When the rare opportunity comes along for back-to-back rides on a pair of classic vintage Harley-Davidsons, a Knuckle and a Panhead, you seize the moment and hang on for all you’re worth.
I lingered over the vintage bikes at the motorcycle show wondering about a time gone by when roads were dirt and men were dirty. What was it like to blast around on those old machines? In my mind’s eye I was in a world of British parallel twins and American V-Twins. Would I have chosen to ride if these were the motorcycles available to me? As if to tease my imagination I recently came across a private vintage motorcycle show.
A local dealer, Don Kinghorn of Don’s Speed Parts in Wainwright, Alberta, has accumulated a nice collection of old iron. When there is space in his showroom he will display two, three or more of them. Don keeps most of his vintage motorcycles in ready-to-ride condition. It’s not uncommon to see him around town on one of them.
When I first encountered Don’s motorcycles I found myself on all fours peering into the mechanical mysteries on display. No ropes to bar access here, just a common love of two wheels and the art of mechanical propulsion. As much enjoyment as there is in looking at vintage bikes I still dreamed of riding one some day. To my surprise that day came this past summer. After several conversations with Don, he offered to give me a test ride on his 1952 Harley-Davidson Panhead and 1946 Harley Knucklehead. I was not prepared for what happened on the day I was to throw a leg over them.
As the old Knuckle and Panhead rolled out of the garage and into the sun they started to come to life. Having only ever encountered them as archaic museum curiosities they seemed very different now. Pushing them out into the sun I could feel their weight, smell fuel and oil, hear chain and gravel. The anticipation of the ride that builds every time I lift a motorcycle off the stand was stronger then ever. Would I be able to manage the foot clutch and hand shift? Would I damage these beauties or would they hurt me? These two Harleys were about to breath again.
Don began showing me how to turn fuel valves and pull out the kickstarter. These old motorcycles don’t need security systems, as only the initiated would ever figure out how to get them running. With the points manually advanced, the fuel trickled into the right places and with a firm jump on the kickstarter the Knucklehead came to life. The Panhead decided to make us work up a bit of a sweat.
In the process I was reminded to be careful as I forgot to kick all the way through and felt a firm kick back that could have been much worse. While it is an adventure just to get these classics running, once they are at idle the character of the standing rumble is remarkably familiar. No matter what the years of technological advances have given, 74 cubic inches of 45-degree iron gently exploding on the side stand remains. The heart of the matter was not as different as I had expected.
At this point Don’s easy smile and friendly nature became a little more serious. He was about to let me, a relative stranger who had never operated a foot clutch, mount two of his prize possessions. He demonstrated the procedure several times.
I straddled the Panhead and imitated his instructions: hold the throttle, remember there is no spring return so I have to push the throttle back, balance on my right foot while engaging the rocker clutch with my left foot. The moment of truth had arrived. Kicking the engine back to life I got on again and cautiously felt the balance of throttle and clutch to see where it would engage. I was ready. I gently rolled on the throttle while pushing the clutch forward and to my surprise the bike rolled forward and I was underway. I maneuvered the Panhead around the parking lot in a big loop, remembering to push in the clutch with my heel to coast around a tight U-turn and came to a stop in the same place I started. It seemed I had passed the test because after that Don encouraged me to try both of these motorcycles around the shop, and down the block, then out we went to the highway.
These bikes feel smaller than modern cruisers, not cramped, just smaller. At first I was concentrating on working the strange controls, worried I might damage something. It was only as I began to relax that the character of these classics started to become evident. Despite the unfamiliarity of the foot clutch both bikes were easy off the line. Throttle position and clutch control will determine how smooth the take-off is. The torque rich V-Twins took care of the rest. I never stalled either one.
My first impression was that everything felt loose. The air suspension provided by the tires. The over-sprung seats moving in every direction. I never realized how much I steer with seat inputs. These sprung saddles more or less eliminate this possibility. Both Knuckle and the Panhead had noticeable frame flex. I felt like everything was a delayed reaction. This was most noticeable with the brakes. I was soon casting my mind down the road and around the corner to anticipate if I might need to slow down or not. I liked the mechanical feel of the springer fork on the ‘46, but the telescopic unit on the ‘52 is a definite improvement. Though I bottomed out both seats a few times, the hardtails offered a better ride then I expected. This all adds up to a riding experience that I can only describe as vague.
I knew the motorcycle was underneath me but the connection was distant. This feeling was not so dramatic that it ever felt dangerous, except for the brakes. Stopping is more like an idea you have that slowly becomes more and more of a possibility. It pays to think ahead, anticipating any potential need of slowing down well in advance.
Having passed the parking lot test I headed down the street. Speeding up, the engine revving, I pushed in the clutch and grabbed the tank mounted shift leaver with my left hand. By the time I found a gear I had slowed down so much I had to shift back into first to take off again. On the second attempt I found third while still carrying enough momentum to lug off at a faster pace.
This was the moment I had been waiting for. Hoping for. Looking at these two Harleys is as good as any visual experience. Learning to ride is an entertaining lesson in the history of motorcycle technology. Getting up to a pace where the motor and the ride take centre stage is where these old bikes really shine.
Once on the highway they are everything I love about biking: the feel of the wind, the glint of chrome, swooping of metal and wheel, the flash of the road beneath, and the sound of the engine. And what an engine! These two power plants deliver. They lose nothing to today’s motorcycles. They produce power in a rich stream that feels as good and usable as anything I’ve ever ridden.
What first seemed like a vague connection between the machine in the parking lot and myself was more than made up for when actually cruising on the road. I don’t mean to imply that motoring down the highway is the same as it is on a modern motorcycle. It’s still vague. The brakes are still inadequate. Yet somehow all of these elements come together. What seemed an unnerving delay in the parking lot turned into a dreamy feeling on the highway. Yes, I was in control, but to some extent I was letting the bike choose its own path too. I had the sensation of floating down the highway.
On either bike the V-Twin remains at the heart of things. I don’t think I can adequately describe the power delivery. It is somehow richer, more full of character than most engines I’ve applied throttle to. I never understood the loyalty of the air-cooled American motorcycle rider until I rode these vintage Harley-Davidsons. If I had started riding on these power plants I believe I would always be searching for that old feeling.
After getting a good feel for the bikes on the highway, Don and I pulled over, turned around and headed back. He was riding the Panhead. It sputtered and then stalled as we tried to take off again. After some hard kicking it fired back up and off we went. A few hundred yards and he was standing on the side of the road again. He waved me on and limped all the way back, running a short way, stalling, waiting, starting again and repeating all the way. I think we were both happy to have reliable new motorcycles to return to.
I never did find second gear on the Knucklehead and we did not push past legal velocity. I did smile though. I smiled all day and for the next few days too. I’ll never pass a display of vintage motorcycles without remembering the day I got to ride a couple of them.
The Knuckle and the Panhead hold up surprisingly well. What they lack when compared to today’s mounts in sophistication and performance, they more than make up for in character and the raw riding experience that is sometimes masked behind plastic and electronics today. The men and women who first explored our roads on two wheels may have been closer to the soil of the earth than many of us are, but they were after the same things. A little adventure and the perfect line that cannot be explained to those who have never carved it.
by Marvin Penner with photos by Chad Penner Canadian Biker Issue #307