The summer of 1991. Terminator 2 (Schwarzenegger’s “hasta la vista, baby”) was the movie blockbuster, Tom Petty’s Learning to Fly topped the charts and the music world was still months away from the Grunge shake up Nirvana and Pearl Jam would usher in. It’s also the summer we got married. Deb and her mother handled the wedding planning, but I had one requirement for the occasion - we ride off from the wedding on my coveted ’51 Panhead. The ceremony was in Southern California’s San Gabriel Mountains. The reception was a 45 minute ride down into the Mojave Desert. We created quite the spectacle of honks and stares on the Panhead sporting tuxedo and wedding dress. Deb had to wrap the gown around her waist and sit on it to keep it out of the rear wheel.
The motorcycle is a 1951 Harley Davidson FL, 74 cubic inch "Panhead." I was a teenager when I bought the bike in 1984 shortly after I enlisted in the Air Force. I was riding a Sportster at the time and was looking for a bigger Harley, when I landed this rigid framed Panhead from a guy in Wisconsin. I received the bike as a well preserved, mostly original machine, though repainted. I didn’t pay much for it as its value at the time was as a road worthy rider, not the collector’s item it is today. Back then, restored and custom bikes cost more than original ones, so this was a good way for me to get on a cool riding bike with my limited funds. The previous owner said the Panhead’s first three decades were spent in Red Wing, Minnesota, in storage most of the 60's and 70's, thereby surviving intact through the Easy Rider chopper years. Since the Panhead made it that long without modifications or upgrades, my ownership approach could only be to preserve, maintain and ride it. And I rode it plenty.
I grew up in the Midwest, but the Air Force had me stationed in Southern California, and I took advantage of the location. A lot of good and bad can be said of California, but one positive is it's a motorcycle riding paradise - great weather (most of the time), the pacific coast, mountains, valleys and deserts. My more memorable California rides are up the Pacific Coast Highway from Ventura to Oregon, up the Owens Valley then over the Sierras and through Yosemite. The Panhead's taken me all around the desert Southwest and across the Rockies a few times. I even rode it to Sturgis and back in 1986 while on military leave.
For some of the early years with the Panhead, I lived in a one bedroom house that had no garage or covered carport. As a bachelor, I had no use for a dining room, so it became a makeshift motorcycle garage. The bike rested on a vinyl mat and plastic carpet runners spanned the distance from the front door to the dining room. As many times as the motorcycle rolled into and out of that house, not a single drop of oil hit the carpet, as I had promised my landlord.
After my military service ended in 1987, the Panhead stayed with me in California while I worked and attended college. That's where I met my future wife Deb. Deb had never been on a motorcycle before, but she quickly discovered the excitement of riding. We rode the Panhead whenever and wherever we could, and she was all for the wedding ride.
A couple years into marriage, we left California as job changes had us moving around. The Panhead came along with us wherever we moved, kept in regular garages, not dining rooms. We found our way to the Midwest and have called Kansas home the past 15 years. As Deb and I started a family, the motorcycle didn't get ridden as much, and then sat dormant for many years as we raised kids and were busy with life's challenges.
Then back in 2010, as the children were getting older and heading off to college, it seemed time to dust off the old Panhead and get it back on the road. After sitting cold for over 10 years, the bike easily fired up and rode respectfully, but showed its age and wear from the many miles put on it years ago. After a couple winter projects refreshing the engine and transmission, replacing wheel bearings, chassis bushings, and buffing up a good shine on the paint, the bike was returned to top condition, able to ride anywhere and any distance. It looks and rides today pretty much like it did when I bought it 32 years ago. As I’ve aged, this bike now serves as my fountain of youth. When I’m riding the Panhead, I feel like I’m 20 again. But when I get off after riding a couple hundred miles, I’m reminded I’m over 50.
Deb and I celebrated our silver anniversary this summer. 25 years later, four kids, and a few collective pounds gained (by us, not the bike), the Panhead still rides smooth and takes us on enjoyable trips.