The Black Panther Panhead Harley-Davidson

"Most people might think that old Harley-Davidson bits are easy to find, well let me tell you, it didn’t take nearly four years to get this much done because we were sitting on our arses," said Mark.

THE EARLY SIXTIES was a time of freedom — pre-man on the moon, pre-Woodstock and pre-electric start motorbikes. Now I was born in the early sixties and this is where my inspiration for the style of Panhead Harley-Davidson I like comes from. You know, a bit from this model and bit from that one. All your favourites rolled into one to make a package that speaks of you and your ride.

The Black Panther started its life with me as probably the worst basket-case you have ever seen. A member of another club had a horrific accident and was killed on it. Every part from the frame to the engine and gearbox cases were either totalled or injured. It came into my possession about seven and half years ago and I started on it right away.

The front-end, an old narrow glide with Jap discs, was bent out of shape and found its way to the dump. The frame had been straightened years before by a well-known Brisbane identity who assured me it was all good.

Me and a mate got to pulling the engine down. The old girl had 4.75 inch flywheels with 1200 cc rods making her 88 cubes, but the barrels were out to 80-thou-over so we got a brand new set from Robbo at Shotgun Cycles. We then checked the heads which needed some attention. The values were alright but the guides and seats needed doing. She’s got an Andrews B series cam.

I wanted everything black so I painted the engine cases matt black with heat resistant paint and powder-coated the tin-tops giving the motor a real dark look.

The engine was the first thing we reassembled and it went together real well. I wish I could say that about the rest of the project.

We had to start looking for a lot of missing H-D Genuine bits like the juice back brake and front forks with drum brake. With the help of some mates, club brothers and some family, I got a lot of odd bits at swap meets like Gatton and Beaudesert; and some from Buck who used to have Ambrits in Capalaba.

I ended up with a right-hand front drum off a H-D Genny Shovel. It’s a pretty rare model Harley too, from ’66 through ’69. The four-inch-over legs are fitted to an early H-D Hydra-Glide front-end with matching fork tube covers and tins as I like them more than the alloy ones off the H-D Duo-Glide.

We sourced some matching FLH guards, hinged rear and early front, to go with the original three gallon tanks.

The old girl had an open one-inch belt primary which was one of the few parts not damaged, but I wanted to keep it looking real early so we got an original tin primary and covered it.

A bought some brand-new, 16-inch rims and had them powder-coated black, as are the star hubs, leaving the new spokes cad-plated, and polished or chromed the brake drums and covers.

Three years into this doing a-bit-here-and-there, we had the front-end on, the rear wheel in, and a rolling chassis was appearing. We had gotten to a point where we wanted to put the motor in the frame. I was overseas at the time, and my mate who’s helping rings me and says, “There’s something wrong; when you get back, you better come over.”

Now my mate doesn’t waste words or talk on phones so I’m wondering what’s up. Anyway, I get there few weeks later and he has scratched his head so much he has a bald patch appearing. I’m like, “What’s up, man?”

He says the motor doesn’t fit in the frame.

I’m saying, “Bullshit! You’re off your head — that’s the frame the motor came out of.”

So we start looking at the engine mounts. He’s got the front engine mounts matched up with the bolts in but there’s about an inch gap between the holes and the cases. So now I’m scratching my head because the well-known Brisbane identity who straightened the frame assured me it’s all good to go as it was straightened for the previous owner before I got the bike.

Now my mate’s what you might call eccentric to extremes and he has, by now, drawn pictures and measured every bolt hole from gearbox mounts to tank mounts, primary case, every conceivable angel, and he reckons nothing will fit.

The frame’s straight alright, the down tubes and bottom rails and backbone are all fine, but somehow they had fucked up the straightening after the accident and she is an inch or more too long. By now I’m on the phone nutting off as I got the frame powder-coated and we have done heaps of hours getting it to where it is.

Most people might think that old Harley-Davidson bits are easy to find, well let me tell you, it didn’t take nearly four years to get this much done because we were sitting on our arses. They’re rare as hen’s teeth now and anyone who’s got them won’t let them go, so finding another frame was like extracting teeth — but good to his word, the frame straightener found me one, checked it and got it powder-coated.

While this was all taking place, another six months float by blissfully as I keep plugging away getting other bits chromed, powder-coated or painted.

My good friends at Concorde Smash in Moorooka splashed the old girl with some fine PPG duco. We laid some jet black with ebony tinter down then put several coats of clear with lilac pearl over it. It’s real subtle, you have to look for it, but when the sun hits her, you can see hints of purple on the tanks, guards the oil tank.

Talking of oil tanks, that’s another cluster fuck that ended up a trilogy. Unbeknownst to me, someone’s customised the original one and put some extensions on it. Makes it look good but getting it to go back on with all the original parts was nearly as much drama as the frame debacle, but that’s the joys of rebuilding a basket-case. My son spent a few days of cursing the old man getting it into shape.

After what seemed a lifetime, we have finally sorted our frame, front-end on, wheels front and back, the motor and gearbox in, primary on, then wiring harness, tanks and guards on.

A mate, Steve Smith, helped out with a set of pipes and a few other odds and ends: cables, throttle, original bolts, etc.

The big day comes when we finally get to put gas in her and charge up the little battery that has waited patiently on the bench wanting to bring it all to life.

Now in keeping with the whole early sixties theme, I decided to run a suicide clutch and jockey shift. For those of you who haven’t ridden a Harley-Davidson with these, then let me tell you, it’s an art to get all your arms, legs, hands, and feet all going different directions when riding sober let alone when you’ve had a few.

With the timing and points gap set, fuel on, we started to kick the old girl… and kick and kick and kick a bit more. Oh, the joys of pre-sissy starts! This bought back not only lots of memories and some old blaspheming but our kick-starter knee injuries that had been in remission.

Stop kicking, swearing, re-group, another Corona or XXXX Gold, group meeting.

“Fuck,” says my brother. “Just push her and clutch start it.”

We all look at each other. Why not? That all sounds good for them but I haven’t ridden an old Pan with foot clutch and hand stick for about 15 years. But here goes — put her into second gear, a bit of a prod from my mates, bang, she fires straight into life — a few coughs and a splutter and I’m away down my mate’s long drive, out onto the country road and away.

With no helmet, hair and knees in the breeze and colours flying, all to the sweet sounds of the brand new 88 Panhead motor with a shit-eatin’ grin like a Cheshire cat. I’m thinking there must be a God in Heaven.

Look out, there’s an intersection, try to down gear, brake, stop, wooo… straight through. Jesus, reality check, better stop, turn around and get home before I get killed or arrested.

Well, that folks, is the story of how the basket-case became The Black Panther.

I’d like to thank Jeff Smith from Jeff’s Cycle Salvage for his tireless efforts helping me with this project, my son Cody, my brother Damien, and everyone else who chipped in to create my fantasy in black.

Pics by Jules @ Top Gun; words by Mark HAMC Brisbane

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