Big Twin Cafe Racer: “The Flying Duck”

Softail Cafe Racer

Sometimes a motorcycle becomes so deeply involved and entangled with our personal history that it becomes a part of our life story — an integral part of who we are.  Such is the case with this 1993 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic, the personal bike of our friend Francesco Tutino of Francis Von Tuto Moto Works, whose Honda CB400F scrambler and Yamaha XT250 “Dragonfly” we’ve previously featured.

Softail Cafe Racer

Francesco originally purchased the bike in early 2013 after migrating from his home country of Italy to Brisbane, Australia, and landing a position as an auto tech in a dealership. He’d been forced to sell his previous Harley, a ’74 ironhead, back in Italy due to financial hardship, so he was thrilled to be back on an HD, even if it was a big twin!

“I ended up spending all my savings into it…turning it into a homemade bobber while I kept riding like a lunatic to feed the hoon in me, scraping pegs and keeping up with sportbike riders during my weekend fangs. Loved the thing, had heaps of fun!”

Softail Cafe Racer

Unfortunately, on December 1, 2013, he lost the front wheel and went hard into a guard rail. Fortunately, he could walk away, but the bike was another story. Instead of writing off the wreckage and taking the insurance money, Francesco took a different path:

“I wanted it to come back to life as a sort of a costly lesson for me (very costly), and it was also the perfect occasion to built something upstream with some FVT character!”

Softail Cafe Racer

He knew a giant big twin with the technology of a WWII tank, originally designed to cruise on long American roads, was not exactly the ideal candidate for a cafe racer, but it was his bike and the only one he had.  Game on!

At the time, he was living in a shared house with no garage, so he brought his toolbox home from work, stripped the bike down, and store the parts in boxes in his bedroom until he had everything back from powdercoating and could assemble the rolling chassis, which sat for weeks in front of his window. Now that’s dedication!

Softail Cafe Racer

Below, Francesco dives into the nitty-gritty details of the build. He rebuilt the 80-inch engine from scratch and the bike has a bit of Frankenstein’s soul:

“There are basically six main items from five motorcycles of four different brands that together create the long and low flowing profile of the bike…”

What’s more, he was able to shave more than 175 pounds from the big cruiser!

“Well, after the ‘Francis Diet,’ The Flying Duck now weighs 266 kg — 80kg less from its original configuration.”

Softail Cafe Racer

When faced with a decision whether to follow the established path or take a wilder fork in the road, he remember the advice of one of Italy’s bike-building legends, Mr. Martini, who once told him:

“Build something different, don’t do the same as everyone else, otherwise you’ll never build anything really Special!”

While Francesco admits that upgraded suspension, clip-ons, and rearsets don’t transform a big Milwaukee tractor into a lithe little canyon dancer, he loves the character, geometry, and soul of the bike. It’s a machine that’s deeply entangled with his own life and history — truly a part of him.

“This bike was bought with the money I made out of hard work after going through those above mentioned tough times, it marks the start of a journey that I want to keep travelling, it’s mine and it will be for a long time.”

Softail Cafe Racer

Below, we let Francesco give you the full story and details on “The Flying Duck.”

Softail Cafe Racer: Builder Interview

Softail Cafe Racer

• What’s the make, model, and year of the bike?

1993 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Classic.

• Why was this bike built?

I’ve bought this bike in march 2013, as soon as I’ve found a position as tech in a Brisbane southside car dealership. (I have no passion for cars at all but that’s another story…that job paid the bills so, let’s go ahead!) At the time, it was a very original white and grey with red pinstripes Heritage Softail — studded saddles, windscreen, fog lights…the whole 350 kg lot.

Softail Cafe Racer

This isn’t my first Harley. In Italy where I’m originally from, I used to have a 1974 ironhead, but I had to sell it a couple of years later in 2009 due to my poor financial situation…

After migrating to Australia in late 2012 and spending the first four months in regional Victoria driving a crappy VR Berlina I needed a ride so bad but I wasn’t planning on spending anything close to whatever a good HD big twin was worth, then that Heritage somehow popped up during my gumtree search. I ended up spending all my savings into it, then slowly started modifying it, swapping tins, turning it into a homemade bobber meanwhile kept riding like a lunatic to feed the hoon in me, scraping pegs and keeping up with sportbike riders during my weekend fangs. Loved the thing, had heaps of fun!

