ll need the rest in 12 weeks’.”

In total, Howie spent £3,500 on the Magnum frame, seat, swinging arm and battery box. All he needed to do now was put it all together with the Z1-R, and he finally had his Harris Magnum.

It’s no surprise that Howie got into motorbikes – his father had an Ariel Red Hunter with a Watsonian sidecar.

“My mother was taken to hospital when she was in labour in the sidecar,” he laughs. “After that, I was always in the sidecar with my mum and dad, and then as soon as I was able to I got a bike.

“I couldn’t afford one at 16 – my dad said I couldn’t have anything until I could afford it. So when I was 18 and I joined the Royal Air Force, I bought a Honda CD185 Benly to travel home from my basic training course at Aylesbury at the weekends.

“It was a really good bike. It did 81mph in top, according to the speedo.”

Honda “blew up three times”

Then came a Honda CX500 V-twin, which “blew up three times”.

“When the 500s were all the rage Honda brought out the most difficult engine they could possibly think of, because it was V-twin, the cylinders were canted at an angle as well, and all sorts of weird stuff,” he remembers, buying the Z1-R after the third rebuild, which came at Honda’s expense.

Back to 1995, and Howie has stripped down the Kawasaki in Lossiemouth and spent a weekend putting it all back together with the Harris frame.

After checking with the local DVLA officer in Inverness, he is assured that all he needs to retain to avoid the dreaded Q-plate is the Z’s engine, front forks and wheels.

With the bike insured, and a letter from the DVLA confirming he could ride it for inspection, he set off for the 36-mile ride to Inverness.

“It was a really exciting trip, just wow,” he says. “It was fabulous, amazing. It had skinny Z1-R wheels on it, and if the corners get tightened up you just lean over a bit more. Suddenly, I’ve got my knee down and it’s great.

“I could also actually lift it. It’s 200lb lighter, which makes a lot of difference with the handling, and I think the frame geometry was all different and the frame metal is top-grade racing tubing.”

After a cup of tea and a general chat about motorbikes, the DVLA inspector signed off the bike, and Howie was all set to go, as it happens, back to Germany.

Magnum in Germany

“I’d had it on the road for about three weeks, and this was its first big test,” he says. “Make sure there’s oil and petrol in it, hit the start button and wheel it off down the road like in a Mad Max scene. It had no fairing and two big spotlights on it, so it looked like a crazy crashed endurance racer bike.

“I rode it the length of the UK to Dover, loaded up with RAF kit bag and tank bag, about 1,015 miles to get to Brüggen, Germany.”

Howie steered clear of the Autobahns because of the “nutcase banzai overtaking lane with Porsches that never do less than 150mph”, but nevertheless found German roads “a revelation”.

“They’re really in good condition, with the white lines and markings, and there’s no ambiguity about speeding either,” he says. “When you’re in a town you’re doing 50kmh, and when you’re out of town you’re doing 100kmh, and that’s it. Not like here where you go into a 40, then a 30, then a 20.”

The Harris suffered niggles while in Germany, including a short circuit, and Howie was away for three months at a time working on Tornado squadrons in the aftermath of the Gulf War.

On returning to the UK, he was head-hunted to work on industrial gas turbines all over Europe and the world, including in the Middle East.

Harris in the shed

“The bike was in that spec for about five years, but then I put it in the shed and left it because I was doing lots of turbine work all over, and was away for 18 months at a time,” he says.

“It sat in the corner of the shed, and that’s when I decided I’d get it overhauled.

“When I was home for a month, I’d spend three weeks sorting home stuff out and then when I was just about to start working on the bike, it was time to go back again.

“So I handed it over to Rob Talton in 2013, and I just financed it and he stripped it all down and rebuilt it. It stayed with him for a long time.”

When it came back in 2015, however, quite soon all was not well.

“It had an oil consumption problem,” says Howie. “I went down to see my mate in King’s Lynn, and when I pulled in the oil light came on. I’d used three litres of oil and it was smoking like hell.

“I dropped out the engine and it was totally wrecked. It had run out of oil and the bores were scored.”

Rather than rebuild the engine, Howie opted to replace it with a ‘bitsa’ from a Z1000G, the USA version of the Z1000H, at an initial cost of £600.

New engine: wrong choice

“It was totally the wrong decision,” he says now. “Overhauling this Mk2 engine cost twice as much and took twice as long as the first one had.

“I had to change the cylinder head, because the carbs wouldn’t fit without touching the frame, so that was another £250. There was all sorts of other stuff, and it turned into a financial black hole that sucked all your money into it.

“If I’d just stripped my Z engine down, changed all the valves and all that, I would probably have had it done for about £350 and back on the road again.

“I was being clever, I thought a Mk2 engine would be a really good idea, but it wasn’t.”

There was no going back, however, because Howie had sold the original Z1-R engine, the £1,000 he received going some way to compensating for the extra work on the Mk2.

When he got the Harris back on the road, “it was great – until it broke down”.

“I’d got hold of a set of CR31 racing carbs, which did nothing but leak, so I got them overhauled at considerable expense,” he says.

