Motorcycles weren’t always Steven Bates thing. But as an artist, he’s always been the creative type. Thankfully, about 15 years ago, he picked up an old chopper mag, saw the work and craftsmanship put into the medium, and it stirred something inside him. Because even though the magazine might have spurred an epiphany, the biker lifestyle wasn’t entirely foreign to Bates as his family was into choppers and hung with a band of biker buddies. He happened to have a friend with a shop, so Bates picked up parts and with help from his buddy, pieced together his first motorcycle. Since then, he’s been channeling his artistic talents in iron.
Those talents were on full display in the 1956 Panhead chopper he brought to the Handbuilt Motorcycle Show in Austin. It’s evident in the bends and flow of the trumpet pipes that sing the song of a vintage V-twin lovingly restored. It’s in the vertical balance between a symmetrical sissy bar on the back and raised ribbed handlebars on the front. It’s the artistry of small details that slowly reveal themselves after closer inspection.
Often that inspection comes when people stop to stare at the macabre picture on the tank. It’s not every day you run across a human head served up on a platter. Turns out, the story behind the picture is straight from the Bible, a depiction of John the Baptist and Salome.
“We look up weird, macabre pictures all the time on the internet goofing around,” said Bates. When he ran across the picture, he shot it over to his painter, Jake’s Customs out of Illinois.
“We’ve got to put that on the tank,” was Jake’s reply and the original concepts and colors planned for the bike went in a new direction.
“So many people love that tank and that picture just because it’s so creepy and it’s completely out of the Bible. It’s a story you wouldn’t think is in there but is,” said Bates.
The two-headed tattooed lady on the breather is another interesting conversation piece. The picture in question is framed in a faceplate stamped with the words “Felon Creepshow” that originally was a belt buckle. Bates built the ornate breather for another bike that he only rode one time. It had so many issues, he ended up tearing it down and rebuilding something else with the motor. Bates said the breather was sitting on the shelf when he was building the Panhead so he slapped it on. The shape matched the “Serial Killer” collars on the pushrods and fit the theme of the “Felon Creepshow” belt buckle perfectly.
And while those styling cues are more tongue-in-cheek than anything, construction of the chopper itself is serious business. The polished Pan is mated to an S&S Super E carb hung in a repop ’56 Panhead wishbone frame. A Rev Tech 4-speed, kick-only tranny sets the 16-inch, Firestone-shod rear in motion. The slick handlebars started as round stock before heading to the CNC lathe where they were cut down to give them the ribbed look. Bates then drilled and tapped one end to put the bars on. The ribbing is replicated in the base of the sissy bar and in the neck support below the backbone. The Throttle Addiction tank sitting on the high-necked frame received a handful of modifications. The leather seat is the work of the Haifley Brothers while features like the controls and taillight were custom-made by Bates.
The foot controls he made have a cute story behind them. Bates couldn’t figure out a way to mount them without looking too bulky or being in the way. So his 8-year-old daughter, who happened to be hanging out in the garage one day, showed him the most direct way to route and mount them.
“It ended up working so that’s what I’ve got on there now,” said Bates, adding that she’s welcome to come out in the garage anytime now.
The Panhead chopper is pretty impressive for somebody who basically builds out of a two-car garage. Even more impressive when you consider Bates learned most things the good ol’ fashioned way, through trial and error, from TIG welding to fabrication. He said his background in art definitely helped, as he had already developed an eye for proportion and detail.
It’s the attention to detail that makes Bates’ ’56 Panhead stand out. This extends to minutiae you won’t notice with a casual glance, like the words “Let There be Light” etched around the light switch. The lean, clean chopper received more than its fair share of attention at the 2016 Handbuilt Motorcycle Show. And when a fellow builder as talented as Kim Boyle comes over to give you props on your bike, you know you’ve done something right.