Softail Cafe Racer

This went on for a few months until December 1st, 2013, the day that I irredeemably lost the front on a washout , steering close on me and in no time me and the bike were down and crashed into a guard rail. Luckily I ended up under it but stopped before hitting the rails myself — otherwise that would have ended bad! So I could stand up and walk away. The bike? Different story. It took three of us to move it from underneath the blades; it was a mess but I didn’t want to give up on it. If insurance would have got involved, due to the year and the market value they probably would have write it off and cash settle me — I decided to keep it instead.

Softail Cafe Racer

The reasons were twofold… I blamed no one but myself for the incident, I was going way too fast for the obvious limit of the bike so I wanted it to come back to life as a sort of a costly lesson for me (very costly), and it was also the perfect occasion to built something upstream with some FVT character! I really wanted it to represent me.

Softail Cafe Racer

Café racers have always been my favourite style of customs because you can bond retro/classic style with race-oriented solutions — clip ons, rear sets, single seat, improved suspensions, etc — and this movement started as garage-made modifications, so it sounded perfect to me.

Softail Cafe Racer

I also always wanted to build my own bike from scratch, which I’ve tried a couple of times in the past, but my head was all into my own shop working on customers’ bikes so I never saw the end of those projects. I know that Harleys in general aren’t a good start when you want cornering and to be efficient through winding roads…especially older softails, but that was my bike so the challenge was on!

• What was the design concept and what influenced the build?

This was is my first-ever complete custom build, so I wanted to include elements from two bikes that I used to dream about when I was a kid. One was in a ridiculously small picture listed on a second hand bikes magazine as an unfinished project, pretty bad picture as well but showed a Sportster with blue tank and 16-inch front tyre — that’s all I remember from it. The other is a tuff and very low early evo dyna-based racer built by Piero, a long-gone Florence HD legend (RIP) — a bike which I found out only last year still roars through the Tuscany hills, slightly modified since the day it was exposed in Piero’s shop window, but still so beautifully old school.

Softail Cafe Racer

• What custom work was done to the bike?

Not much has been added, a lot of parts were removed!

I’ve never had the bike on a scale when stock standard so I can only rely on the figure I’ve found on the web, which is 326.0 kg DRY WEIGHT, so give and take 350 wet. Well, after the “Francis Diet,” The Flying Duck now weights 266 kg, 80kg less from its original configuration.


It is worth mentioning that at the time my custom adventure began I was living in a sharehouse which didn’t have a garage but only a carport, so I used to bring my toolbox home from work every weekend, stripped it down to bits, made a few boxes and stored the whole lot in my room then once frame and other bits got back from powder coating I reassembled the rolling chassis, which sat in front of my window for few weeks.

Softail Cafe Racer

Not long after the roller was back together I finally found a house with a proper garage where I could wrench in peace, buy shitload of tools and feel free to hammer and run the compressor the whole night without getting bothered by the neighbours.

ENGINE: It was and still is the stock 80ci, but being a 1993 with over 60.000ks on the clock, I couldn’t leave it as factory assembled it. Some gaskets started to fail and leak oil, plus the wrinkle paint was flaking off here and there. So I pulled it completely apart and rebuilt it with genuine HD conrods, bearings, and bushes (the only parts I couldn’t assemble myself but local legend Ollie Logan was very helpful), then main bearings, piston rings, gasket and seals. Andrews 27 camshaft and adjustable pushrods have been installed, cylinder head have been mildly ported, shaved, new valve seats cut. Compression ratio is pretty high and after the second genuine HD battery let me down I actually had to fit a lithium battery to make sure it will start all the time, and this motocell lithium unit is also 3 times lighter than the standard one.

Softail Cafe Racer

While looking for the perfect tuning I went through three different carburetors and setups — between CV S&S and Ultima, velocity stacks, and so on, but found the best solution fitting an S&S Super E and teardrop filter.

