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Mystery Panheads

An Old Motorcycle Legend Come True

Photos and text by Jim Inman
6/10/2010 1:18:41 PM

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two in front of 

Over the years an antique motorcycle collector hears many legends and rumors about old motorcycles that are said to be rusting away in a barn somewhere, or one found in factory-new -condition in the basement of an old hardware store. Here's the legend of the two nearly complete, unmodified, Harley Panheads that were pulled from a desert dump.

This is a confirmed dream come true.

The fossilized remains of two 1955 FL Panheads! The serial numbers are just three digits apart. Never separated, these bikes survived side-by-side, in good times and bad, for almost 50 years. They were salvaged from a desert scrap pile where they had been dumped after their service in the Middle East.

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Following the first Gulf War in 1991, a technical advisor and factory rep for an American military contractor (we'll call him the "Tank Guy") liberated the big twins from where they had been unceremoniously dumped with a payloader.

The Harley-Davidson big twin is arguably the most commonly modified machine in the world. These two examples are unmodified from original condition. Unmodified but well dented, they would be easy restorations. The motor cases are in perfect condition and the frames appear to be untouched and straight. Believe me, beautiful restorations have blossomed from more humble beginnings than these.

full right pan

To restorers and judges of antique motorcycles, these bikes serve as perfect examples to verify the factory correct finishes of chrome, parkerization, cadmium plating or paint for a proper restoration. True Panhead fanatics have been known to go into a trance-like state while examining un-restored originals.

Both motorcycles are equipped with sirens, even though they are basically civilian models. Police model, rigid-frame Panheads would have had different oil tanks, batteries, generators and voltage regulators.

1955 Panheads featured an improved D-ring to help seal the rocker arm cover gaskets from oil leakage. These D-rings had six screws when the bikes were delivered, but because there was still some oil leakage from the rockerbox gaskets, the D-rings were drilled for twelve screws when the '55 models were serviced at the dealers. These bikes retain the six screw D-ring configuration as well as the very rare 1954/55 carburetor support that was usually replaced too. It appears that these bikes were never returned to a dealer for service.

The Tank Guy was told that the bikes have less than 4,000 miles on them. The kickstands are not worn flat on the bottom and that reflects low mileage, but dismantling of the speedometers will be needed to determine the actual mileage. For now the exact mileage remains a mystery.

two in 

Unmodified but abused, the machines radiate an aura of dignity.

True survivors, they have finally made it back to a dealership for a little R&R! Presently, the "Desert Rats" reside in the showroom of Wisconsin Harley-Davidson/Buell in Oconomowoc, Wisconsin, just 30 miles from Milwaukee, where they started their journey. The public can get a good look at them there.

Like Venus DeMilo, they are broken but beautiful. Stop by and pay your respects. --James A. Inman

We will have the Bikernet old Harley experts review these bikes and give us additional info in the near future.

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Reader Comments

I just bought a pepper red 1955 Panhead, coming as a rolling chassis with engine and tranny plus several boxes of restored and unrestored parts. The bike has a 1955 dutch title, so it is in our country since it was made and exported. The d-rings are dealer serviced into 12 hole ones. Am looking forward to restoring this bike, not into like new condition because I really like to keep the old and used look as much as possible. So I sure like this article and also the pics of the two pepper red Pans, will print and frame it to hang on to and not let it get away from me. Thanks a lo !!! Greetings,

--George (born 1957 and riding a pearl white 2003 100th Fat Boy)

George Rhebergen
Lochem, Gelderland, Netherlands
Thursday, October 27, 2011
Editor Response Let us know if you need any help with it. I just sold my '48 Panhead.

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