Appeal of a Birthday Bike

Buzz Kanter, American Iron Magazine Publisher/Editor in Chief

Buzz Kanter, American Iron Magazine Publisher/Editor in Chief

Shifting Gears

An ad for a 1955 Harley Panhead For Sale

A birthday bike will transport you to amazing places. What, you might ask, is a birthday bike, and what about it attracts us old timers? A birthday bike? Yep, that’s a motorcycle from the year you were born. In my case that goes way back to 1955, two years before the first Harley Sportster hit the street and two years after the last Indian rolled out of the Springfield factory.

Not many of us are lucky enough to have birthday bikes, but I suspect most of us wish we did. When I am out riding mine, I often get plenty of questions. I know people want to hear a great story, something like my father bought it new when I was born and gave it to me when I passed my license test or that I found it neglected in a field, barn, or tag sale, bought it cheap, and got it running. Maybe I built it a piece at a time over the years from swap meet parts. My favorite is that Harley-Davidson gave it to Elvis Presley as a gift, and I stumbled on it locally many years later.

The reality is much less romantic, but still makes for a good story. I was in Daytona for Bike Week almost 20 years ago when one evening, while looking through the classifieds (remember those?) in the local newspaper, I saw an ad for a 1955 Harley Panhead for sale. Sounded interesting, so I called and left a message on the answering machine in our precell phone days. The next day I called two more times, again leaving more messages, and I repeated the process the day after that. Eventually, I figured he must have sold it and wasn’t returning phone calls.

A few days later I tried one more time, and the seller finally answered the phone. The bike was still for sale. Yes, I could come over and look at it. I dropped everything and rode over on a new review/loaner from Harley. The seller couldn’t get the Panhead to start, but I was able to. He didn’t want me to test ride it, but eventually allowed me to. It ran OK, but it had handling issues. We shook hands on a deal. The next day I trucked the bike and a lot of spare parts to my friend Jim Kelsey’s shop at the old Klassix Auto Attraction.

I carefully checked out my new prize as best I could with borrowed tools. I started with a top-to-bottom, front-to-back cleaning, complete with polish and fresh wax. I do this on bikes new to me to check them out up close and personal. I look for loose or missing items, damage, and questionable conditions. I pumped up the tires (why do so many people sell bikes with low tire pressure?), adjusted and lubed the primary and drive chains, drained and cleaned the Linkert carburetor float bowl, topped off the wet cell battery, and hooked up a charger. I checked the oil and then cleaned and greased everything that needed it. Eventually I stood back and admired my birthday bike. It cleaned up well and looked good—probably better than me!

I kicked it to life and rode it around the parking lot (no plate, so I did not dare go any farther) until I got the old Panhead up to operating temperatures. I drained and refilled the oil tank, then checked and topped off the transmission. Initially, the clutch was grabby—which I assumed was from sitting so long—but, like almost everything on that old bike, it soon improved with use. It seemed to run stronger with each lap of the parking lot.

But it still had handling issues, a bit like a long-fork chopper. So back to the garage to check wheel, fork, and steering head bearing play. I discovered the rare factory-installed adjustable fork rake for sidecar use (it was set for sidecar use!). I figured out how to change it to solo settings— voila! The handling improved remarkably.

As I stated, that was about 20 years ago. Since then I have personalized the bike with pinstriping, bolt-on accessories, and Heather’s Leathers custom seat and bags. I rode it solo for a number of years before finding and attaching a correct 1955 Harley sidecarthat it still hauls today. And there you have it: my 1955 Harley Panhead birthday bike.

If you have a similar story, we’d love for you to share it, with or without photos, for our readers to enjoy. Send your story to Letters@AmericanIronMag.com.

Ride safe, ride smart, have fun.

Buzz Kanter
Publisher/Editor in Chief