Looking through the 120+ year history of motorcycle design, with hundreds of different brands, probably thousands of unique offerings, you’d think everyone could find what they want. But unsatisfied, some riders still feel the need to venture into custom bike building. William “Wild Bill” Gelbke was one of those who needed more, bigger and different in his personal ride.
Much like Friedl Munch, designer of the Munch Mammoth, Bill went outside motorcycling for his engine. From 1966 to 1973, Munch used a range of four cylinder NSU car engines. Gelbke employed a four cylnder Chevrolet II car engine, its PowerGlide transmission and a cut down Chevy truck differential moving power to a chain driving a wide rear wheel.
Standing next to RoaDog, permanently on display at the National Motorcycle Museum you may sense Gelbke was schooled in engineering, but he also worked at McDonnell Douglas in California. Needing outlets for his motorcycle building passion, he also had bike shops in Illinois and Indiana. Taking all he was worth, the restless inventor sought to build a dependable, long distance cruiser, even start production on them.
Probably not finding any available component up to the task, Gelbke designed his own massive leading link, or “Earles” type fork, similar to those on Greeves and BMW motorcycles. His aviation experience lead Bill to use chrome moly steel tubing for the very long frame which is nicely bent and welded. (Just imagine laying out the components, frame pieces and building this in your shop.)
Gelbke is said to have racked up 20,000 miles in the first year RoaDog was on the road, and given the lack of high tech we see in today’s bikes, teething issues were few. Then, with Gelbke’s death due to a domestic dispute, RoaDog went into hiding.
Buzz Walneck, publisher and swap meet promoter, knew of the bike from its early days and went on a hunt to locate it, asking his readers for tips. RoaDog, it turned out was with Gelbke’s mother, safe in a garage. Up for a challenge, Buzz bought RoaDog, made the machine roadworthy and set about learning to ride it, which is captured in a video. Buzz refreshed us all on what its like to ride it using four hydraulic jack/stands, and planning turns around its 17 foot length, limited steering lock and shear mass; RoaDog is reported to weigh almost 3300 pounds, more than the entire car its engine came from!
As did Munch, Gelbke wanted a fast, comfortable touring bike, able to take him great distances. Munch went into limited production and today his interesting machines, using almost entirely designed to purpose components, are highly sought after. Gelbke made a few versions of his design, each more refined than the last but never realized his dream. But we can appreciate the man and his machines when we walk the length of RoaDog noting his use of available components combining them in an interesting way using his engineering and fabrication skills. Colorful, creative and ambitious describe this man who was also, no doubt, one highly skilled rider!
If you’d like a copy of Buzz Walneck’s detailed book about RoaDog, “WildBill” Gelbke, the Museum Store has a copy ready for you.
Leave a ReplyWant to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!
Did Buzz Walneck sell it or donate it to the museum? I know he loved that thing and can’t imagine him parting with it.
RoaDog was sold to a collector by Walneck, who in turn felt the National Motorcycle Museum was a good place for it to be on display.
Thanks for your note.
I thought it was at a HD dealer near Greenbay? , near Nueske’s smokehouse. It was on a Wheels Through Time show on Velocity a few years back.
There are several RoaDogs, owned by different people and kept at a few different locations. I believe the one on display at the National Motorcycle Museum is one of Gelbke’s first and perhaps the longest.
Thanks for your note.
I just did a search and the HD dealer I seen on the Velocity.wheels Through Time show was Docs HD. http://www.docshd.com/classic-car-cycle-museum.htm
Nice to see the Roadog is in safe keeping. I will need to visit to see it in person. One of Wild Bills other bikes is was owned by a friend of mine. He was a good friend of Gelbke and has a smaller version. Wild Bill was a geniuses.
I appreciate the history lesson. I look forward to seeing This awesome bike in person..
The Roadog on display at the National Motorcycle Museum is the second Roadog that Wild Bill Gelbke constructed between1969-1970. It was constructed for a friend of Wild Bills but the friend thought it was too massive to handle so Wild Bill kept it in storage unused. The original Roadog (depicted in the famous picture with Wild Bill sitting on it) was purchased from Wild Bills mother by a Green Bay man and owned for many years before he sold it to Docs Harley Davidson of Bonduel Wisconsin. It was owned by Docs for a very short period of time and was sold to a northern Wisconsin private collector.
There were only two Roadogs ever constructed. At first glance the two Roadogs appear to be the same but closer investigation will reveal the many differences. One of the most telling differences is the rear swing arm of the original Roadog. It employs a very different and more massive design used for stabilization of the rear wheel.
People say there are numerous Roadog bikes. The post from Anthony in 2016 is correct, there are ONLY TWO. The original is all raw material and looks like a rat rod with very little paint on it. The collector is in Minocqua, WI.(NW part of state). heard he was going to open a museum. The bikes Bill started producing
were much smaller called Auto Fours. Doc’s Harley had one of those too. Don’t know if he sold that one with the Roadog or if he still has it.
The real story on Bill’s death: Back in 1978 (I was16) Bill lived out by Bay Port High School which was a rural area by Green Bay, WI at the time. Bill was on a out building on his property firing a pistol into the air to try to quiet a neighbors dog that irritated him. The Sheriffs Dept was called and when they arrived shots were exchanged between Bill and two of the Deputies. Bill was shot and died. Bill had a dispute with the Sheriffs Dept. To this day some say it was murder, some say it was self-defense. These are true facts. Bill was my Fathers(alive at 79) Lifetime friend from 1st grade on and long time family friend ours until his death in1978 he was 42. Sadly missed.
I visited the museum last fall as a side trip. Not knowing what to expect, this beast was one of the first things I saw. I thought my head was going to explode.
I had my 1971 Rokon Trail-Breaker 2WD off road bike on the back of my truck and had a fun conversation in the parking lot with a fellow who remembered them. It sure would be fun to see stuff like this in the museum, too. Rokon is still in business.
I could swear I saw this bike in a museum in Glasgow, Montana around 1996 or so. I don’t believe I’ve ever been to the National Motorcycle Museum, but I remember it down to the beer cans stuck on the top of the steering.
Many thanks for this link! It is indeed a most fascinating story and someday I would like to see the Roadog in person. It would be interesting to see some info on the Auto Fours too, I had never heard of those until today. I must comment a bit on any comparison between the Munch and the Roadog. I was, in fact, a dealer for the Munch in 1973 and had one for some time. Aside from both using a car motor and both having two wheels there is just about nothing in common between them. It’s fun to make comparisons such as that, but there really is no similarity other than what I mentioned. Regards,
Would love to have known the man. Anytime you design something around existing materials, which can be easily sourced, you have already put limitations on the final design.
Knowing all this Wild Bill built a machine design to consume highway miles, in large doses.
Here we are, almost 50 years later, with most looking for sweeping lines, flashing paint, and top speeds nearing 200mph, that need rear tire replacement every 3 thousand milled or so.
And are inherently uncomfortable.
And here is the Road of, and an interstate highway system linking this country like never before…
Someone, I would if I could, pick up the torch, and expand upon this idea.
500+ mile days on the Interstate at 70-80mph, with passenger, and a couple hundred pounds of camping gear and essentials…
If you could get past the idea that it’s not a super flashy BMW or Honda Gold Wing, you, at least I KNOW I would have, seen more of the country, had more fun, and saved a ton of money( the DIY homebuilders), on something like this, than any bike I could have bought in my 50 year riding history…
I saw a bike like this in Hayden Idaho just north of Coeur’d Alene when I lived there. I passed it frequently and it was parked out in front of the house. Once, I saw it at the tavern down the street on the corner on Route 95.