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Buddy Muirhead sits on the Ner-a-Car motorcycle he restored at his home Tuesday. Muirhead spent two years rebuilding the bike he and his brother had as young boys.

After almost 50 years, Buddy Muirhead restores family motorcycle

By Pat Hambrick
 

The Daily Citizen

For almost 50 years, the rare old 1924 Ner-a-Car motorcycle waited for someone to restore it.

Henry “Buddy” Muirhead of Searcy spotted it in his brother’s shop in Denver in 2003 and completed restoration in time to ride it in the White County Fair Parade in 2005.

“It was an interesting experience,” Muirhead said of the restoration. “It took a lot of time and was a lot of fun.”

Only 20-30 of the old, American-made version of the motorcycles are known to be in existence in the United States, said Muirhead, who knows of one other being restored in Arkansas. Approximately 6,500 Ner-a-cars were produced in England from 1921-1927 and about 10,000 were produced in America between 1922-1928.

Muirhead’s younger brother, Jerry, first spotted the old motorcycle in his uncle’s barn in Vicksburg, Miss. in 1943. The uncle had bought it and used it for a couple of years, but the 5 horsepower engine wasn’t powerful enough for the Vicksburg hills, so he stored it away.

Muirhead said his brother, not quite 12, was interested in mechanical equipment and wanted his father to buy the old motorcycle. He bought it without the boy’s knowledge, cleaned it up, got it running and gave it to him as his 12th birthday present.

The tires had dry-rotted, and when the boys tried riding it, it flung all the rubber off.

“This was during the war. Gas was rationed; we were allowed one and a half gallons of gas a week. You couldn’t buy tires,” Muirhead said.

The boys tried lacing old bicycle tires around the rim, but that didn’t work. Their father eventually found two old tires at Sears and appeared before the ration board for permission to buy them, which was granted, but the tires were a smaller diameter than the rims. Their father cut down the rim diameter, welded them back together and found someone in a bike shop to true the rims.

“You never saw two happier little boys,” Muirhead said.

Of course, the spokes no longer fit the rims, so the boys got their first machine-shop experience: they had to cut each spoke down and rethread it.

Just a year or so later, Jerry wrecked the motorcycle, which had a top speed of about 45 mph, damaging both the machine and the engine.

“We graduated to a Harley Davidson. It was faster. My brother kept saying he was going to fix [the Ner-a-Car], but he never got around to it,” Muirhead said.

The brothers enlisted in the service together in 1950, during the Korean War, and Jerry moved to Denver in 1956. Over the years, he had taken the old motorcycle apart, and by the time Muirhead spotted it in 2003, many of the parts had been lost.

He asked his brother if he could take the motorcycle, and he said yes.

“I started rounding up the parts. The drive and the transmission were gone,” Muirhead said. “I assembled all the parts I had and began looking on the internet for a book or manual on the motorcycle.”

He used a parts book that he bought to assemble the parts he had and to take an inventory of what he didn’t have. A man in England helped him locate an engine in Wales.

“I ended up remanufacturing the machine,” Muirhead said.

He had to make several of the parts, including the muffler and a hand-hammered chain guard, and his wife, Alice, helped him make paper patterns for parts and some of the body.

“It was so fascinating to work with it and see what technology they used,” Muirhead said. “The engine was designed in 1917.”

Muirhead joined the Confederate Chapter of Antique Motorcycles of America and entered his motorcycle in a show in Mobile in 2005. He won three awards: best of class, most unique and People’s choice.

He has taken the motorcycle to Denver so that his brother could see and ride the old machine again, as well as taken it on other trips. He hauls the motorcycle in a trailer with a gold-leaf logo on the back and a painting of Muirhead riding the motorcycle on the sides of the trailer.

Muirhead’s wife made him a suit with knickers, a shirt with a rounded collar and a bow-tie. He found a pair of Stacy Adams high-top dress shoes, argyle socks and a riding cap so that when he rides his motorcycle, he can dress from the period.

Muirhead said that during his research, he learned that by 1915 Harley Davidson motorcycles had double overhead cams and hemi engines, though they are currently touted as new inventions.

“There’s nothing new except computers and fuel injection,” he said.

Muirhead reminisced about the restoration.

“It brings back old times. It’s a sense you are saving something. I like kids to see the old motorcycle,” Muirhead said. “They have no idea what their great-grandfathers rode … Today’s society is a disposable society. We throw things away. When I grew up, we fixed things; we didn’t throw them away.”

Muirhead plans to ride his Ner-a-Car in the May 2006 Founder’s Day Parade in Searcy, sponsored by the White County Historical Society, and he will talk about his experience of restoring the old motorcycle when the WCHS meets Monday night, March 27. His brother will be present; he is coming to attend the Muirhead’s 50th wedding anniversary celebration this Sunday.

After living most of their lives in Greenville and Vicksburg, Miss., the Muirheads moved to Searcy in 1995. They have three children: Lisa Valentine, Chris Muirhead and Denise Jackson. They also have six grandchildren.

Muirhead is now busy on another project; he is writing a book about his life on Mississippi River steamboats. He spent many years as a tow boat captain, pushing barges along the river. From 1989-1998, he worked as a captain and pilot for the Delta Steamboat Company, owner of the Mississippi Queen and Delta Queen, among others, and his wife accompanied him on the cruises. He still works for them part-time, when one of the captains is sick.

They met many of the older movie stars on those cruises, such as Helen Hayes and Rosemary Clooney, along with many other interesting and famous people.

He obviously loved his days as steamboat captain.

“I enjoyed seeing the people relax and enjoy themselves,” he said.

Muirhead said he would like to find and restore an old Chevrolet Corvair Mazda, but his wife isn’t excited about another restoration project.

“We’ve been happily married for 50 years, so I don’t want to ruin it,” he joked.
 

 

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