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Its 8am Tuesday here in Geelong Victoria Australia and I am patiently awaiting 6pm Monday in Baldwin NY USA, why? Well it’s a long story that’s about to get a whole lot longer.
In 2013 I finally admitted to being in love with vintage America, I don’t know what it is but it represented an era of freedom, art and creation that I really admire. My wife and I planned our honeymoon in 2014 and set off on the time of our lives.
Picking up our 1965 Econoline from Rhode Island and setting off across the vast American landscape gave us time to take in everything that we loved about this country, there was a 20 foot container awaiting us in Los Angeles and I wasn’t about to let the chance of packing the van full of things I loved pass me by.
Each night as my wife slept I scoured eBay, Craigslist and Instagram for that two wheeled fantasy. My dream was to own a mid 1950’s Harley Davidson Panhead, original enough to get into the country and modified enough so that I could enjoy it right away.
The search taught me a lot, I started to narrow down my wish list and I began to understand exactly what I wanted, what I wanted though was to be a needle in a haystack, an expensive one at that.
The more refined my search the more difficult my selection began and it turned into something that wasn’t possible at all, I knew what I wanted and to be perfectly honest I couldn’t find it, I was looking for something that only I could create, I needed a distraction and it came the night before the Born Free show.
That next day I scoured the grounds of the Born Free Show for a 1967 Harley Davidson Sportster, its owner advertising it just the night before on Instagram, I finally found it and stayed with the bike until its owner returned. I was the proud new owner of a 1967 XLCH Sportster modified in the way I desired and priced well enough to enjoy guilt free.
That was 3 years ago, I have thoroughly enjoyed my 1967 Sportster and it has cemented the fact that this isn’t a passing phase in my life this is a true desire and passion. It’s a struggle to understand why, I ask myself constantly why I enjoy these old bikes so much but I just do. With 3 years passing my search for that mid 1950’s Panhead has never stopped, with each day passing by the recipe to my Panhead dreams has changed, each scenario has played out in my mind and each design idea has made my search that little bit harder.
Its now 5:30pm in New York and Daniel Popowich is on his way from Philadelphia to Baldwin to meet a stranger to pick up ¾ of a bike that I found on ebay. Sounds crazy right?
As I said earlier my search has never ended, in the past three years I havn’t found an opportunity to turn my hopes and dreams into reality until now.
I found a bike in Baldwin NY that fit my criteria exactly, all I needed was a motor and a frame that I can use to create what I want to create, the rest I can source either locally or create from scratch.
After finding the bike on eBay I started the search for someone decent enough to help me out, I emailed a few locals and neither could help me out, I emailed the seller and he wasn’t much help either, I let it go and resided to the fact that it was the one that got away.
Every now and then in life you have to admit that if its too difficult to create a situation then it may just be for the best, I was comforted in the fact that missing out on this was a positive thing, the comfort didn’t last long……
The very next day the bike was relisted and I thought I just needed to work harder to make the situation happen the way I wanted it to. I reached out on Instagram and was overwhelmed at the support I received, a long-time friend whom I had never met Daniel Popowich msgd me and said he could help. Daniel has been on a similar path to me on other sides of the globe, heavily involved with motorsport and also motorcycles he was the one I was looking for, a dependable smart and trustworthy person that is going in to bat for me.
So as I write this Daniel is on his way to the Nassau border near Brooklyn to meet a man who holds my hopes and dreams in the back of a pickup truck, all this effort for an engine in a frame that I have never seen or know very little about.
The Pan Plan:
My 1967 XLCH is a beautiful thing, it does almost everything well, the only downfall is the prolonged highway riding really takes it out of it, the high revs at 100kmh give it a limited lifespan, at 50 years old its in a mechanical happy place and I don’t want to disturb it.
The Sportsters big brother is a Big Twin built for cruising at 100kmh they are a powerful large capacity bike that still shares the simplicity of a bygone era. I learnt a lot working on 67 XLCH and with my apprenticeship done it’s now time to build my own.