Softail Cafe Racer

The exhaust system is a 2-into-1 bought secondhand from a totally unexpected “paesano” down in Melbourne and performs way better than the first set of pipes I made, which were singles with no crossover on a high setup and Kerker mufflers. I used to call them leg toaster — very beautiful but not really the best after all.

Softail Cafe Racer

More than once I found myself very close to fitting a big bore kit, but in the end I’ve never really felt the need for it… It’s then a different story when we talk CDI… A Screaming Eagle box replaced the stock unit an the motor now revs up to 8000 rpm! Bike goes pretty wild to be a 1340cc.

Softail Cafe Racer

During one of my latest “Test Run” I wasn’t able to read the tacho clearly but judging by how my bones and teeth were shaking I’m pretty sure I had still a fair way before to hit max rpm, and still recorded a 184kph max speed in fifth on a pretty short ratio gearing.

AESTHETICS: There are basically six main items from five motorcycles of four different brands that together create the long and low flowing profile of the bike…

Starting from the front end going backwards, we’ve got a Victory Hammer front guard, the original Heritage headlight mounted under the triple clamp rather than on top to lower it and give it more solid look, and a perspex top fairing obtained using the central part of a Kawasaki Nomad 1500 windscreen.

Softail Cafe Racer

The tank is off a Honda CB400 Super Sport, which has been restored with new linen and genuine Honda fuel tap, and reshaped to enhance the knee cutaways. Then we find the beautifully made Lepera seat off a Dyna Street Bob to end on the modified Softail Heritage rear guard, shortened and reshaped to finish shorter than the wheelbase. The taillight is NOS from 1972 Ducati bevel and the slick chromed indicators were chosen from the Custom Chrome catalogue.

Softail Cafe Racer

To fit the non-Heritage bodywork, I decided not to modify the frame, but instead to fabricate custom brackets, the seat in particular sitting way higher from its original position is now resting on a tubular frame specifically made to suit, which is hidden by two steel side covers.

Softail Cafe Racer

I’m not a big fan of chrome, I like polished parts and shiny bits, but black for me is so much sexier! And after sandblasting, that’s the colour I’ve chosen in gloss for chassis components, rims and hubs, engine and box. Crankcases and barrels have been resprayed in 2pak — everything else has been powder coated.

The bodywork features a Ford blue base colour, with a gloss black band in the centre and thick white pinstripe. My first thought was a metal flake colour, a real headtuner like candy gold or purple. But in the end I’ve chosen an old-school paint scheme — People would need to look at the bike for its particularity, not for the flashy paintjob…

Softail Cafe Racer

I made sure there weren’t any Harley badges or writing left — it’s already pretty obvious it comes from Milwaukee. Also a custom build is of course about the donor bike / base chosen, but I’d say it’s more interesting to know who built it and where to find him. So I’ve used the tank to highlight my name as builder using a similar style to “Black Death” (Mickey Rourke’s bike in Harley Davidson & the Marlboro Man movie). The angry duck in the center is a childwood memory — I always wanted that sticker. In the 90s it was very popular, that duck is also my favourite character — he’s very tempermental but he’s a big-hearted dude.

Softail Cafe Racer

The profile look is completed by two fat 5.00 16 Firestone Champion Deluxe tyres — so chunky and old school!

CHASSIS CONTROLS AND BRAKES: I’ve left the chassis stock purpose — fewer problems with cops and homologations. Fully powder-coated in gloss black, same as the wheels. I replaced the front rim which was bent, powder-coated rims and hubs, new bearings and spokes.

Back to the racer part, what’s better than clipons and rearsets? The usual problems with clipons is the width of the softail tank and the “I’m having a dump posture” in case forward controls are used — issues that I won’t have to worry about after fitting a way narrower CB400 Four tank and making my own rear sets.

