Mellow Yellow: 1961 Harley-Davidson FLH Panhead

In 1961, there was nothing on the market quite like the big 648-pound Harley-Davidson FLH.

1961 Harley-Davidson FLH Panhead

1961 Harley-Davidson FLH

Photo by Sedrick Mitchell

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1961 Harley-Davidson FLH
Claimed power: 60hp @ 5,400rpm
Top speed: 100mph (claimed)
Engine: 1,208cc (74ci) air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin, 87mm x 101mm bore and stroke, 8:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 648lb (295kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.75gal (14ltr)/35-45mpg (est.)
Price then/now: $1,400/$13,000-$20,000

1961 was the heyday of the drive-in, the diner and big cars with fins. Popular culture was definitely American-centric. Across the country, jukeboxes everywhere were Tossin’ and Turnin’ with Bobby Lewis, Falling to Pieces with Patsy Cline, and looking for that Runaway with Del Shannon. The Beatles, the British Invasion, unrest on college campuses and the anti-war movement were still in the future, and the civil rights movement was just gathering steam. In 1961, optimism was the order of the day, and America was the place to be.

U.S. motorcycle enthusiasts of the day were a small, hardy lot, buying about 60,000 motorcycles a year. Honda had appeared on American shores in 1959, and by 1961 had gained a small but significant share of the market. The Nicest People ad campaign was still two years in the future, and despite efforts by the AMA and the British importers to improve the image of motorcyclists, much of the U. S. public saw motorcyclists as suspect people with grease under their fingernails. There was some truth to this observation — if you owned a motorcycle in 1961, you probably worked on it.

Choices, choices

Besides the small Honda motorcycles that were beginning to appear in high school parking lots, American riders of 1961 could choose between BMW flat twins from Germany; Matchless, BSA, Norton, Royal Enfield, Velocette and Triumph motorcycles from England; and Ducati singles from Italy, to name just a few. The sole American motorcycle company (ignoring pint-size builders Mustang and Cushman), Harley-Davidson, sold 10,467 motorcycles that year. Harley had pretty much sewn up the police bike market, which was not an unmitigated blessing as the big, heavy patrol vehicles favored by police departments weren’t necessarily what the rest of the buying public wanted. A lot of the 60,000 motorcycles sold in 1961 were light and sporty imports.

That isn’t to say Harley-Davidson wasn’t trying to make bikes the general public would want, and H-D’s lineup for 1961 was extensive. Harley had purchased an interest in Italian manufacturer Aermacchi the year before, and the first Sprints, stylish and sporty 250cc singles, were now appearing in dealers’ showrooms. Other offerings included Super 10 165cc 2-stroke single lightweights, Topper scooters, and Sportsters.

The 1961 FLH, however, was like nothing else on the market. It weighed 648 pounds dry, with a 60-inch wheelbase. The 60 horsepower engine would pull that massive chassis to almost 100mph. For comparison, the contemporary and faster Triumph Bonneville T120 weighed 404 pounds dry, had a 56.5-inch wheelbase and made 46 horsepower at 6,500rpm. Yet the FLH was apparently what police departments wanted, so that was what Harley built.

Power was from a 45-degree, 1,208cc overhead valve V-twin with a single throw crank assembly. Ignition was battery and coil through a distributor, with electrics powered by a generator. The rockers were covered with baking pan-shaped covers, leading to the nickname Panhead.

Riding and wrenching

In addition to police departments, the target market for the first Panheads included demobilized GI’s happy to be home from World War II. Harley sold almost 13,000 Panheads in 1948, the first year of production. The 1948 version was considerably lighter than later Pans — 565 pounds dry for the 74-cubic-inch version. Early Pans could also be bought with a 61-cubic-inch engine, and all of the early Panheads had rigid rear ends.

Many veterans had learned mechanical and welding skills in the military, and they put their knowledge to work improving their rides. The most foolproof way to improve lap times was to reduce weight. Extra chrome was removed, fenders were sawed off, and stock mufflers were replaced by straight pipes to create what were called “cut-downs,” “California bobbers” and “choppers.”

Meanwhile, the company engineers were improving the product. Telescopic forks replaced the springers in 1949, foot shift became available in 1952 and the smaller engine was dropped. In 1953 the hydraulic valve lifters that were a Panhead feature from the beginning were moved from the top end to the timing case, and a more powerful version of the Panhead engine became available in 1955. This engine, coded FLH, had a stronger bottom end running on Timken tapered roller bearings to support higher compression. In 1956, Harley introduced the hotter “Victory” camshaft and even higher compression pistons.

This deliberate rate of innovation was in part due to shrinking sales. As GIs settled down and started raising families, their motorcycles got traded in for Buicks and washing machines.

Harley finally came out with a swingarm frame in 1958. Although Milwaukee had been building middleweights with rear suspension since 1952, the Panhead had been soldiering on with a hardtail frame. This frame was not as uncomfortable as it sounds, since the seat was supported by a sprung, damped seat post which took a lot of the bumps out of the road. By the early Fifties, however, engineering developments had proven the superiority of sprung frames, and by 1957, the Harley Big Twin was the only street motorcycle on the market with a rigid rear.

The 1958 Duo-Glide swingarm frame had the silhouette that most people identify as Harley, with beefy dual shocks, big fenders and fat tires. 1958 was also the first year for hydraulic rear brakes and the white wall tire option. Few upgrades appeared for some time after that: Harley simply didn’t have the money to develop the product. The 1959 Big Twin had a neutral light, while 1960 saw an updated rear brake drum and aluminum pushrod covers.