The bike in question isn’t really a bike at all, it has three things going for it, 1 the price….. 2 the engine…… 3 the frame!
Living in Australia makes a few things difficult, none more than buying vintage American motorcycles. Over the past few years I have been flicking between a few different scenarios
• Should I buy a stock standard mid 50’s Panhead, keep the stock parts and then modify the bike into my dream bike? Seems like a lot of wasted parts and money with a lot of restrictions put on my artistic freedom by keeping it all genuine.
• Should I purchase a mid 50’s engine, reproduction frame castings and create a bike that may need a full mechanical rebuild in a matter of a few months riding? 67 years of unknown mechanical history is an expensive experiment.
• Should I buy a brand new reproduction Panhead engine, reproduction castings and then build a bike from scratch? Possibly the best way to go about it but that’s $15,000 and all I have is a lump of steel frame sections and a motor that are not really vintage at all..
So when I checked eBay and found an original frame with a near new Panhead engine sitting in it, wide glide front end, chrome oil tank, tins and a set of wheels for $5,000 US dollars I jumped on it.
That’s 15k of value for 1/3 of the price, I can’t confirm that it’s an original frame but if it is I have struck gold.
Daniel just sent me through some photos, he has it all loaded up and ready to head back to Philly, I am that excited, Daniel said the previous owner had over $10,000 worth of receipts for the motor alone. I felt sick to my stomach this morning thinking I was in for the worst day of my life, turns out it’s all gone to plan and my new project is one step closer to being a reality, it’s a long way away but I feel like its closer than it’s ever been!
Its now the 11th of March, I have been trawling through information and parts to complete the bike, I have nearly 0 information on what exactly everything is so its proving difficult to organise anything. The thoughts of flying over and getting it running have been going through my head, it would be wasted time though as the parts would still need to be shipped from all over the country.
I stumbled across Dan Carr, Dan operates DC Choppers in Spicewood TX and is one of the most knowledgeable builders in the business. I found a phone number and decided to give him a call. I explained that I had bought a Panhead project in New York, its sitting in Philadelphia and I need a bunch of things for it. He was open to the idea of shipping it from Philadelphia to his shop and finishing the bike for me.
He asked me to write a specific list and email it to him along with the address of the bike so he could organise shipping.
I wrote a specific list and I started to realize that I am doing the right thing, Dan is a smart man, he will get the bike fired and source all the parts I need, my plan is for it to leave his shop with all the parts I need minus the fabrication that I can complete once the bike is shipped home to me, this way I end up with the very specific parts I need, a complete bike that will pass the import permit process and a complete project that I can specifically finish off in my own style.
Its now the 13th of April and Dan just sent me an email explaining that the bike had made it to his shop. I was excited to finally get an educated opinion on my purchase, I have studied the 15 photos that I had of the bike and came to a few conclusions and I was hoping Dan could verify a few things for me. So I gave him a call. We chatted for a bit as he walked towards it, the first thing I needed his opinion on was the frame, I explained to him that the neck area looked like an early Knucklehead casting but it had me baffled why it had a Panhead tool box mount. He ran over the frame and said “Oh yea this is a standard Panhead frame, its really nice but looks like the neck has been changed at some stage to a Knucklehead neck” this validation makes the effort to finish the bike even more worthy, there is a lot of history here and I cant wait to see the bike live again.
We spoke for a bit about gearboxs, ignition, clutches carburetors and agreed on a plan. All Dan needed from me was a specific list of the parts I wanted and enough cash to order them, it couldn’t have worked any better as Dan was a dealer for all the brands of parts I needed, it cuts out so much unnecessary cost and not to mention postage time.
So Dans ordering the following
An S&S Super E Carb setup (same as I run on my two Sportsters) an MM74E Morris Magneto in brushed satin, a Revtech 4 speed Transmission with a flat alloy blasted finish, a Panhead kicker cover and a 1.5″ BDL belt drive setup and dry clutch.
So the plan is to get the Magneto fitted up, the carb on, the transmission fitted, the clutch, fresh oil in everything and then get it fired up and see how everything is.
