Thursday, December 3, 2009

Bringing a Panhead (and youth) back to life

Bringing a Panhead (and youth) back to life
Thursday, December 03, 2009
By Rocky Marks

After years of restoration and rebuilding, Dan Decker is back on his Harley Panhead, the bike he rode in his youth, right.
My father-in-law, Dan Decker, used to ride his 1956 Harley-Davidson Panhead around the Cambria County town of Ebensburg in the '60s and '70s. He didn't do it because he thought he was "cool" or it was "the thing to do." He did it out of necessity. It was his only mode of transportation. It didn't matter if it was raining, sleeting or snowing, that was his ride.

Ride and write
Welcome to Pittsburgh Rides, our regular feature on motorcycling. Here we bring you the latest in rides, trends and events, but we need your input. We're looking for voices from the local biking community willing to share (in roughly 500 words) your experiences on the road and what you think is hot on wheels.

Send your story or pitch to Weekend editor Scott Mervis at

Not only did that old Harley take him to and from work, but it safely delivered him to and from trade school in Quincy, Ill., where he became a certified gemologist. When he married my mother-in-law, they were able to put enough money together to purchase a car. It was a green Volkswagen Beetle, which was pretty inexpensive at the time and allowed him to hang on to that old Panhead.

My in-laws moved back to the Johnstown area in the '70s and it served as a second vehicle up until the late '70s when their family began to expand. In 1981, he parked it, put it under a cover with a promise to one day bring it back to life again.

That day came in 1998 around the time his oldest daughter and I were about to get married. His thought was now that the kids were moving out of the house, getting married and starting their own families, it would be a good time to bring it out of storage and put it front and center in the garage to start the restoration.

He started dissembling the motorcycle piece by piece. He neatly labeled the parts and put the bolts in their own little baggies. As he moved from one area of the bike to the next he discovered two very important things. His eyes weren't what they used to be and neither was his patience.

Determined to get his bike back on the road, he enlisted a local bike builder and the project was on. That was 1998. Less than a month ago, the project was completed. What started out as a two-year project, turned into just shy of 11 years.

It wasn't because of laziness that the project took so long. In fact, it was quite the opposite. Dan and Tom, the bike builder, sat down and mapped out the entire project vowing to only use original parts. Everything was to be exactly how it would have rolled off the showroom floor in 1956.

Of course, they don't make original replacement parts for motorcycles that are more than 50 years old, so a lot of time and dedication was put into researching what needed to go on to the motorcycle and then trying to find the original pieces.

This project took them from the Internet, to swap meets, to old Harley dealerships trying to find the exact part they needed. If a part could not be located, it was fabricated, chromed and mounted onto the motorcycle.

Over that 10-year period, Dan and Tom got to know each other well. They were two enthusiasts, each on their own mission to restore not only a piece of history, but part of Dan's younger days.

My in-laws are regular riders. They have taken their Harley-Davidson Ultra to each corner of the United States on four separate trips. Each trip brought them closer together and restored their youth and enthusiasm for riding.

After this last trip to California, Dan received the news that he had been waiting for almost 11 years to hear. The bike was finally finished and it looked exactly like it did when he was almost 40 years younger. Dan wanted to be there when the bike came back to life, so the builder didn't start the bike until my father-in-law was present.

After a few minutes of getting the fluids through the engine and a couple swift kicks, the old Harley fired back to life along with the memories of Dan's youth. After a few adjustments of the carburetor, the old Panhead was on its way home.

Even though the bike was finished late in the riding season, Dan managed to get some miles on his bike before the snow started to fly. When I went home for Thanksgiving, he proudly unveiled his motorcycle and started it up for the family to enjoy.

It was very hard not to share in the excitement of the moment. The journey to restoration was long. The parts list and time involved added up, but the trip back to Dan's youth was priceless.

I can't wait for spring to get on the bike and feel firsthand what he experienced almost 40 years ago.

Rocky Marks is the operations manager for Hot Metal Harley-Davidson in West Mifflin and host of the weekly radio show "On the Road With Rocky" on 1250 AM WEAE.

Read more:

No comments: