1949 Harley-Davidson EL Panhead Bobber
When I first started collecting parts for this project about 10 years ago, the motorcycle rage was choppers. Back then, not many riders cared about bobbers and the phrase old school had not yet become the cliché it is today. I’ve always enjoyed old bikes that perform well, and I’ve been fortunate enough to own some great and mostly correct classic motorcycles. So, for a change, I wanted to design and build a classic hot rod Harley bob job. And I wanted it to be made mostly with old, genuine Harley parts.
I made a list of the basics and began haunting swap meets and eBay. Within two years, I had found a matched set of Panhead heads that had been modified for dual Linkert carbs years before. I bought a complete Panhead engine, a rigid Harley frame, Harley forks and trees, an early Harley three-speed transmission, Harley headlight and wheels, plus a seat post and old Harley police solo saddle. I continued to collect the parts until I had enough to build my bike.
Looking back now, I can see how the fashions and my personal tastes have changed in a decade. We originally built the bike with a lot of red — too much. Red tanks and fender, red oil bag, and red grips and kicker pedals. We wrapped red and white spirals over the cables. We even mounted a set of red rims and whitewall tires.
Over the first couple of years, various mechanical gremlins kept me from riding as much as I would have liked. The engine cases exploded on the first ride (don’t ask!). Then, after a full rebuild, the engine seized from lack of lubrication. I was frustrated with the builder and the bike. I had parked the Panhead in storage until my friend Vito Sabato offered to sort out and rebuild the engine. Anyone active in Harley drag racing in New England in the last couple of decades can tell you how accomplished Vito is as an engine builder!
Vito and some friends took the engine all the way down, shaved and lightened the flywheels, rebalanced the entire bottom end and freshened the top end. Then he got the bike running like a fine Swiss watch. Eventually, the front cylinder manifold cracked and separated from the head. I pushed the bike to the back of the garage to deal with later. At the time, I was spending all my spare time buying, building, and prepping a 1915 Harley for the Motorcycle Cannonball last year.
This past winter, I pulled out the Panhead and brought it to Pete and Maureen Minardi of Precision Custom Motorcycles in Whippany, New Jersey. Pete is a great guy and a talented motorcycle builder. He and I discussed what I had in mind: fix the broken manifold and build a bracket to stabilize both carbs, swap out the red rims and white-wall tires for black, paint the oil tank black, mount the Crocker repop taillight on the pull pin fender, and lose the goofy, cat-face, side-mounted brake light (which I never liked).
After Pete did his magic, I swapped out the police solo saddle for a nice and correct-appearing seat from Worsham Castle that I had from a previous project bike but never used. As I write this, I am looking for an original 1949-era Harley speedometer, and I’d like to swap out the modern red coil for a more traditional black one. And I think the bike needs some pinstriping details.
Almost two years after my last ride on this Panhead, I kicked the bike over, and she roared to life. As it idled in my driveway, I peeked inside the oil tank to make sure the oil was circulating (it was). Then I worked the suicide foot clutch in and out a couple of times, reached behind my left leg to the jockey shifter and eased it into first gear. I gave her a little gas (sounded great!) and eased off the clutch as I rolled down the road. Man, I love this bike! AIM
Text and photos by Buzz Kanter
Story as published in the October issue of American Iron Magazine.