We’ve mentioned EJ Potter before, known as the Michigan Madman and probably best known as the fellow who made exhibition runs during the ’60s at dragstrips all over the U.S. and overseas, on his homebuilt “Widow Maker” Chevy V8 powered motorcycles. We just finished reading his book, “EJ Potter, Michigan Madman,” and found those motorcycles were only one part of his unique career.
E.J., like a lot of us, started tinkering with engines pretty early in life. The difference is, he went a lot farther with a much more direct method of doing things. The idea of attaching a lawn mower engine to a bicycle made sense to the 10 year old Potter who also thought it was pretty cool when his mother clocked him at about 60mph by pacing him with the family Buick. He enjoyed the experience so much he developed a lifelong fascination with motorcycles, engines and speed and after retiring from the fastlane he decided to put his experiences down on paper.
The reader will notice right away the book is written in a “stream of consciousness” style. Things often appear without introduction or explanation and it’s hard to nail down exactly what happened first, you’ll find yourself running backwards and forward in time as EJ grabs whatever detail he needs to illustrate his current point. It fills out the story but every now and then you’ll find yourself scratching your head trying to fit the pieces together. If you stick with it, you’ll find an interesting and often humorous story of an amazingly capable mechanical problem solver but you’ll wonder how he ever survived.
E.J. Potter was from the “eyeball engineering” school of builders. You take metal, a welder, a selection of parts at hand and start building. If you have an engine first, you build something around it. His Chevy V8 motorcycles were a constantly evolving project. His first bike used an old Harley Davidson frame but he quickly progressed into custom frames built just for the purpose. There was an amazing amount of ingenuity involved in the building which was a constant, “find the problem, fix the problem” process. His homebuilt centrifugal clutch didn’t work so well which led to a direct drive system and his well known starting procedure where the engine was started while the motorcycle was on the rear stand and at the right tire speed, the stand was kicked out and off he went in a cloud of smoke.
It should surprise no one to know E.J. had some rather nasty accidents and when you read the details, the fact he’s around to tell the story means he had more than his share of good luck.
E.J.’s fascination with engines wasn’t confined to Chevy V8s. He built a trike powered by a Fairchild J-44 jet engine which was not the most successful of his projects. Beyond a near disaster while building it, the trike put E.J. in the hospital for a little while. But he did survive, … amazing.
There are a few really hilarious moments in the book, my particular favorite has to do with a pulse jet engine test in the box of a dump truck. It’s the uninformed roadside observers who make the story.
He also had a great love for the Allison V12, powerplant of choice for many WWII fighter planes. Obviously, this is no motorcycle engine, but cars? Why not? With E.J.’s help, it was
stuffed, crammed, carefully installed into everything from a 57 Plymouth 4 door sedan to a Dodge Dart station wagon. It’s amazing what you can do with determination and a welder.
E.J. eventually put the V12s into tractors for the new sport, at the time, of tractor pulling. He didn’t go for flashy paint and chrome which really upset his competitors every time he put their good looking rigs on the trailer with his “ugly tractors.” He even built a tractor (called “double ugly”) with a rare experimental Allison W24, which was essentially two V12s joined together, the thing was massive, but, with something on the order of 4000 horsepower, it did the job.
There’s a lot more to the story of E.J. Potter, but you might want to pick up his book and see for yourself. There are lots of old black and white photos of various machines plus some really early photos of E.J. It shows you don’t need a fancy garage, the best equipment and CAD software to build some pretty amazing machines, just an imagination and lots of effort.
UPDATE: E.J Potter R.I.P.
You can order the second edition of E.J. Potter, Michigan Madman, by calling 1-877-A-MAD-MAN (1-877-262-3626)
EJ also has a VHS tape available that shows many of his machines. EJ said you probably need to read the book to make much sense of the tape. The book is $24.00 plus $4.00 shipping. The tape is the same price.
You can also order the book and tape by sending a check made out to E.J. Potter to the address below:
PO Box 215
Ithaca, Michigan 48847
see also – The Kneeslider: E.J. Potter, The Michigan Madman