Fred "Iron Man" Ham was an early off-road racer, but became best known as a record-breaking long-distance rider of the 1930s. In 1936, Ham briefly revived interest in the almost-forgotten Three-Flag Record by riding from Canada to Mexico in just over 28 hours. A year later, Ham’s 24-hour solo record of 1,825 miles set on the Muroc Dry Lake (now part of Edwards Air Force Base) in 1937 spurred sales of Harley-Davidson’s newly designed EL-model, better known as the Knucklehead, and helped the company break out of the Depression sales slump.
Ham was born in Naarden, Holland, on June 22, 1908. He was raised on a family ranch in South Africa before he moved to America in 1930. Ham settled in Southern California and immediately took up motorcycling. He became a member of the Pasadena Motorcycle Club, which was known for promoting many of Southern California’s most prestigious races. One of those races was the Big Bear Run, which dated to the early 1920s and was one of the earliest off-road motorcycle races in the country.
Ham won the prestigious Big Bear Endurance Run in 1933 aboard a Harley-Davidson. He defended his victory in 1934, an event considered the most difficult Big Bear Run in the history of the race. The Big Bear traditionally started at midnight on New Years night. In 1934, the event was in danger of being called off because of record rainstorm that soaked Southern California. Roads were being washed out by mudslides, but several of the heartier riders, including Ham, convinced the organizers to proceed with the race. The race was flagged off and the brave competitors headed off into the night onto muddy mountain valley and desert roads.
Conditions were so bad that night it took the organizers and fans hours to drive back to the finish area. The last finisher made it back to the finish line at 10 p.m. the next night. As phone service and communication gradually returned to the area, organizers learned that Ham had made it back to the finish early that morning and had gone on to work.
Ham loved riding his motorcycles. He was seemingly in perpetual motion. Many people belived he became a motorcycle police officer so he could ride more. He once put his wife on a train to Chicago to visit relatives. When she stepped off the train in Chicago, Ham was there to greet her, having ridden from Los Angeles to Chicago just for the fun of it. He also was active in his local club and even served as commissioner of AMA district 37.
The legendary Cannonball Baker made the Three-Flag Endurance Run popular in the 1910s. In 1915, Baker rode from Canada to Mexico in just over 81 hours. That started a slew of imitators who reset the mark throughout the 1910s and early 1920s. By the mid-1920s, the AMA no longer recognized the record because it required running at illegal speeds over public roads and the Three-Flag was forgotten. Ham revived the idea in 1936. He organized dealers all along the West Coast to assist him with fueling along the route. Legendary engine man Bill Graves prepared a 1935 Harley-Davidson 74-inch knucklehead for the run.
Ham took his time riding from Los Angeles to the starting point at the border town of Blaine, Washington. He studied the roads and mapped out the best route. He began the record attempt by getting his route card stamped by Canadian border officials from Blaine, at 3 a.m. on August 30. He was chased by rain in the early hours of the morning, dodged police in Oregon, battled 100-degree heat in California’s Central Valley and insect swarms at night. Along the route Ham got so far ahead of schedule that his checkers frantically called ahead along the route to alert the other helpers. One dealer was awakened at the last minute and had to throw on an overcoat over his pajamas to meet Ham at the fueling stop. On the entire run, Ham was only stopped once by police in Anaheim, California, and when the officer learned what he was doing he waved him on.
Roy Artley, who set the Three-Flag records in the 1910s, waited at a roadside café near San Diego and was to escort Ham to the Mexican border. He sat drinking a cup of coffee when Ham went flying past. Artley ran out to his bike and pinned it to over 100 mph and eventually pulled alongside Ham. Ham looked over and smiled and the two riders lowered their heads for the final push to Mexico. At 7:07 a.m. on August 31, a Mexican border official signed the final entry on route card. Ham had covered 1,478 miles over twisty highways in 28 hours, 7 minutes, chopping over 10 hours off the existing record. While not officially recognized by the AMA, Harley-Davidson advertised the Three-Flag record extensively.
In April of 1937, Ham and a team of friends took a Harley to Muroc Dry Lake to attempt to break the 24-hour mileage record. In the months before the record attempt, Ham swam every night at a local YMCA and dropped from 210 to 180 pounds. He was also coached by former board track racing great Fred Ludlow on how to ride in the most aerodynamic position. Ludlow also taught him to relax his hands and arms while riding, something that would be very important over 24 hours of riding.
A giant, five-mile oval was laid out and Ham made several 100-mile trial runs. Bill Graves would then completely tear down the engine to check for any weak points. The airbox intake was re-routed higher to keep from taking in the dry lake dust, but other than that change and polishing of every engine part, the machine was stock.
Temperatures on the dry lake would vary from 30 degrees at night to the 90s during the day. Pot flares were ignited at night to mark the course. A full crew was assembled and an AMA referee was on hand to officiate the run. Ham began the record attempt at 2:20 in the afternoon. He had already been up for 24 hours by this time and Roy Artley and Fred Ludlow stood ready as relief riders should Ham need assistance.
Ham was to ride between 90 and 100 mph average. Signal boards were made to let him know if he needed to speed up, slow down or maintain his average. The crew later complained that it was almost always the slow down sign that was displayed.
The record run almost ended early in disaster. At the first pit stop, Ham overran the pit crew and hit a camera stand. Fortunately no damage was done and Ham re-entered the course. Throughout the 24 hours, the crew battled to overcome several mechanical problems. At one point, the primary chain stretched, overheated and had to be replaced. Because of the load created by the frozen primary chain the engine overheated and sparkplugs had to be replaced. In addition, several members of the crew fought to shovel loose sand off the vast course in places were the big Harley had broken through the hard crust of the lakebed. Despite these problems, Ham established a new 24-hour mileage record of 1,825 miles along with 44 other speed and distance records.
The 24-hour record helped found the legend of the Harley-Davidson Knucklehead. It spurred sales of the newly designed bike and helped Harley-Davidson recover from the Depression. The engine that set the record was put on display at Graves’ Harley shop before it was shipped to Harley-Davidson. Ham became known nationwide for this record.
For several years afterwards, Ham kept trying to rally another crew to make an attempt to crack the 2,000-mile mark, but with his record going unchallenged he couldn’t get anyone excited about another attempt. Ham even challenged other riders to try to break his 24-hour mark so he could make another attempt.
On December 9, 1940, just a few weeks before Ham was going to attempt some speed runs on the dry lake, he was killed in a traffic accident while on duty as a motor police officer in West Covina, California. His death shocked the motorcycling community. It was written that his funeral had the greatest procession of motorcycles ever assembled escorting him to his final resting place, Mountainview Cemetery.
Ham will always be remembered for his extraordinary feats of endurance on motorcycles. He certainly earned his nickname of Iron Man.