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Interest blossoms for wildly customized Harley

Robert Vanderlick's extra-long, vastly customized Harley-Davidson is to motorcycles what Arnold Schwarzenegger is to actors.

Neither bike nor actor will win cross-country races or play Hamlet, but oh, how they can flex!

In the past four years, the bike has won top prizes at motorcycle shows, including the renowned U.S. show at Daytona and the great European gathering at Bremen, Germany.

Do they appreciate Harley at Daytona? "Oh, wow, they go bologna about them," Vanderlick says. "Meaning they love 'em like they love bologna, which couldn't be any more love."

Bike shows are like dog shows: no racing; a learned judge just walks around and looks and ponders.

What the judge sees in Vanderlick's entry is a vast and ancient amount of Harley. The bike is a 1953 model that Vanderlick bought in 1962 for $400. A blacksmith and welder, he applied his special talents to his bargain.

"First, I made a place for my wife, Barbara, to ride with me," he says. "I cut the bike in half and added 2 feet to the middle and a new leather seat. She still rides with me, 35 years later, to biker nights at (the) Turtle Club and (the) Wing House.

"I've never driven it full speed," he continues. "We cruise at 55, though it could probably hit 100. But I've never been interested in speed. It wouldn't be good for the engine."

At the beginning, he added a hand-forged stainless steel deck in back, bringing the weight to 1,000 pounds, the length to 11 feet, 6 inches.

"They don't get any longer," he says grimly.

Vanderlick, 59, and his daughter Michelle, also a blacksmith, run Van Arc Welding, a shop just off the Pinellas Trail in Palm Harbor. The bike holds court in Vanderlick's garage in Dunedin.

You never saw such a glorious contraption. The size is only the setting. It is the embellishments that light up the stage.

Decorous curlicues grow out of the handlebars. Leaves and vines decorate pedal guards, climb rear wheels. Somehow nothing looks overdone. Everything grows seamlessly from the original parts.

Nothing overdone? Maybe that 2-foot rear deck gets a little pushy. But it's a lovely piece of work. A vine and leaf grille protects the back seat. Three-foot-high fins point evilly toward whatever might be following the bike.

Under the fin points are four lower fins, pointing up at the three and covering four exhaust pipes.

The basic work was done while Vanderlick still lived in New Hampshire. He never got into showing the bike up there. "Didn't think much about it," he says. "Bike shows weren't as big as they are in Florida."

The family moved to Pinellas County in 1982, opened the smithy in Palm Harbor

and put the bike in storage. There it stayed until four years ago.

"It just lay there like Sleeping Beauty, getting better looking all the time and nobody to see her," Vanderlick says. "Or maybe like an annuity you can't touch till it matures.

"Anyway, Harleys began to go through the roof in price, especially antique Harleys like this one," he says. "I'll never sell this one, but I like to show it off."

The blacksmith tradition goes on in the family. Vanderlick's uncles were in the trade. His father taught him welding. Now he has his first grandson, daughter Michelle's son, Andrew, who is 6 months old.

"We'll start that boy young," Vanderlick says. "When he's 3, 4 years old, I'm going to start teaching him welding."

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