Mellow Yellow Panhead Chopper

Check out this 1954 Panhead time machine...

AUSSIES ARE renowned scroungers; our Diggers doubly so. They were known for it. During both the world wars, and in other conflicts as well, they won the admiration of their peers for seemingly being able to pluck what they wanted from thin air. And at times they had the sweet pleasure of knowing these same skills irritated the hell out of their captors when they were unfortunate enough to wind up incarcerated as a prisoner of war.

It’s a real skill that is valued only by a select few these days and I am certain the old Diggers would be proud to know that tradition of scrounging continues among a section of the biker fraternity determined to see the old ways never die.

In an age when an increasing number of people are well-heeled enough to walk off the street and plonk down the money for whatever two-wheeled glitz wagon they have taken a shine to, it is comforting to know there are still some people who do it the old way: scrimping and saving, wheeling and dealing, swapping and bartering their way to a bike.

Call them traditionalists. They build bikes the way bikers have been doing it since the 1940s, more through necessity than anything else, but doing it nonetheless. 

Take the owner of this bright yellow 1954 pan. It took Bully more than two years to pull this beauty together from parts he had in his own stash, was given by mates, traded for, or scrounged from all over. It started out as a collection of parts his ever-loving referred to when she first saw it as “a pile of rusty shit”. Of course, Bully felt compelled to remind her that it was “good shit”, but she did have a point.

“There wasn’t much to it when I got in home,” said Bully. “An engine in a raked and stretched wishbone frame, and several boxes of bits… a lot of it ready for the tip really!”

Sound familiar? It will to those, like Bully, who have the ability to see beyond the obvious rust and decay.

And the price was right.

“I never thought I would be able to afford to build a chopper,” he said. “Then I came across this advert… a guy wanted $10,000 for the makings of a Panhead chop. I got the wife to agree at a weak moment.” (She had the flu and was so crook she didn’t have the strength to argue!)

Bully loaded two of his most knowledgeable Melbourne mates in the car for the drive up to Katamite, near Shepparton, to take a squiz and the rest, as they say in the classics, is history.

The deal was done and the trio dragged their prize back home and the scrounging, and wheeling and dealing, began. It helped that those mates — Mick ‘Nutty’ Owen and Ian Murphy — know their stuff. They, along with a few of their mates, are collectively known as Nut Flem Choppers. They’re backyard builders who have put together some sweet rides in the past based on Knucks, Pans and Shovels — invariably rigids with apes and jockey shifts. Hardcore stuff. And Bully would follow suit for his build.

The first good news followed a thorough inspection of the engine which revealed it was a standard 1200 cc that still had the Texta marks on the inside from when it had last been rebuilt.

“We reckon it had never been started since it had been put back together,” Bully said, and this tallied with the story the seller had told.

With the engine given the thumbs up, Bully dispatched the frame to Steve Little (Raceframe Engineering) to be checked over. Steve worked his magic, ensuring all was straight and true, and that the frame had all the ‘right’ tabs… even reinstalling the sidecar mounts for old time’s sake.

“Except for the rake and stretch work, the frame is now back to standard,” Bully said. It adds a touch of nostalgic authenticity that he likes.

The four-speed box that came with the bike was given the once over and also given the thumbs up, as was the 16-inch back wheel. The front-end came from a nephew who had purchased an ’06 Wide Glide and junked the stocker in favour of something flasher. Things were coming along nicely, and Bully used eight-over stanchions to get the bike “to sit right”.

He realises that electing to keep the Twin Cam front brake will upset the purists, but he likes to stop. He didn’t say it, but it might have something to do with an accident several years ago that has left him with a permanent limp; the result of someone pulling out of a driveway and failing to see him. The leg gives him a bit of trouble with the bike’s foot clutch but he can live with it.

You could say this was a chopper built by a committee as Bully explained that he and his mates would stand around the roller and “talk shit” for hours over a beer or three on what were to become referred to as ‘Chopper Days’.

Some important decisions were made at these meetings, including the inclusion of the Sporty-style tank mounted low on the frame with its flush-mounted filler; the stainless steel oil tank with built-in filter that negated the need for a lot of oil lines to be running about the engine; the 24-inch apes; the seat profile; how the rear guard would have to be to look ‘right’; the upswept ‘tulip’ or ‘cocktail shaker’ pipes; and the high rear sissy bar that complements the period-look Bully was aiming for.

The OEM 38 mm CV carb was his idea. “I had an SU on there. It looked the part but I couldn’t get my leg around it… the CV is a good alternative for a stock engine like mine and I have never had any problems with it,” he said. The carby was another part scrounged from someone who had ditched it in favour of an iconic S&S.

The bike is an easy starter, even from cold, and runs like the proverbial Swiss clock.

There are some other neat touches like the stock Twin Cam rear brake. It doesn’t look out of place, balances the front nicely, and gives the bike ‘real world’ stopping power. And it was cheap too! With people ditching their stockers in favour of alternatives from manufacturers like PM and others, it means dinki-di scroungers like Bully can swoop in and scoop up a bargain.

The sparks are supplied by an electronic Mallory distributor and the ignition is cleverly concealed behind the original tin primary that also encloses the 30 mm Primo belt drive. The final drive is by chain.

The eight-ball shifter-knob is a classic touch, but the paint certainly isn’t. And it was something his ‘committee’ wasn’t happy with either when he first raised it. “Fuck that,” was how Nutty Owen summed up the feeling amongst the group. But Bully swam bravely against the tide.

“Well at least give it a black frame,” Ian suggested.

“Nope, it will be yellow too, but it will have black flames,” was Bully’s reply.

There was a lot of grumbling, but when the finished bike was finally unveiled to the group, it was Murph who quipped, “See I told you that would look good!”

Bully said patience is a virtue when it comes to building a chopper. And slow and steady wins the race. “If you are in a hurry you will stuff something up… or have to pay for through the nose for parts,” he said.

The bike has now been on the road for a couple of years and he has only really struck one snag, testament to the wisdom and effort of building it right the first time. “The heads were cracked… leaking oil all the time. No amount of repair seemed to work so I replaced them with a set from STD,” he said. Problem solved.

“Other than that it has run strong and true.” … And isn’t that just the way we like it!

Story: Grunt; photos: Skull

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