Life of an Old Panhead
Posted by Panhead Jim on 18th Apr 2022
If you own an old motorcycle, chances are you’ve probably said something along the lines of, “If this bike could talk, it would have some great stories to tell.” Well in the twelve years I’ve owned my 1964 Harley-Davidson FLH Duo-Glide it’s never spoken a word, but I have been able to track down some of its history after leaving the factory. Turns out it wasn’t your average story of an old Panhead.
The Duo-Glide model was produced by Harley-Davidson from 1958-1964. "Duo" indicated both front and rear suspension.
Back in the fall of 1963, my Panhead rolled off the assembly line in Milwaukee, WI and was shipped down south to the Harley-Davidson dealership in Rocky Mount, NC. Once it arrived the dealer pushed it out onto the showroom floor with high hopes of making a quick sale before the riding season ended. Unfortunately, it didn’t catch anyone’s attention and just sat there collecting dust for the next few months. Exasperated at the lack of sales and with winter coming on, the dealership decided to turn it into a demo bike. Of course, they didn’t want to risk a potential customer dropping the bike on a test ride, so they added a sidecar for extra stability…
Only 5,500 Big Twins were produced by Harley-Davidson in 1964, available in hand shift, foot shift, FL and FLH combinations.
The addition of the sidecar didn’t make much of a difference in getting the bike sold, but it did create an unusual opportunity when President Lyndon B. Johnson came to visit Rocky Mount in May of 1964. The town was tasked to provide an escort for the presidential motorcade and the Harley-Davidson dealership was chosen to do the honors. What better vehicle than a new sidecar equipped Harley to lead the President and the Governor around town?
Look closely and you can see two oil lines originating from between the tappet blocks. These lines connect directly to the cylinder heads and were only used on Panhead engines built from 1963-1965. They are typically referred to as “outside oiler” heads.
Now you might think that after this special duty that someone would be interested in purchasing the bike, but I guess the folks in Rocky Mount were unimpressed and the bike sat stagnant all through the summer. It wasn’t until September that someone finally purchased the bike. The new owner was a machinist from eastern NC named James and he took the bike back to his home near the coast, albeit without the sidecar.
1964 was the last year for the "kick only" Harley-Davidson Big Twin. Electric start was added for the 1965 model year.
For the next ten or so years, James and his wife had many adventures on that Panhead. One of their favorite things was taking it to the drive-in movies on a Friday night and his wife remembered eating popcorn on the back while riding home. Although it may not look like a speed demon, James had the machine over 100 miles per hour several times, usually solo, but once with a hitchhiker on the back (he said that was the last time anyone asked him for a ride).
Nicknamed the "tombstone" speedometer and used from 1962-1965, the odometer displays the actual miles put on this machine.
In the early 70’s the bike got a few cosmetic changes when James’ neighbor gave him a load of parts off a Shovelhead that he was turning into a chopper. The original windshield was traded out for a batwing fairing and the saddlebags and guard rails were upgraded as well. It even got a tour pack to complete the transformation. Even with the new upgrades, James lost interest in the bike a few years later and decided the best thing to do was to disassemble it for easy storage in his barn.
The dual fishtail exhaust, saddlebags, windshield and many of the extra chrome bits were all part of the “King of the Highway” option package from Harley-Davidson for the 1964 model year.
About that same time that James was packing his bike away in the barn, the US Navy decided to station my dad at a Marine base in eastern NC. Both he and my mom liked the area and even after he left the military they decided to stay and start a family. My dad also started a medical practice with some classmates from medical school and as you can probably guess, James became one of his patients.
This gas tank emblem was used by Harley-Davidson from 1963- 1965. Note that the size of the white panel has been repainted to a smaller size.
Every time James came in to see my Dad, he told him about his old Harley and I grew up hearing about my the patient with the bike in the attic of his barn. Once I got older and interested in motorcycles, I’d often tell my dad that we should try and buy that bike from James, but he thought James enjoyed telling people about that Harley out in his barn just too much.
The FLH model had slightly improved performance over the standard FL model, due to increasing the compression from 7.25:1 to 8.0:1. Both models used 74 cubic inch motors.
The years continued to go by, and James kept telling my dad about the Harley, but I had lost hope that he would ever consider selling it. Plus, my dad and I weren’t they only ones who had heard all about that old bike and the list of interested people who wanted to buy it had gotten pretty long over the 30+ years it had been boxed up. All that changed one day James when was in the office and my Dad noticed something wasn’t quite right on one of his tests. Further testing discovered an issue that needed immediate lifesaving surgery. While my dad didn’t perform the surgery, catching that issue in time made all the difference and it wasn’t too long before James called up my Dad and asked if we wanted to come buy the bike.
The spring-loaded mechanism behind this chrome cover is known as a "mousetrap" and minimizes the amount of force needed to hold in the clutch lever. It was used by Harley-Davidson from 1952-1964.
When we arrived, I was expecting to load up the truck with a few boxes of parts, a frame, front end, etc. and was surprised to find out that James had fully assembled the bike. After a little bit of small talk, James and his wife led us over to a low roofed barn with three sets of double doors. Behind the first set of doors was late 70’s Corvette, which on any other day I would have spent some time checking out, but my mind was fixed on getting to see that Harley and I closed the door without giving it a second look. The next set of doors revealed an old truck which also was pretty cool, but again I shut the doors and moved on to the third set of doors which finally revealed the bike.
The standard Duo-Glide transmission was the “ratchet top” 4-speed, but both a three-speed w/ reverse and special police geared transmission were also available.
I remember James telling me he could still drive the other two but was too old to kickstart that Panhead. With his help, I pushed the bike outside and he went over the starting procedure step by step and then I cranked the bike for the first time. After a lifetime of listening to stories about that old Panhead it was amazing to finally hear it running and to be its second owner.
From 1961 - 1964 Harley-Davidson used dual 6-volt ignition coils which were matched to a dual point distributor allowing for each cylinder to be timed independently.
Over the years I’ve ridden it all over the east coast, from New York to Alabama and everywhere in between. I still keep in touch with James, but now I am the one telling the stories about that old Panhead. As it closes in on 60 years old, I can only guess what adventures and stories will be made with it in the future, but one thing is for sure, I will enjoy every minute of them.