Saturday, November 14, 2009

Heart of the Harley

The phone rings inside Duane Taylor’s workshop, Taylor Classic Cycles, near McNary Field Airport in Salem.
Taylor picks up and after the caller introduces himself, Taylor asks how the weather is in Georgia.
A few minutes of small talk pass between the two, then the caller gets to the point: His Harley is acting up and something needs fixing.
With a couple questions, Taylor diagnoses the problem and identifies the part that needs replacing. He’s got a bucketful in his workshop.
“All he had to do was tell me about the spigot in the valve and I knew exactly what he was talking about,” said Taylor.

Such bedside manner was once reserved for his cardiology practice, but these days Taylor’s patients are vintage Harley Davidson motorcycles.
Paging Dr. Taylor
Taylor became intrigued by the medical profession after a surgery to fix his burst appendix.
“It was my first real medical experience and it got me thinking. When the G.I. Bill came around a few years later, I decided I wanted to go to medical school,” Taylor said.
He progressed rapidly through medical school, partly because he was at least five years senior to any of his peers in class.
Cardiology became his specialty after spending time at the Cleveland Clinic, home of the first doctors to perform cardio-catheterization, a procedure used to diagnose or treat heart problems.
In some ways, the cardiologist specialty fit him like a glove. In some ways, it was exactly like treating an ailing machine.
“I like the kind of medicine where you have to think. In cardiology, we have to get a very, very detailed history, conduct a very thorough examination and order the right tests,” he said. “When the tests come back we have to know how to interpret them.”
In addition to helping establish the first intensive care unit and the first cardio care units in the state, Taylor had a hand in three medical innovations: the alternating leg pressure system, which prevents bed-ridden patients from developing blood clots in their legs; the cardiostat needle, which enabled doctors to quickly and reliably inject medication directly into the heart; and the cricostat.
The cricostat looks like something a Hollywood set designer would include on a tray alongside Dr. Frankenstein’s patient bed. It looks fearsome; a feeling only enhanced when Taylor describes how to use it.
A patient’s skin is pulled taut around their neck. The doctor identifies the cricothyroid ligament, places the pointed end of the cricostat over it, flips his wrist to break through the skin and uses his thumb to depress a lever that spreads the wound - instant airway.
It reduced the time it took to open an injured person’s airway from 20 minutes to six seconds.
“It’s mostly for when a patient’s face is so smashed that a doctor can’t get a tube down their throat,” said Taylor.
Such injuries are mercifully infrequent, but the time saved can spare lives. Taylor crafted the device with hand tools, files and a hacksaw in his workshop.
The constant tinkerer
Long before he donned a white coat, Taylor was a tinkerer.
He would spend hours in his father’s workshop breathing new life into things that fell apart.
Before the age of 11, he built a car out of a castoff washing machine motor. It was a two-cycle motor that would only run in one direction. The car ran only in reverse.
“I’ve always been a backyard engineer, always designing and building,” he said.
During his teen years, Taylor discovered the allure of American motorcycles. He took a job in a repair shop in his hometown of Baker, Ore. Taylor was 19 before he owned his own cycle, a 1949 125S Harley Davidson.
“They’re just fun to ride,” said Taylor.
Taylor retired from the medical field in the late 1980s.
He began making metal machining tools when he and his wife, Janet, the current mayor of Salem, started a metal roofing business.
He built a roll-forming machine that can shape 110-feet of metal per minute. It would have cost $250,000 to purchase one; Taylor built it for $30,000.
After growing the business to more than a dozen employees, Taylor’s focus turned back to motorcycles and his ever-growing collection that needed some replacement parts.
Harleys made between 1948 and 1966 are his specialty. The bikes are most often called “Hummers,” but Taylor is quick to point out the misnomer.
“Hummers were a specific model and the bikes I make parts for come from throughout that time period,” he said.
Taylor not only makes motorcycle parts, he makes the machines he needs to make the parts.
Because the need for the specialized gaskets, spigots, fenders and gas tanks is so small, few companies are equipped to make them.
“Generally, I make the parts that no one else wants to make or take the time to tool up for,” he said.
It leads to its own headaches, however.
He was told by a handful of companies that they would be able to print numerals on odometer wheels.
“But when push came to shove they couldn’t do it,” he said.
Taylor designed a screen-printing machine to do it himself.
As his skill has grown, so has his reputation. Taylor’s custom parts can be found in Harleys from Japan to Germany.
He doesn’t believe that his medical training prepared him for diagnosing motorcycle ailments, but Taylor found the common thread between the two – mechanics.
Taylor shows no hint of slowing down, but a lifetime of mechanical tinkering has put the power of salvation in his hands. It simply doesn’t matter if you’re human or a motorcycle.
Taylor Classic Cycles can be found online at

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