Motorcycle Classics

The Million-Mile 1949 Harley-Davidson Panhead

Every motorcyclist dreams of hearing the magic phrase: “You know, I know where there’s this old bike that’s been sitting at the back of this garage for years …” With those momentous words, the hunt begins. Too often the machine revealed is a worthless Hondazukimaha pile of hopeless oxidation, but sometimes, it’s a collector’s dream: a genuine classic motorcycle. The Vincent in the Barn (Motorbooks, 2009) by Tom Cotter offers 40 stories of motorcycle-hunting dreams come true. In this excerpt is from Chapter 4, “Passion Plays,” Dale Walksler revives a 1949 Harley-Davidson Panhead for a man who never got to ride this family heirloom until now.

“Every day I meet the most incredibly interesting people at the Wheels Through Time Museum,” said curator Dale Walksler. “Some have interesting motorcycles, some have interesting motorcycle stories, and some have both.”

Walksler remembered one particularly busy Saturday when one young man, who seemed shy, was hanging around the front counter.

“I could tell he wanted to talk to me,” he said. “And because I’m always anxious to talk to anybody, I said, ‘Can I help you?'”

The young man, Lee Miller, 36, of Hickory, North Carolina, said yes, and proceeded to tell Walksler about his granddad’s Harley-Davidson.

“I’ve got some photographs,” said Miller. “The old bike has been sitting on our front porch for 40 years. It’s at our family home place outside of Granite Falls, North Carolina.”

The grandfather, W. L. Klotz, was born in that house, lived in that house, and died in that house, according to Miller. Miller’s mother, JoAnn, remembered as a little girl when her father used to ride his prized Harley. But her son, Lee, even though he is 35 years old, had never seen the bike run.

“The last time I rode on it, I was probably eight or nine years old,” said JoAnn Miller. “He would [give me a] ride to the store on it. I’d sit on the front of the seat and hold onto his wrists.”

“He bought the bike in 1952 and rode it that year and in 1953,” she said. “After that, North Carolina had a law that you had to have insurance on motorcycles, so he parked it because he couldn’t afford insurance on both a car and a motorcycle.”

“Lee had some interest in the bike,” said Walksler, “and people had been coming by the house for 10 or 15 years trying to buy it, but it was a family heirloom and was not for sale. He showed me two pictures of the bike sitting on the porch. It was a great-looking 1949 Harley-Davidson Panhead, and I thought it was extremely cool.”

Miller also showed Walksler some of his grandfather’s original paperwork for the bike, including the sales contract. It was signed on October 11, 1952, and committed Klotz to make six payments of $49.46 each and a final payment of $44.54 for the used 1949 Harley, serial number 49EL3353. Klotz financed the $346.30 purchase though Kilbourn Financial Corporation of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

“So at some point in our conversation, I mentioned to Lee that he should bring the bike over to the museum so we could take a look at it,” said Walksler. “Maybe we could even get it running.”

“You’re kidding me!” said Miller.

Walksler assured him he wasn’t kidding and handed him a business card. “Call me sometime and we’ll get that thing running,” he said.

That was on a Saturday. The following Wednesday Miller was on the phone and wanted to know if he could bring the Harley over on Friday.

“I told him it was a great idea and that I would have my video crew record it for one of my Time Machine shows,” he said.

“Lee showed up at about 5 p.m. with his mom, JoAnn.

“We gave the bike a pretty thorough 5-minute evaluation, unloaded it from the trailer, and brought it into the shop. We had it running in 15 minutes and had it perfected by the end of the evening.”

Within a week, it was operating well enough that Walksler said you could have hopped on it and ridden it anywhere, if you were happy with riding it on old tires.

“The saving grace was that the carburetor and gas tank were dry, so apparently old W. L. drained them before he parked the bike,” said Walksler. “It was a huge time savings to us in getting the bike revived again.

“The bike was incredibly straight and hadn’t been damaged. A lot of times bikes are put up when they are on their last breath, maybe with a blown transmission or a blown rod, or a bad ring. This was a case where a perfectly good motorcycle had been parked on a porch for 40 years while W. L. raised his family.”

Walksler said that most people would take a bike like this 1949 Harley-Davidson Panhead and completely restore it, but he said a bike in this condition deserves to be preserved in its original condition.

“In today’s world, barn finds have a lot more interesting stories to tell than restored machines,” he said, “because all those stories are still attached to the bike.

“I’ve seen hundreds of before-and-after photos, but personally, I’d rather see the before pictures and never even see the finished product.”

According to JoAnn, they had discussed fixing up the bike for years, but her father was always worried that his grandson, Lee, would get hurt on it. When her father died in December 2007, they knew the time was right to get it running in honor of Klotz.

“When I was a little girl, I rode a million miles on that bike when it sat on the porch,” she said. “I never doubted that it would run just as good as it did when I was a little girl.

“When Dale got it all fixed, he told me to crank it. I told him, ‘There’s no way I have the power to crank up that bike.’ But Dale said, ‘Your daddy is going to help you.’

“I know he’s smiling down on us now.”

You can see Dale Walksler’s four-part video on reviving W. L. Klotz’s 1949 Harley-Davidson Panhead by going to Wheels Through Time and clicking on Dale’s Blog.

More from The Vincent in the Barn:

• Rare Birds: Restoring a 1907 Curtiss Motorcycle
• The Super Supercharged Vincent Black Lightning
The Vincent Black Shadow Engine of Saigon

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Vincent in the Barn, published by Motorbooks, 2009.

  • Published on Jun 15, 2012
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