- Written by webmin
Photos from the Don Emde Collection, courtesy of Wheels Through Time Museum
December 10th marked the 70th anniversary of the death of Frederick Ten Dan Ham, better known to motorcycling enthusiasts as AMA Hall of Fame member Fred Ham. Fred immigrated to the United States in the early Thirties and got a job as a chauffeur in California. He discovered that his true passion in his off time was motorcycle riding. A lot. He raced competitively in distance events, winning the 1933 and 1934 Big Bear Endurance Run, but Fred searched for even bigger challenges. The August 1985 issue of AMA Magazine stated that he once put his wife on a train in Los Angeles, then hopped on his bike and met her in Chicago when the train arrived 42 hours later.
Fred knew that Wells Bennet had established the Three Flag Endurance Run (Canadian border to Mexican border) record in 1922 on a Henderson in 51 hours and 4 minutes, and decided that this was a worthy challenge. The AMA disavowed any subsequent attempts to better this mark because they would involve driving well above the speed limit on public roads, but Fred decided to attempt it anyway. In 1936, he journeyed to the Canadian border in Washington with a prepared 1935 EL knucklehead and proceeded to shatter the mark, completing the same distance as Bennet, and arriving in Mexico only 28 hours, 7 minutes later. He beat the previous record by almost a full day.
Bennet had set another record in 1922 (on the same Henderson) for distance covered over 24 hours, traveling 1,562.5 miles on a board track in Tacoma, Washington. Fred decided he would make an attempt at that record also. In April of 1937, Fred brought his own newly acquired 1936 Harley EL to Muroc Dry Lakes in California to make his assault on the world 24-hour endurance record. With sponsorship and tuning from his local Harley dealership, Fred shattered Bennet’s distance record in a little over 20 hours, continuing to complete a record 1,825 miles in one day. The same AMA magazine article stated that Fred got off his bike, had a meal, drove two hours to his home, took a shower and then went to a movie. That record stood for over 35 years before being topped by Merle Shank in August 1972 aboard a Honda 750 at Pocono Raceway.
His exploits were the best advertising Harley-Davidson could hope for and silenced the critics who were pooh-poohing the Harley EL knucklehead engine as unreliable. H-D sales improved and the company kept the knucklehead design as its engine, thanks, in part, to Fred’s exploits. Harley-Davidson later acquired the record-breaking engine and gave Fred a brand new one, which he proceeded to install into the same 1936 frame he used to set the endurance record, and Fred used the bike as his daily police motorcycle while he was a patrol cop in West Covina, California, until his death (aboard the bike) while on duty on December 10, 1940.
Knucklehead sales continued to propel H-D through slim financial times until the onset of World War II. The reliability proven by Fred while on his exploits set in motion the development of the panhead and shovelhead, both based on the earlier knucklehead design, which sustained the Harley-Davidson heavyweight bikes into the mid-Eighties. Few other riders of the Thirties or since could deny that Fred had the ultimate Iron Butt, riding long distance in his free time and getting paid to ride 40 hours a week for his job when he wasn’t competing.