Many motorcycle shops have come and gone in Superior. In a region where motorcycle riding is a six-month endeavor at best, and in a smaller city, the low level of business volume makes success somewhat illusive.
Superior Motorcycle Service overcame that obstacle by offering a unique specialty that has attracted customers from across the country and even in other nations. More than 45 years ago, founder Phil Runser discovered there was a market for expert Harley Davidson machine shop services, from rebuilding older drive trains to enhancing new ones. But he went even further, creating tools and processes to fully rebuild original engine and transmission cases. Evenually, that type of work convinced him to create another division: Advanced Cycle Machining, which primarily serves other motorcycle service shops. He led the two companies six days a week – until his death three years ago at age 84.
“If we had to depend on work that came just from Superior, we just couldn’t make it,” explained Dan Kucharyski, who now manages the company for Runser’s sister. During summer months, the company operates much like other shops that service equipment powered by small engines – changing oil, filters, doing tune-ups and making other repairs. When the riding season ends, the emphasis turns to rebuilding motorcycle parts and, sometimes, refurbishing entire bikes. During those months, “Our work comes in from all over the United States and abroad,” Kucharyski noted.
A machinist who had known Runser for decades, Kucharyski worked for him a dozen years before his mentor passed away in 2014. His respect and fondness for Runser, a Superior native, are clearly evident.
“As a young man, Phil moved with his parents to California. He became a flat track racer. The stories he told me about flat tracks – he was absolutely insane. He crashed and got beat up more than anyone I’ve met,” Kucharyski said.
In those days, California was home to an evolving motorcycle culture – one that included many military veterans who became familiar with motorized two-wheelers while in the service overseas (Runser served in Korea). Upon returning home, some formed or were invited to join motorcycle clubs (MCs). There’s a photo of Runser on the counter at Superior Motorcycle Service. In it, his jacket bears the emblem of the “Sinners M.C.”
Kucharyski doesn’t know what happened to the Sinners, but Runser’s future went another direction. Harley Davidson trained him to be a mechanic, and he returned to Wisconsin and used those skills at company dealerships, eventually making Superior his home and working out of his garage. In 1971, he opened a storefront at 1711 Winter St., where the company remains today.
It’s almost impossible to find a shop manual that explains how to repair or rebuild a 1928 Harley JD. Even if you had one, there’s also the challenge of finding new parts, and finding original parts is even more difficult.
Kucharyski knew all about those difficulties when he purchased a JD from Runser shortly before his boss passed away. It was more than a restorable relic but held some sentimental value. Runser had once driven a JD cross country.
“It took me over two years to put it together,” Kucharyski said, noting some of the missing parts were replaced by those obtained from the company’s long-time customers. “It came out pretty good,” he said about the motorcycle, which is painted glossy military green and has an exposed valve train. “I wish Phil could have seen it. He would have been smiling beyond belief.”
Harley Davidson history at Superior Motorcycle Service goes far beyond what you might read in a coffee table book. Over the years, employees have worked on the gamut of Harley designs, from the so-called flat heads to knuckle heads, pan heads, shovel heads and today’s twin cam bikes. A project this winter has been to spiff up a customer’s 1960 pan head – a barn find from Northwestern Wisconsin.
“When they are 40 to 60 years old – these poor things have seen abuse you can’t even imagine. They’re just worn out,” Kucharyski said. “We see a lot of case cracks and worn out pistons. We do a lot of sleeving of cylinders. We do everything pertaining to Harleys from bushings to restoration stuff and new stuff.”
Restoring original parts is the company’s niche. Even though after-market parts sometimes are available, antique motorcycle value is determined much the same as it is for classic automobiles: the serial numbers have to match.
“Without the VIN (vehicle identification number), if you install an aftermarket case, it’s not considered a Harley. The value is probably half of what it is without the original cases. The numbers are everything. That’s the value of the bike,” Kucharyski said.
Sometimes the parts can be welded back together, but not always.
“Some parts have been blown up. There might be a connecting rod that blew through the bottom of the engine case,” he explained. In those situations, the destroyed parts are remanufactured at a foundry, then grafted back onto the section bearing the VIN. The company has fixtures that ensure the recreated parts meet original specifications.
“It’s a lot of work, and it’s expensive work,” Kucharyski said. Only a few other shops nationwide do it. “We’re one of the very few that go this extensive – such as case repair. There are so many patterns and specialty fixtures that you need. Most are hand made. It’s very much a specialty thing. The hours I’ve spent making fixtures over the years is unbelievable.”
Coast to coast, many motorcycle shops claim to offer full machine shop services.
“It’s kind of comical,” Kucharyski mused. “A lot of those shops send their work here – little Superior, Wisconsin.” Over the years, he’s also heard riders brag about sending their motors to machine shops in California for performance modifications. “You should see the stuff I get from California shops,” he added, noting that Superior Motorcycle Service actually performs the work that some others market as their own.
Demand for such work remains strong. It even originates from local sellers of equipment powered by small gasoline engines. Unfortunately, the trade isn’t being pursued by young persons who want to become machinists.
“Everything the kids are now taught is CNC stuff,” Kucharyski said, referring to computer-controlled machining work. “Nobody knows the manual machine skills. It’s just a dying art. I don’t know what’s going to happen down the road.”
Beyond restoring older motorcycles, there’s plenty of demand to make existing Harley bikes run faster and individualize their appearance.
“Everybody puts on their own personal touches – whether it’s to go fast or just the chrome. It’s not anything for some people to put $5,000 of accessories on their bike. Sometimes we have to wear white gloves to work on them,” Kucharyski said. “It’s a matter of how fast you can afford to go.”