Softail Cafe Racer

Due to the long primary case, I have to start building the rear set from the pillion peg mounts using some old workshop leftovers from Road King and Dyna control kits. The target was to try and hide the linkage and rods as much as I could, so I did cut a groove through the battery box to allow the shifter rod to travel free and fitted the whole shifter assembly behind the primary, completed with standard Sportster rubber pegs. For the brake side I’ve bent and shaped a steel bracket to fit a modified ZX6R brake pedal and a Brembo master cylinder from a Ducati Monster.

The suspension are the standard forklegs at the front, fully rebuilt and lately upgraded with Progressive springs and gold valves. On the rear, the old standard and by now dangerous shocks were replaced with top-notch Progressive suspension with remote preload adjuster, so I can finally enjoy a good working rear end that doesn’t feel like a squeaky piece of wood.

Softail Cafe Racer

Talking about tricky bits, the brakes chapter gets interesting. The standard disc with single piston calipers had their time. While surfing the net I’ve found that Alth Brakes in northern Italy makes beautiful 330 floating discs, love at first sight! Then I was on the hunt for a nice, possibly Italian as well caliper, and found a set of two hardly-used black Brembo 4 pistons from the wrecker. Instantly I remembered about an insane Boss Hoss that I saw in a Custom & Special magazine over 20 years ago. That beast in the mag had two Performance Machine 6-piston calipers on each disc — good inspiration, but my Harley weighs way less than a 350 chevy monster, so 8-pistons on a single disc were already more than enough…maybe too much!

Then I recalled the words of “The Bikebuilder with the Hat,” Mr. Nicola Martini, who once told me: “Build something different, don’t do the same as everyone else, otherwise you’ll never build anything really Special!” And instantly I sent the order through, the two calipers were on their way!

Softail Cafe Racer

Once I’ve got all the components, disc, two calipers, a nissin master cylinder and braided lines — I fit them so the braking circuit was in pressure and working, then sourced the right aluminium and brought the whole front end to my friend Craig, a trustworthy welder, and started working on it. It took me something like 40 hours from setting up the brakes, cutting the old brackets, fabricating the new supports for the twin calipers, welding and dialing them in — it wasn’t an easy task but the result is neat and very efficient!

To complete the brakes mission, the blessing comes with a tricky GMA aluminium-machined pulley with integrated floating disc and dedicated 4-piston caliper found secondhand on eBay only two streets down from where I used to live. What a lucky score! Especially being nearly two grand RRP!

Softail Cafe Racer

The only downside of fitting this pulley is the dimension itself — having a larger diameter than stock, it shortens the final drive ratio. Luckily my engine setup delivers enough power to make it still very enjoyable. I’m definitely not a big rubber burner, but it’s easy to feel the rear end slip during hot take offs.

This last accessory gave the build a very cool feature –on the left hand side, there are two powerful brakes with massive rotors, which nearly fill up the whole 16-inch rim diameters. On the right side, to remedy the missing disc now included in the belt pulley assembly, I bought a hub cover to match the front one, took some measurements, drew a flange and had it machined out of a solid aluminium bar to fit the cover. These two little black cups at first sight look like drum brakes, which looks very old school compared with hi performance brakes and machined goods on the opposite side.

Softail Cafe Racer

• Does the bike have a nickname?

I’ve named this bike “The Flying Duck.” Reason is, when I first came to Brisbane and started working in dealerships with locals my English was pretty terrible despite that I thought I had fair language skills. After a few weeks, I started feeling like part of the team and it came natural to mock the queenslander slang — one day during lunch break, a colleague told me that I sound like “the spaghetti version of Donald Duck.” So this explains the Duck, and flying, well this bike does really flies!!

Softail Cafe Racer

• Can you tell us what it’s like to ride?

Well guys, no one rather than me ever rode it and probably never will, but I’m going to be 100% honest. Actually my mate Alex (Skinny’s Garage) — the guy who shares his motorcycle workshop with me — did a few laps around the block when helping me tune the last carburetor installed and he said it scared him! Which leaves it to interpretation, but I like the fact that a big blue duck could scare an expert motorcycle rider, ahah!

