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‘76 Harley Ironhead – Van Hai Nguyen

Posted on July 18, 2014 by Andrew in Bobber, Classic. 46 comments


When you think about it, basements kind of have a bum rap. For instance, how many movies have you seen where the characters go down into a basement and wonderful things happen? The answer is, of course, not many. The more likely scenarios usually involve people being tied up, power tools being used for things that their user’s manual would definitely not condone and the odd sex dungeon or twelve. But here’s a story that cellar lovers all over the world will be cheering; a basement in Berlin that was used to create art rather than remove body parts. Introducing Van Hai Nguyen and his ‘76 hog Ironhead.


Van is an architectural visualisation expert living and working in Berlin. After a trip through Southeast Asia, he decided to buy his first motorcycle; a stock late-model Triumph Scrambler. Not a bad bike to spend a few years learning on, you’d think… but not for Van. He had made his first mods to the Scrambler after only eight weeks and also discovered his greatest ever passion: customising motorbikes.


“As a student, I’d always dreamt of Harleys. Then, a chance to buy one came up about two years ago; it was an Ironhead from 1976. Now as nice as this bike was, I didn’t really like it at all. So without having travelled even a single meter on it, it was disassembled immediately after the purchase and carried piece-by-pice down to the cellar. Unfortunately, I don’t own a garage and thus the cellar was converted into a workshop. The only electric  tools I owned were a grinding machine, hand drill, compressor and a welder. Nonetheless, I had to get by with it. Also, my budget was tiny so everything had to be made by me.”


As a big fan of the clean, classic bike look, Van had a pretty good idea of where he was headed from the get-go… and that was straight to the heart of WLA town, Milwaukee. The idea of using original WLA parts or even repro parts crossed Van’s mind, but he wisely decided that this would only lead to a bike that would look like a bad copy of the original. So why not make them himself, but to a an imagined 1940s spec?


“So that’s what I did. As for the chrome, I love the stuff, but not when it looks too new. So I artificially aged all the chrome on the bike using electrolysis or with a salt acid bath. Sure, it was a little dangerous, but I think the final black-oxide look was worth it.”



The final product was ready in about a year. But as Van had never actually ridden it, he was still worried as to whether he’d have fun on it or not. The fact that it was a hard tail – something that he’d never experienced before – didn’t help matters. But, as Van himself puts it, “the first few kilometres on its maiden voyage were pure pleasure. I was hooked.”


We’ll let Van have the last word. “The bike is a time machine. As soon as I start it up, I am taken back to the past. For me, it’s what motorcycling is all about.”


[Photos by Klaus Huber-Abendroth]

  • Haydn

    Lovely looking bike, especially the aged chrome

    • Davidabl2

      I am also curious re technique used for that that. If any was used?

      • Like this…

        • Davidabl2

          Isn’t that a setup to remove rust rather than add patina?

          • That’s his photo. My basic understanding of electroplating would lead me to think that you can either deposit or remove metal on the spring’s surface depending on the polarity.

          • Hello Davidabl2 and Andrew,

            the chrome is removed with electrolysis but the metal underneath is also attacked. If you want to have a smooth surface, I would recommend to use only hydrochloric acid.
            The picture shows: the fork springs were treated with hydrochloric acid and the remaining parts with electrolysis. You can see the difference.

          • Guest

            the chrome is removed with electrolysis but the metal underneath is also
            attacked. If you want to have a smooth surface, I would recommend to
            use only hydrochloric acid.
            The picture shows: the fork springs were
            treated with hydrochloric acid and the remaining parts with
            electrolysis. You can see the difference.

          • Davidabl2

            Thanks. To sum it up it’s electrolysis in the reverse direction, i.e. removing plating rather than depositing it. In the non-electric bath,what’s the approximate concentration of HCL and how long were the springs left in it?

          • HCL >33% for about 24 h. But it depends on the material and on the quality of chrome.

          • HCL bath to remove chrome and zinc layer.

            on second pic you can see the screws start to rust in just five minutes.

    • Davidabl2

      Yep. Like that evo.

  • Steve Joseph

    It’s BEAUTIFUL. I mean, it completely strips away everything that is great about the Sportsters and makes it look like an FL, but the FLs sure were pretty.

    I think it needs the correct era big twin in it. it just doesn’t look right to see a Sportster engine in a cruiser, but I guess it’s easier and cheaper to obtain a ironhead motor than to rebuild an old big twin.