Dan just sent me this picture of the bike in the workshop, he has everything ordered and on its way, I am way more excited about this project now and want to take it to another level than previously planned. While Dans gathering the parts needed to make it run I can plan the aesthetics and function of the bike.
I had been thinking about the front end for a while, choppers to me need to be skinny and that is why I always longed for the Mullins Chaindrive Trees on my current Sportster, I chose Mullins solely because the guy is an all round mechanical artist (cars and bikes) that works hard at his craft, I like that and I look up to guys who have those values.
You definitely need to follow Brandon on Instagram too, his wordsmith technique is second to none.
But I want this bike to be different to my Sportster, I still want it to be skinny but I want to reflect the era that it originated in.
Introducing Jasin Phares and his take on the Harley Springer fork. Jasin is another guy who is a mechanical artist who runs his own shop and stays true to those values I love. His take on the Springer fork is perfection, there is a 50mm reduction in width with the bottom tree cast in Ductile steel and the legs electric brazed, its a work of art.
It would be the perfect fit for my project, original style, slimmed down to suit the new profile of my machine. So I sent Jasin an email and he is happy to accommodate my every need, he can construct the front end to be a complete bolt on, supply the axle to suit the star hub I am planning to run, build the bars, install the internal throttle and then get the entire thing chromed to complete one of the most amazing front ends. I am going to wait a few weeks and let Dan work his magic on the driveline, once its all running then I will work with Jasin and get this front end under way.
The more I think about this bike the more excited I am to get over there and ride it. Time will tell but all I can think about is getting my knees in the breeze and spending a few days rolling from Texas to the Californian countryside.
What a weekend, I took a drive out to the Boogaloo invitational, my Triumph drag bike and Harley Sportster were both on the invite list and I wanted to bring them both along and put on a strong showing, both bikes have had a bulk amount of my time spent on them this year and I was excited to get them out of the garage and into the public arena.
I took the Triumph off the bench and finished a whole host of small jobs, it runs beautifully now and still blows me away with the presence it has, I am so relieved it turned out exactly how I wanted it, it was a huge struggle to try and keep it this simple.
I also bit the bullet and decided to spend a few weeks doing a heap of small jobs that indecently turned into large ones, a new kicker shaft, kicker gears, condenser and points, chain, re-jet the carburetor, new oils and a general clean up.
So when the time came to load them into the van it was the end of a month long motorcycle marathon, both were better than they ever had been, oh and I gave the van a full service aswell with a complete fluid and filter overhaul.
The show was great, the night was long and the swag in the back of the van was super comfy.
The next morning I drained the Nitro and Methanol out of the Triumph, Max Shaaf came over and introduced himself, I wanted to do it the day before but every time I had the opportunity he was busy with others, we chatted about a heap of stuff and Max is a really knowledgeable guy who I look up to a lot, I filled him in on my American project and he was super pumped on the plan, he offered to lend a hand should I need it and I am very grateful to have that opportunity.
Dan Carr is set to get to work on my bike this week, the parts have all arrived so hopefully its not far away from being a runner!
Saturday morning I woke up to see an email on my phone from Dan, I rub my eyes, unplug the charger and open up the email to find an attachment, I opened this up and began to hear what I was hoping I would hear, a running engine! When I bought the bike from the other side of the country I was just hoping that it actually had pistons, a crankshaft and rods that still actually moved up and down, this morning its a runner and not only that its a sweet runner! Dans fitted up the gearbox, clutch, belt drive, carb, magneto and timed it to perfection. He says its as good as it could be. Best news I have had in a long time.
This morning I gave Dan a call, it always takes a while to get used to the delay of an international call, it’s the first time I have talked to him since he got the bike running, I asked him how it went and he said “its a solid clean runner that sounds like it’s had a fair bit of hot rodding” neither of us know whats inside the engine, I had Daniel send Dan (yea confusing I know) the paperwork that came with the bike but other than a heap of labour and parts there isnt a lot of information in regards to bore and stroke details. Dan commented on the STD heads and implied that they work brilliantly, I guess they have the look of a Panhead with the performance of a shovelhead.