Anyway… I took a long, heavy, slow bike with pretty much the same technology as a WWII tank, which was made to cruise on long American roads, and I’ve converted it into a racer. If you think it’s going to ride like a sportbike just because its got upgraded suspension, clipons and raised rearsets, you’re way far from reality — it’s not a bike for everyone! Handlebars and tyres makes it heavier than normal to steer.

Softail Cafe Racer

I’ve mentioned it before but for those who didn’t read the article on my XT, I need to clarify the tyres matter: these Firestone Champion Deluxe are a very faithful replica of tyres which were first produced over 80 years ago, so even if they look so cool they flex and reach their square-ish edge easily, they definitely work the best on heavy bikes like this and in the sizes I’m running, but I had to inflate them to over 45 psi to get some feeling…like on a pre-war car! Sidewalls are very tall and they’ve got no carcass at all, I’ve reached good leaning angle and had some good corner speed riding on these tyres only because I enjoy to push the limit, not because they’re any good.

Indeed they are also very dangerous if you need to correct cornering lines — ABSOLUTELY UNFORGIVING — probably the only advantage is the they weigh half of the standard Dunlop, guess why…

Softail Cafe Racer

Anyway, despite that they certainly aren’t improving the handling, they’re so beautiful I can’t get rid of them. I will definitely keep them on until they wear out, then I may try a set of similar-designed Avon or Shinko, but judging on the fact that I rode less than 5000ks in four years, I’ll probably be 60 by then and in the end, it wasn’t built for comfort, but I still occasionally go for my 300ks up mountain rides and always come back with a smile.


Over these last four years I’ve made a lot of improvements. I recently pushed it to over 180 kph before running out of track, but I’m sure there’s more considering the short gearing currently running! The massive brakes are playing a crucial role especially when speeding, front brake is definitely over engineered and despite the forklegs on this old Evo are way beefier than the later models, it increased the twist on the forks on heavy braking — which, by the way, it’s pretty normal for single-sided brakes. I may fabricate a fork brace in the future…sure thing is that they work! Plenty of braking power and very modulable!

Softail Cafe Racer

The new seat and controls position completely changed the riding geometry, the pegs are a long way back and you’re absolutely laid on the tank. When first built, it was suffering from speed wobbling and weight transfer while braking, although the choice for performance aftermarket options is very limited for Softails in general, these problems were later solved by fitting the best suspension available on the market — once they were set up correctly, I could start enjoying the ride.

Another thing that I really love about it is how narrow it is, as long as you run the mirrors under the bars it makes it the perfect lane splitting machine. I know it’s used as a metaphor, but the clip-ons literally gives me the feeling of holding the bull by its horn!

Yes, in the end, it’s not an easy one, sometimes difficult, but like everything with a strong character, it makes you work your way to satisfaction. No Pain? NO GAIN!

• Was there anything done during this build that you are particularly proud of?

Softail Cafe Racer

Well what can I say? I started building it in my room ’cause I didn’t have a garage at the time, I made the phoenix rise again from its ashes, and put a 20 year-old dream into a running machine.

Another aspect I enjoy about it was recycling parts from different bikes — it gives this bike a bit of Frankenstein’s soul. The base started from a big long bike that disgracefully ended its days, brought back to life using various cutoffs and parts of different bikes.

I’ve got many reasons to be proud…

For me this bike is more than a custom piece, it’s something very personal, just by thinking about it while I answer these questions it reaches feelings and memories of past experiences deep inside of me, from the bittersweet wait to finally be able to afford the bike I wanted, the joy of riding with now long-gone friends, and the shitty feeling of crashing. The satisfaction to be super busy at work and make good money but feeling frustration at the same time for not having a spare hour for my personal projects, to the darkest periods when I went so financially broke I had to sell my old Harley, my beloved vintage Jeep CJ, and couldn’t even afford a dinner out, times when my friends have paid me tickets to go to rock concerts together. This bike was bought with the money I made out of hard work after going through those above mentioned tough times, it marks the start of a journey that I want to keep travelling, it’s mine and it will be for a long time.

Softail Cafe Racer

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One Comment

  1. Such a honour to see my personal ride issued on the best custom bike blog on the web!
    You guys rock!

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