“But I’d stop at a filling station, and as soon as you’d turn the engine off, petrol would just pour out of the bottom. I got fed up with it, so I phoned up the bloke I sold my Z1-R engine to and said ‘I need my carbs back, I’ll pay whatever you want for them’, which turned out to be £250 – dammit!”

After another interlude when the bike went back to Talton’s, Howie decided to retire from his globe-trotting career and bring the bike home.

“But it wouldn’t run right,” he remembers. “I finally got it started on all four cylinders, having burned out the ignition and found that the spark plugs were the wrong ones, and the spark plug leads were the wrong ones.

“Oh, this hurts”

“I got it out on a ride, and it was great, ‘we’re out, not breaking down!’, and then ‘oh, this hurts’. “I’ve got the drop bars and the original Harris race sets and I didn’t fit it anymore. I couldn’t bend over – after 20 minutes, I was in agony.

“I had to go and stand around for 20 minutes to sort my guts out and then drive back, sitting up as much as I could.

“I thought ‘this is not good is it, now what am I going to do? Well, we’re not going to get rid of this – we’re going to win this’.”

Howie started looking for multi-adjustable handlebars, settling on a kit from ABM, “top quality German ones”, for £600.

“They’re pretty good, but it turned out it was because my feet were in the wrong place that was causing the real problem,” he says, now needing some multi-adjustable footrests…

After an abortive attempt at 3D-printing a set (“not strong enough, the plastic’s no good”), and some to-ing and fro-ing with fellow Harris owners on Facebook, he was put in contact with a chap in Ireland who makes them to order.

“I messaged him, left it a month, messaged him again and he didn’t answer,” says Howie, 62.

“You can imagine the frustration, because in the meantime I couldn’t ride the bike.”

Finally, a reply.

“He said ‘sorry, I’m just out of hospital because I’ve had a motorcycle accident’,” says Howie. “‘I’ve seen all your messages and I can sort you out’. Yes!

Footrests a work of art

“They came a couple of months later and they are absolute works of art. There is tons of adjustment, and I put them on the lowest and the furthest back, and it just fitted like a glove.”

After a minor hiccup with a short-circuit, Howie put the Harris through its paces, completing a lap of Lincoln on the bypass.

But in what must have seemed like a motorcycling Groundhog Day, the engine started stuttering the more the throttle was opened.

“Some guy suggested I strip it down and put the carbs in an ultrasonic bath,” he says, buying one for £50 from eBay.

“I put them in, and it made a bit of a difference but not a lot, and then a chap called Rob Meggitt in Scunthorpe said ‘bring us your carbs and I’ll sort them out for you’.

“These carbs had been overhauled in 2000, wrapped in cloth, put away and never touched since. He found all this blasted grit in all the passages, cleaned them all out, and it was a revelation, but still not quite right…”

This time, the issue was the exhaust valve clearances, or rather the lack of any clearance.

“I got on to Rob Meggitt again, and he said ‘that’s no good, you’ll burn all your valves out and the engine will be wrecked’,” says Howie, taking the head up to him.

“All the valves were too long, so he cut them all back and fixed it. It made a hell of a lot of difference.”

Running sweetly at last

By the summer of 2023, the bike was finally running sweetly and reliably, ready for a Harris meet up at Squires in Leeds in July.

Howie runs through the current spec of the bike, which has clearly changed a lot since its first build back in 1995.

At the front are upside down forks from a GSX1100N upside down forks, with an FZ1000 front wheel and a 750 Slingshot 5.5inch wide rear wheel, Brembo front brakes, a hydraulic Brembo clutch conversion from a Ducati 916, and custom made Ohlins shocks.

The flimsy OWO1 replica seat was replaced with a P&M one “because I like the shape”, its massive hump housing a battery and all the electrics, which includes RFID keyless starting and MotoGadget digital instruments.

All this work has come at a hefty price.

“It’s probably cost me about £25,000 over the years,” says Howie, “a fair amount in labour because a lot of the work I couldn’t do myself.

“The frame had to be painted three times because the paint kept fading, and the way the exhaust is now it’s burned off the paint round the front of the frame anyway.

“So when I had the engine down, I sprayed it with Ford toolbox red the best I can to make it look OK for the photos! But it’s mainly for function, not to look great.

“I’m not intending to strip it down to bare metal again to get the frame done. I can’t really be bothered, and all the time I’m doing that it’s going to spend another year of not being ridden.

“The whole idea now is to get out and ride it.”

So has it all been worth it?

It was all worth it

“Yeah, it has, you get on it with your knee down and a massive grin on your face,” he says. “It becomes part of you, like a suit of armour, like a stormtrooper suit.

“When you get on it and bugger off somewhere, and pull up somewhere and everybody looks and goes ‘oh what the hell’s that?’ It makes a change when you sit next to all the modern bikes.

“I plan on riding the hell out of it while I still can, while fuel’s still available, so I can really enjoy all this investment.”

Here’s hoping that Horace, named after a friend’s wife misheard Harris, gives Howie many more years of knee-down fun.

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