I asked Dan if he could quote me up on the wheel-set I want to build, I was after a pair of black Star Hubs with late model sealed bearings, stainless spokes and alloy high shouldered rims, its a combo that will stand the test of time and I hate chrome spokes as they always seem to rust up after 10 or so years. We spoke about brakes, I asked Dan what the crossover tube in the frame looks like and if its ok could we run a mechanical drum, he said we could but a Hydraulic Drum will work better and then we can use his Mid Control kit, so that the way I am going.
I have been making plans in the background to head over in October, I asked Dan if he thinks the bikes capable of a few thousand miles straight up, he see’s no drama in the bike making it as its almost a brand new machine. My plan is to fly in to Austin, head to Spicewood, then to Palm Springs, then to a few automotive museums, then to the Californian Hot Rod Reunion, then through Death Valley and finish at Sema in Vegas. It’s going to be a mission but what a break in journey for me to get to know this bike!
Another couple of weeks have gone by and I am getting more and more excited about this bike I have never met, I spoke with Dan again and we have worked out the next phase of the build. He is now getting stuck into the wheel set using a set of black star hubs with sealed bearings, the star caps will be chrome, the spokes stainless and the high shouldered alloy rims in 18 rear and 21 front will wear a Coker and Firestone tyre.
Dan is also making up a set of these mid controls in stainless for me, these will operate an entirely new hydraulically operated rear drum affectionately known in chopper circles as a juice drum. Dan was able to sell the wheelset, tins and front end off the bike for a really good price so those dollars go directly into the build which I am stoked about, I was worried that the price of this bike would blow out, Dans efficiency is allowing me to build my dream bike for the same price as buying one. I guess the price tag of the initial purchase made that a possibility.
With every stage completed October is looking better and better, Jasin Phares will make a start on the front end after he finishes his Born Free show bike, then I am going to make a start on the fuel tank, tail light, head light/s, number plate mount, sissy bar and fender so I can send them over to Dan to mount up onto the bike to make sure we have atleast a month to get it shaken down and ready for the ride. I have innovative ideas for the tank so watch this space!
Update July 2017
When the Born Free Motorcycle Show announced they were giving away a 1951 Panhead I got a little excited, the fact that you didnt have to be there to win it made me jump on the opportunity and purchased 4 tickets totaling around $150 AUD. I am not a gambling man, I am not a lucky man but I understand the odds and I understand you must be in it to win it.
I am also slightly superstitious, I believe in having a lucky number, the Triumph Drag Bike I built is a 1951, I only bought the frame and engine because of its year of make, coincidentally the gentlemen I bought it off lived in a house that was number 51 on his street, in the months leading up to the Panhead tickets being drawn I would catch the number way more than I usually would, the origins of that number go way back to my childhood.
This bike is exactly what I wanted when I was planning my USA honeymoon, prices just kept going up and I just couldn’t stretch my budget that far, it’s been three years and at the start of this year I conceded that I had missed my chance and that I would never be able to afford one.
That brought about the build of the bike that is depicted in this post, content that I had my dream bike coming together in the hands of Dan Carr I relaxed a little but continued to have my fingers firmly crossed for the draw of the Born Free Show Panhead.
My entire Instagram feed was filled with Born Free photos, I was on vacation in Hawaii with my wife and left my phone in the room while I took a dip in the ocean, I returned to a heap of msgs on my phone saying I was the WINNER!
I was stunned, still am, incredibly grateful and amazed that this bike is now mine, from 5 years of wanting a 1950’s Panhead to now owning two that I havnt even seen in the flesh is a bazaar feeling. I still don’t know what to make of it.
I could do a lot of things with that bike but I wont, before being owned by the Born Free Show it was part of The Wheels Through Time Museum, before that it had been rebuilt and just completed a 2,000 mile round trip, Mike Davis of Born Free Show had it rewired and serviced and now its time for the bike to live another lifetime with yours truly. I would like to keep it the way it is, enjoy it and preserve its heritage.