Vintage 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead

Nothing captures the heart of a motorcycle enthusiast more than a crusty old Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Period. They are things of beauty that conjure dreams of the adventure and romance of earlier times when cycling was in its infancy, and they absolutely captivate us with their honesty and integrity. Motorcycles of all types, in original condition, have been leading the pack from a value standpoint for the last number of years, and their newly earned status in our hobby speaks volumes about how far we have come in the collecting world. By original condition, I mean specifically original-paint machines that still wear the factory enamel laid down on the assembly line in Milwaukee, when the bike was brand-new, as well as still retain their original chrome plating, original parkerized parts, original wiring harness, original leather seat and saddlebags, original rubber parts, original tires, original nuts and bolts, etc. Obviously, the range of value varies by condition, the better the paint and plating, and the more accessories and add-ons, the more highly regarded they are by collectors. Look at any eBay auction for old machines, or comb the web for motor­cycle auctions across the country; you will see the large spread between the restored bikes and the original, unrestored machines.

When I coined the term rustoration back in the 1990s here in American Iron Magazine, mainstream collectors were catching onto the idea that a rough, unrestored motorcycle garnered more attention and enthusiasm at meets and shows than its restored brethren. The dignity of age and the unmistakable patina of an original bike spoke volumes about its history and lineage, and an awakening of the preservation movement was at hand. This was true not only in motorcycling, but also in the car collecting hobby and across other disciplines of collecting.

Of course, as with all trends, there are always leaders. In the antique motorcycle circles, my old friend Joe Barber, founder of the 74 Shop, understood the value or these rare gems early on, as did “Doc” and John Pat and other old-timers from the AMCA. Thank goodness they collectively saved many a motorcycle from undergoing what was the trend in the 1970s through the 1990s of restoration and overrestoration of our historical time pieces.

Our featured 1948 Harley-Davidson Panhead is another example of a rescued machine that dodged the restorers’ onslaught during that period. Owned by David Monahan of Forest Lake, Minnesota, it has a wonderful history that is as interesting as the bike itself.

Apparently, the original owner was a returning World War II veteran who established himself after the war in a job that paid well and allowed him to pursue his passion of cycling. He bought the bike new in 1948 and rode the wheels off it. He met and courted his wife on it, and they spent many a relaxing day touring the countryside two-up with their knees in the breeze! They eventually settled down into married life. Kinda … it seems every chance he had, he took the liberty of disappearing on his motorcycle til one day the ultimatum came. So in response to his wife’s demands, the bike was parked out in the yard under a tree in plain sight of the kitchen window where she could keep an eye on it and him. There it sat for 40 years, slowly sinking into the ground until the frame rested in the dirt.

Finally, sometime in the late 1990s, the old biker passed away, and his wife sold the bike in a yard sale/estate sale to an antique dealer. The dealer recognized the marketing opportunities the motorcycle held and put it in his antique shop window, where it sat there for another 10 years. David learned of its existence, bought it in 2008, and began its rustoration. He had a lot of talent and practice in all things motorcycle related; as he ran his own restoration shop called Perfect Timing for over 20 years and had restored over 50 machines in his shop by that time. His goal was to preserve the bike in its original state but perform a restoration on it so that it would be a ridable machine. He would leave the wonderful patina but return the insides to factory standards. The motor and transmission were locked up tight; every internal part needed to be replaced or reworked. It was, internally, the worst bike he’d ever seen or worked on. Although capable of doing all the work on the motor and tranny himself, he chose to have his buddy, Jim Long of Jim Long Motors, rebuild the engine and transmission. The complete disassembly of the rest of the machine followed, and attention to every part was mandated. David had a set of old Knucklehead rims that were laced in place of the rotten ones, but everything else is original to the bike plus a few add-ons he had in his collection (saddlebags, balls on springer, shift knob). A Bruce Linsday OE-style wiring kit complete with cloth covers was added and retains the original look and feel. The sheet metal was cleaned and treated to loving care: washing, waxing, etc. I’m told if you stand on your head and look under the fenders you can see what remains of the original paint! What really impressed me was that all the little things were restored to perfection — the throttle is tight and responsive, the brakes have no play in them, the shifting is tight and clean — all signs of a master craftsman at work!

In the past, David’s restoration work has delivered to owners AMCA Junior, Senior, and Winners Circle awards, and probably the highest compliment possible in the antique motorcycle world is that one of his restorations, a red 1947 Knucklehead was featured on the cover of Bruce Palmer III’s world-famous book How to Restore Your Harley-Davidson, the absolute bible of antique motorcycle restoration. That, my friends, is a major accomplishment!

Great job, David, in preserving another Milwaukee marvel for the ages. AIM

Words by Jim Babchak, photos by Buzz Kanter

Story as published in the July 2011 issue of American Iron Magazine.

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