TESTOSTERONE CAFÉ – Ray Drea’s tribute to Willie G. Davidson

There is no question that even on a quick glance, this incredible café racer looks back to the original 1977 Harley-Davidson XLCR production bike, but this café wasn’t just built by any fan of the factory model. This story is much more interesting so lets back up and put together a picture of the builder behind the bike, Ray Drea, to better understand his talents and achievements.

Like many young kids who had parents into motorcycles (or maybe just “OK” with motorcycles), Ray Drea got an early start on 2-wheels. One advantage Ray had on the other kids was that his older brother Don was into customizing and he took Ray along for the ride. By 1972, at the age of 10, Ray was working with him in the garage and within 2-years, he was doing base paint and flame-jobs on Sportster tanks. Pin striping and lettering quickly followed and by 14, his skills earned him an afterschool job in a conversion shop painting murals on vans. As a teenager, he was juggling this van work with the freelance paint jobs he did on bikes out of his home garage. Ray was clearly as industrious as he was talented!

A fateful coincidence happened during Ray’s first year High School art class when he and a fellow student, Michael Davidson, became good friends. You see Michael was the son of Nancy and Willie G. Davidson and great grandson of Harley-Davidson co-founder William A. Davidson. This link to the Davidson family had a profound effect on his future as became evident after Willie saw a custom gas tank Ray painted in an art show. Willie was so impressed he asked Ray to come into the HD Design studio to paint a one-off tank for a dealer incentive bike. Then, while he was there, he asked him to stripe the prototype of what would become the 1981 FLH Heritage Bagger. Not bad for a high school kid!

The following years saw Ray’s career develop as a self-taught freelance graphic designer, full time commercial artist and then after turning 31, a salaried position in the design studio right beside Willie G.  Eventually, after Willie’s retirement in 2012, Ray became the Chief Stylist of Motorcycling, which was his title when he took on this café racer project.

The possibility of building a café first came up on one of my visits to Milwaukee when I was having lunch with Willie G. and Ray, just after Willie’s retirement and I asked Willie to loan me his #0001 1977 XLCR that he proudly displayed at his home for my cafe racer exhibition titled “Ton Up! Speed, Style and Cafe Racer Culture”. I knew Willie had a policy of not loaning bikes out, but to my delight, he did agree and then I turned to Ray and mentioned that I would love for him to build a custom for the same event. As I expected, Ray just smiled and put it on the long finger while mentioning his new responsibilities and workload. Little was I expecting a follow-up when 6-months later, Ray called to say he was in and would use this opportunity to pay tribute to his mentor by reflecting on Willie’s original café design. How awesome was this! 

For this custom café, Ray knew a Harley-Davidson XR1000 would be the perfect point of departure. The factory built 998cc air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin was based on the XR750 racer and claimed 70hp at 5,600rpm in the 1,000 cc bundle, and Harley also offered a hop-up kit that they claimed would bring it up to 90hp. More than anything else, it had just the right attitude Ray wanted to start with. As he describes it, “The visuals of the motor just screams Testosterone!” and with this in mind, he found a 1984 donor bike (actually a slightly customized one in good condition,) from which he kept just the engine and frame. “I also found a prototype tank for a XR750 in the design department that was never used that proved to be a great starting point for the new tank. 

After coming up with his design for the bike, Ray collaborated with the very talented Lock Baker of Eastern Fabrications in Connecticut on the skins, oil tank and exhaust and the equally talented Mike Lange of Milwaukee (Ray’s home town) to do motor work, additional fab and assembly.  As a bike designer used to working on production bikes, Ray approached this a bit differently then many customizers would. He sketched out his vision (Ray is an amazing artist!) that basically “tightened the overall package and refined the lines.” The aluminum gas tank and rear section were shortened, he cleaned up the left side with a late model primary cover, switched over to carbon fiber wheels and went fatter with the rubber, used a flush mount aviation grade fuel cap and basically used the finest ingredients throughout (Brembo brakes, inverted Showa forks and many parts from Harley’s P&A). The motor remained the centerpiece with the beautiful mat-finish intakes on the dual carbs and perfectly formed exhaust tucked so neatly into the left side and overall, Ray kept a simple yet very elegant palette of gloss and flat blacks, and then substituted “electroless” nickel where you would normally find chrome or other bright parts. 

The toughest part of this build for Ray was dealing with long-distance fab work on the east coast, but even this wasn’t bad as the prototype XR750 tank was sent to Lock Baker along with diagrams, “to show what I was looking for in the new tank he was welding together for me,” said Ray. There was plenty of back and forth with photos and phone calls, but in the end, it was all worth it. Ray particularly liked how Lock did the exhaust, how it hugged the left side so tightly and how it showed off his incredible welding skills. As Ray told me, “so many craftsman came up and said they had never seen such fine welding.” Keep in mind, that after Lock finished welding the gas tank, it was polished and black (transparent) candy paint was applied directly to the polished aluminum. No covering mistakes there!

Of course, getting it to the exhibition on time proved a bit tricky as well. Ray missed the free bike transport I provide for the exhibit and ended up having to pull an all-nighter to get it to Sturgis by the Saturday morning grand opening 865 miles away. How’s that for dedication and being true to your word!

After the bike was finished and Ray rode it a bit to get the kinks out, Willie G asked, “what are you going to do with that bike?” to which Ray responded that he would sell it so he could move on to another project. Willie’s response, “it meant a lot to me that you built it,” eventually led to a deal being struck. The last Ray saw of it was when he dropped it off at Willie’s house and Willie jumped right on it to test her out around the neighborhood. He returned with a big grin on his face and now the bike is a proud addition to the esteemed Willie G. collection. What a great ending – What a great story!

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