    • Davidabl2

      Finding a neglected, affordable pan or Shovel in France is probably even harder
      than it is in the USA. And the “old chopper in a barn scenario” is hard enough here, Lord knows.

  • david

    hey el – you did it. awesome bobber.

  • lizziesue

    Hmmm – a rigid Sportster with a springer front end and solid bars – there may be minor vibration issues; keep the Loctite handy. Love the aged chrome, though…

  • TJ Martin

    Nicely done . Nothing particularly new or original about it . But one ___ of a nice bike regardless and very well executed/crafted . The more you view the details the better it gets ! The fact that the owner built most of it giving the scoot a ten point bonus . Errr .. though I could of done without the retro tire bit … preferring rideability over style when it comes to the rubber thats hitting the road . But thats just a personal bias so …. overall .. Two Thumbs Up !

  • Davidabl2

    Wonderful machine…

    Might I suggest one change though?
    The modern exhaust kind of stands out, and could be replaced with a repro one from the earlier Harleys. I believe in Germany W&S has a number on offer. I’m personally fond of the EL exhausts, with corrugated covers etc. Or alternately one like on Kiyo’s Knuckle to see it scroll down at the custom bikes section

  • clasqm

    For once, a bike on which Firestones actually look like they belong there …

  • Mike Punty

    Oh man, what a sweet bike. I’m really dig ‘in this. Very nice.

  • B. J. Parker

    As a lover of well done Milwaukees, hats off to you for this one! Great job on all the little details.

  • Davidabl2

    I have never before seen the oil tank made to look like a battery box before..and never a sight glass tube on an oil tank (smart) instead of on the gas tank (dumb)

    • Well spotted.

      • Davidabl2

        I have no doubt that there’d be more to spot in larger pictures….

        • the glass tube on the oil tank is vital.

          • Davidabl2

            So, does it confirm oil circulation as well as oil level?
            As I understand it IH engines depend on flowing lots of oil at low
            pressure rather than maintaining high oil pressure.

          • I mean, if you open the cover from the oil tank when the engine is running, then you can see how the oil is pumped back. Be careful !

  • Rocky Oechsner

    Is the iron head the same as a knuckle

    • Davidabl2

      One first appeared in1956, the other in 1936. Much evolution in-between the two. As much or more than in-between 1956 and today.
      Your confusion is understandable, as his Sporty now looks more like a ‘Knuck than like an Ironhead Sporty 🙂

      • Rocky Oechsner

        A yes or no would have done and I still don’t know so thanks for nothing….

  • Rocky Oechsner

    My bad it’s a sportster…:-(

  • Steve guttenburg

    I think it’s kind of funny that foreign builders (non-USA) are better at bringing out the beauty of Harley motors and bikes than most US builders. They tend to keep the classic lines (WWII and before) without the OCC (or any other chrome it And make it bigger customized builder) style. I feel like impractical rakes have run their course and this is a beautiful example why you don’t need to increase your turn radius to have a cool bike. The question remains, why do most Harley riders feel the need to “customize” there bike with overpriced parts that usually do to make the bike perform better and make the bike look like every other “custom”?

    • Steve guttenburg

      Sorry I meant to say “don’t make the bike perform better and make the bike look like every other “custom”?

      • arnold

        Three Men and a Baby was cute, but I will never admit to liking a chick flick.

        Good looking ride.

    • I’d make a joke about Police Academy, but I guess you’d get that ALL the time, yes?

    • for me is the engine of one of the most important components. If “customizing” many costly parts, the engine loses its value.

  • Chris Smith

    Muscular Harley Davidson – Very Impressed !!!
    But for Harley Davidson;s posters and Art, visit –

  • If someone is interested, that was the bike. Not quite my style.

    • Joshua Samuel

      well done you have made an incredibly beautiful bike. Please excuse my ignorance I have little understanding of what I am talking about about but did you engineer the front springer forks yourself or are they of an older bike or reproduction?

      • Hi Joshua, no the forks are reproduction of vintage harley forks. See knucklehead or flatheads.

  • hotti

    It seems as though there are some cool “old style” makers in Berlin?
    I know “metric custom” by pipeburn, like his work too!

  • Always love a set of Firestones on a Harley! Fantastic build chaps

  • noah doty

    who makes that bolt on hardtail?