The 1961 Harley FLH had a new generator, new coils and a dual point circuit breaker. It cost $1,400 and came in two standard and four optional colors — not including yellow. Die-hards and sidecar enthusiasts could get a Duo-Glide with a hand shift. Fewer than 5,000 Big Twins were built that year, out of the 10,497 total Harleys sold, and dealers had to figure out ways to wring what money they could out of each sale in order to keep the doors open. One way to tack on a little extra profit was to sell accessories.

Chrome was in. Milwaukee, taking its cues from Detroit styling, started by ornamenting the stock bike with a chrome headlight nacelle, beefy chrome forks, and a big round chrome air cleaner cover. All 1961 Panheads came with one of nine extra-charge “equipment groups.” A touring owner might order the King of the Highway group, which included a Super Deluxe Buddy seat (choice of black and white or red and white upholstery) black or white plastic saddlebags, directional signals, chrome front and rear bumpers, a chrome front hubcap and dual mufflers with a crossover.

Harley also offered a full page of supplemental equipment, from practical additions such as an oil filter and a center stand to ornamental offerings like chrome handlebar clamp covers. Some of Harley’s 1961 offerings even seem slightly bizarre today. Few of us ride through Midwestern winters, but the 1961 motorcycle rider was a hardy breed, so Harley offered a winter windshield kit, leg shields and a lap cover for bikers who intended to venture out in February. Just about everyone smoked in 1961, so Harley listed a cigarette lighter, too.

There was also a full line of police accessories. One item that was much in demand was a hand control “tell tale” speedometer. In the days before radar, the highway patrol officer would match speed with the vehicle he wanted to pull over, hit the button on the speedometer, and activate the siren. The red hand on the speedo would stay where it was when the button was pressed, providing court evidence that Big Al was doing 85 in his chopped and channeled Ford.

The Panhead got an electric start in 1965, and a whole new top end in 1966, and sales took off almost immediately. The nickname for the new iteration was Shovelhead. The first Shovels were mostly a development of the Pan, with rocker boxes instead of rocker covers, but as time went on, they began to look more like today’s Harley, with an alternator instead of a generator.

Coming back

Some of the riders who had been stripping down bikes into bobbers began to experiment with fat rear tires, peanut tanks and extended forks. In the mid-Sixties, Panheads were just old used bikes, so no one cared about someone re-welding frame necks, cutting off extra frame tangs and mounts, or cutting up fenders.

Problem is, there were never a lot of Panheads built, and the number that have survived the Sixties and Seventies in stock — or even restorable — condition is much smaller. About 20 years ago, a small group of enthusiasts decided they really liked old stock Harleys, and started restoring and collecting them. Up to that point, vintage enthusiasts had mostly concentrated on Indians, Excelsiors and Hendersons. The idea that Harleys could be collectible gained traction, and increasing numbers of Harley people joined the vintage movement. Mark McClymonds, the owner of our feature bike, is a new convert to the old bike cause.

Mark was a dirt bike racer as a kid. Like a lot of folks, he got out of bikes for a while, then started getting interested again. He bought a Fat Boy, then another Harley. Eventually, Mark decided he wanted to own a classic. “I was watching bikes on eBay, and saw one I liked,” Mark remembers. “I put a bid on it, and went on a trip with my wife. I came back, and the computer said, “Congratulations! You won!” Boy, was I surprised.”

Mark took delivery of his Panhead and went over it. “It was rough, with pieces missing on the engine, but all the bodywork was there. A neighbor and I did the restoration. We took the cases apart and went through the engine. The local machine shop does a lot of Pans, and they helped us.” Mark and his friend replaced all the bearings, honed the cylinders, and rebuilt the carburetor. Mark bought new pistons from Harley and replaced the valves. He also went through the 4-speed transmission, but it didn’t need much.

The real fun started when most of the bike was together and Mark was able to pick and choose accessories. “What we could, we got from Harley. J&P Cycles supplied the rest of the stuff. The hubcap was on the bike, and I had it re-chromed. The Buddy seat was also on the bike, and I had it recovered. The bags on the bike weren’t the originals, but I found these reproductions of the correct bags,” Mark says.

Other period accessories on this bike are the windshield (available in three different colors in 1961 — this is the blue version), the spotlights, the turn signals (an option since 1958) and the chrome luggage carrier. So why did Mark paint his otherwise period-correct bike a non-period yellow? “I’m partial to that color of yellow. I have a Road King that color,” Mark says matter-of-factly.

Except for the ’65 model, you have to kick start most Panheads, and successfully kick starting this Duo-Glide takes careful adherence to procedure. “With the key off and the choke and throttle open, kick three times,” Mark explains. “Turn the key on, give it half choke and work the kick lever so that you are on compression. You want it to spark right away. Then kick.” The engine is loosening up with use, and Mark is getting the process down. And he says it’s gradually getting easier to start.

Once started, however, Mark says his Pan idles well, doesn’t take too long to warm up, and runs smoothly. “It’s comfortable, and seems like it’s well balanced. It has a good riding position. It feels lighter than a modern Harley. I shift when the rpms go up — there’s no tach. A good cruising speed is 55-60mph.”

Despite his surprise learning he was the proud owner of a Panhead, Mark is happy he won that eBay auction. “It rides good and motors good. I like joyriding it around locally with friends. I primarily ride secondary roads, anyway. It has enough power and just goes down the road really nicely.” Which is exactly what most of us are looking for in the first place. MC