Sight Unseen: Kev’s ’51 Panhead

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Words Geoff Baldwin Photography Luke Ray.

My buddy Kev has a knack for importing vehicles. Over the years he’s accumulated a killer collection of custom bikes and cars that are enough to turn any moto enthusiast green. But of all his trick rides it’s his 1951 Harley Davidson Panhead that really takes my fancy. I’ll be honest here and say that Harleys have never really been my thing, but the first time I saw Kev’s Pan all that changed. There’s no denying that the era this bike’s from was one of the most visually spectacular automotive design periods in history, but Kev’s Pan is the perfect balance of classic '50s cool and tidy custom work. Everything from the chunky tyres to the wheel covers and cocktail shaker mufflers balances perfectly with its fifties styling. Like all of Kev’s bikes there’s a cool story behind how it ended up in his hands, but this one brings a whole new meaning to “sight unseen”.

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Kev had been on the lookout for a Panhead for a while. He’d just missed out on buying one from a buddy here in Melbourne so he’d expanded his search to include bikes located in the US. This is when he stumbled across a 1951 Panhead FL on the Born Loser blog. The matching numbers, restored and lightly customised Pan had the ‘50s ‘Hotrod’ style that Kev loved and it looked to be in great condition. Mike Davis owner of Cycle Lodge and one of the masterminds behind the Born Free Show had listed it for sale and since he knew Mike had an excellent reputation he contacted him straight away.

After a bit of negotiating a price was quickly settled on. Mike also agreed to store the bike at his place in LA while Kev organized getting it shipped over to Australia. A few days later Kev decided that since it was Mike who was selling him the bike and that the next Born Free show was fast approaching, he’d buy himself a ticket to the States, pick up the bike from Mike’s place and ride it to Born Free 5.

Three months passed by and Kev was finally on his way to the Born Free Show and to finally see his Panhead in the flesh. It was Born Free’s fifth year and the show had grown to epic proportions with over 15,000 in attendance at the Oak Canyon Ranch. With so much to organize Mike regrettably wasn’t able to get the Panhead to Kev before the show. Undeterred Kev made his way to the show and navigated his way through the sea of people to find Mike. With everything Mike had going on they only managed to talk for half an hour before he had to rush off again.

Firstly though they made arrangements to meet a few days later back at Mike’s workshop in LA. Kev still wasn’t disappointed. The Born Free show was bigger and better than any bike event he’d been to before so he took his time exploring the stalls, checking out the invited builders bikes and walking through the parking lot. It was there that he also happened to buy another bike, his ’69 Gennny Shovel ‘Lane Splitter’…but that’s another story altogether.

Just as they’d planned Kev and Mike met a few days later at his Cycle Lodge workshop in LA. Over the following few days Kev had the opportunity to hang out with the Born Free invited builders that were still in town. They went out for dinners together, sank beers in the workshop, talked bikes all day, but they still didn’t make it back to Mike’s place to check out the Panhead. Kev still didn’t mind though, after all how many opportunities does a guy in Australia get to hang with the Born Free crew in LA?

Before he knew it the time to head home had come. He said goodbye to Mike and his chances of seeing the bike in the States. Kev landed back home and another 4 more months passed before his Panhead finally arrived on the docks in Melbourne. All up it had been 7 months since he sealed the deal with Mike. He’d traveled half way around the world, spent a month in the same town as it, hung out with the guy who sold it to him and he still hadn’t even laid a finger on it. Despite all that and despite buying the bike unseen from a total stranger he knew it was going to be fine.

When Kev saw the bike in the shipping yard it was exactly as Mike described. He finally had the chance to sit on his new 1951 Harley Davidson Panhead. He transported the bike home and without hesitation dumped the old oil, gave it a couple of primes and with one good kick it fired straight up. Since then the bike’s never skipped a beat and Kev hasn’t changed a thing about it. The Pan is now ridden once or twice a week and Kev’s put 3000 miles on the clock, which has included a couple of 400 mile runs with the Ruiner boys. The engine, which was rebuilt by JPC in San Fran prior to Mike getting his hands on it, is as reliable as his modern bikes. He hasn’t seen another Panhead that looks the same and I doubt he ever will.

This article first appeared in Tank Moto issue 05.

Follow Kev @digger6969.

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