The word “custom,” as applied to motorcycles, only begins to scratch the surface of what the genre can be. Some people might install a few bolt-on parts, apply a wrap or a new paint job, and call it a day. Other people might do a complete 180 and build a totally new machine from the ground up.
It’s kind of funny that both bikes in this example can be considered ‘customs,’ but then again, English is weird. I’m not here to debate that, though. Instead, I’m here to tell you that the legendary RoaDog bike, originally built by William “Wild Bill” Gelbke back in the 1960s, is alive and well.
As a matter of fact, it might be in better shape than it’s been in a while. That’s because it found its way to Dale’s Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina.
For those unfamiliar with the Museum, its tagline says that it’s “the Museum that Runs.” It’s more than a tagline, though; it’s a simple statement of fact. WTT specialises in American vehicles, with a particular love for motorcycles. If something arrives at WTT and it isn’t running, then owner Matt Walksler and his staff will bring it into the workshop and do their best to fix it.
A Little RoaDog History
Now, about RoaDog. If you knew nothing about it, but you just happened to see a photo of it one day, you could be forgiven for thinking that it’s just a sculpture. Surely a thing that massive and ridiculous isn’t actually ridable, is it?
How ginormous is it? The RoaDog is about 17 feet (5,182 millimetres) long, and it reportedly weighs somewhere in the neighbourhood of 3,200 pounds (1,450 kilogram). Gelbke, an engineer by training, clearly built it because he could—but also because he wanted a capable, dependable, long-distance cruiser that would be totally happy to do a speed of 90 miles per hour indefinitely.
So, in 1965, Gelbke set to work building his dream machine. He took the 153 cubic inch, four-cylinder engine from a Chevy II, as well as a PowerGlide transmission. If you're a bike person who prefers cubic centimetres, that engine is approximately 2,507cc.
To that, he added a modified Chevy truck differential, and also went back to the bowtie brand for some Corvette disc brakes. Rather than try to hold up this behemoth with the usual motorcycle side or centre stands, he instead used a system of four hydraulic rams—two fore, two aft—to keep the RoaDog standing upright when parked.
Gelbke then spent years touring America on his new creation, racking up about 20,000 miles. The story shifts into the stuff of legend after that, as some reports say that he died in “a domestic dispute” and others say he died in a police shootout. In any case, after his death, the RoaDog disappeared—but Buzz Walneck (of Walneck’s Motorcycle Swap Meets fame) eventually tracked it down at Gelbke’s mom’s house.
He owned the RoaDog for a while, but eventually it ended up in the hands of another collector. That person then donated it to the National Motorcycle Museum in Sturgis, South Dakota (and later Anamosa, Iowa).
The RoaDog’s Resurgence In 2023
Unfortunately for motorcycle history fans in the US, the National Motorcycle Museum in Anamosa, Iowa announced earlier in 2023 that it was closing its doors forever in September. As a result, it planned to auction off all its motorcycles, memorabilia, and associated items—including the legendary RoaDog.
Someone bought this bike from the museum, but then didn’t even take it out of the trailer before agreeing to sell it to Sean from the YouTube channel Bikes and Beards. Sean, who’s friends with Matt Walksler, immediately knew who he needed to bring this bike to in order to get it running again.
Thus, this video—where Wheels Through Time not only gets the bike running, but they go for a ride on the thing. It’s both fascinating and terrifying, and both guys that ride it count it among one of the scariest things they’ve ever done. Turning looks like a nightmare—and indeed, Sean says that turning left is more difficult than turning right, they figure because of how the differential is positioned.