Harley-Davidson is one of the most iconic brands in the motorcycle industry, and for damn good reason. This all-American marque – which was established back in 1903 – has produced some of the most beloved and revered motorcycles of all time. Perhaps no Harley-Davidson captures this magic quite like the Panhead.
Harley-Davidson Panheads rolled onto the motorcycle scene in 1948, just after the end of World War Two. The label refers to the distinctive new V-twin engine design that these bikes had in which Harley-Davidson introduced new rocker covers that looked like roasting pans that had been turned upside down. The illustrious Panhead was born.
Before the emergence of the Panhead, Harley models had used OHV (overhead valve) engines which later became known as “Knuckleheads”. These bikes had cast-iron cylinder heads, which weren't great at diffusing heat and frequently suffered from oil leaks. The new Panhead engines solved these problems, just in time for one of the Golden Ages of the motorcycle industry.
So why is the Harley-Davidson Panhead so legendary? In this article, we'll delve into the development and history of this iconic model and we'll also take a look at the Panhead's seismic impact on motorcycle culture as a whole.
Development & History
Since 1936, Harley-Davidson had been using a new form of overhead valve (OHV) engines that later became known as Knuckleheads. The cylinders were made from cast-iron and had a series of distinctive grooves that resembled knuckles. This cylinder configuration was used on Harley-Davidson's WLA military motorcycles ridden by American servicemen during World War Two and had gained a high level of notoriety among the growing motorcycle movement.
Once these servicemen returned home, peacetime demanded different characteristics from motorbikes, and with a huge boom in highway construction, riding on the open road became much more appealing. Unfortunately, Harley's Knucklehead models weren't suited to this type of riding. Cast-iron isn't hugely effective at dissipating heat from the engine, leading to some overheating issues on long, fast rides. Knucklehead engines were also susceptible to regular oil leaks because the rockers and valve springs were left exposed.
To combat these issues and capture the hearts and minds of a rapidly growing generation of motorcyclists, Harley made some changes and in 1948, the Knucklehead engine was succeeded by the Panhead. The new engine style incorporated large finned aluminum cylinder heads that were much better at diffusing heat, allowing riders to enjoy longer, faster rides without the risk of overheating.
The Panhead engines also put a stop to the oil leak plague by enclosing the rockers and valve springs underneath a large aluminum cover that looked like an upside-down roasting pan. The Panhead nickname quickly took hold, and a new era began for Harley-Davidson. Panheads were on sale for almost 20 years from 1948 to 1965 and gradually evolved through the years. Not long after the introduction of Panhead engines, Harley-Davidson ditched the classic springer suspension forks in favor of new hydraulic and telescopic forks, known as the Hydra-Glide. Rear suspension and drum brakes also became a staple of Panhead bikes in 1958 thanks to the Duo-Glide models.
The final Panhead model – the 1965 Electra-Glide – added an electric starting button to complete a legacy of mile-munching motorcycles that were perfect for the open roads of post-War America. Throughout their production lifespan, Panheads also had a huge impact on motorcycle culture through the custom motorcycle scene.
As a clear improvement over the older Knucklehead motors, Harley's new Panhead V-twins generated great performance on the long, open highways rapidly springing up across America after the War. The new aluminum cylinder head construction banished the overheating and oil leak issues that had been characteristic of the Knucklehead engines.
When first released in 1948, the Panhead was available in two engine sizes: 61ci and 74ci. This gave the Panhead Harleys an early horsepower range of between 50 and 55 horsepower and a top speed of around 100 mph. The cast-iron cylinder heads of the old Knucklehead models were replaced by aluminum alloy cylinder heads. However, the early incarnations of the Panhead suffered from their own teething problems. Mainly because the aluminum materials could conduct so much more heat, they expanded more quickly.
This meant that there was a risk of more valve lash, which is the clearance between the valve and the rocker. Valve lash could've caused the engines to suffer from rough running, but Harley-Davidson got around the issue by using hydraulic lifters to maintain the correct clearance. However, Harley initially fitted these lifters on top of the pushrods, making it hard for oil to reach the valves. Harley's engineers rectified this in 1953 by moving the lifters to the bottom of the pushrods, eliminating the need for constant valve adjustments.
As the Panhead bikes received further improvements to suspension and comfort, the iconic V-twin engines continued to carry riders right across the United States. Harley's marketing campaigns highlighted the Panhead's ability to “turn mountains into molehills and miles into minutes” thanks to the smooth performance of these engines. Panhead Harleys initially used foot-operated clutches with a hand shift for the four-speed transmission, but in 1952, a new configuration became available – hand-operated clutches with foot shift. Although the new setup took time to be widely used, it made long-distance riding even easier.
A final update to the Panhead engine came in 1965 with the addition of an electric starter button. This made the traditional kickstart mechanism outdated, although it could still be added to a bike at the customer's request. The Panhead was then replaced by the Shovelhead from 1966 on.
Although the clever engine configuration of the Panhead is the main draw, the gradual improvements to the chassis and suspension had just as much impact on the Panhead becoming an iconic motorcycle. These changes made Harley-Davidson Panheads more comfortable to ride over long distances and form a key part of the model's legacy. Because the Panhead engines were taller than their Knucklehead predecessors, Harley had to design longer and wider frames. They used double down-tubes to create the well-known wishbone-style frame. The chassis featured mounting plates for the engine guards and resulted in a longer wheelbase of 59.5”, which provided more stability at high speeds.
In the first year of production, Panhead Harleys still used the springer front suspension used by the company since 1930, but in 1949, Harley redesigned the suspension to provide greater comfort on the highway. This involved replacing the springer system with hydraulically-powered telescopic forks, which was marketed as the Hydra-Glide model. The Hydra-Glide was one of the first production motorcycles to incorporate the principles of streamlining. These Panhead bikes had teardrop-shaped fuel tanks and a similar shape for the instrument binnacle. The front forks were also plated with chrome for a modern, iconic look that still influences new Harley-Davidson's today.
1958 saw further improvements to the chassis and handling of the Panhead bikes with the introduction of twin rear shocks for extra comfort. This innovation created the Duo-Glide model and was the final nail in the coffin for rigid motorcycle frames. The Panhead had ushered in the age of the cruising motorcycle as riders continually wanted a smoother ride for the highway. As more features were added to Panhead Harleys, the weight of the bikes also began to increase. The 1958 Duo-Glide model weighed in at 600 lbs! To compensate for the bigger bulk and allow riders to stop safely, the Duo-Glide also introduced hydraulic drum brakes at the front and rear.
Harley-Davidson motorcycles became a byword for the idealistic image of cruising down the highway for miles, and none of this would've been possible without the chassis and suspension development of the Panhead lineup.
Impact On Motorcycle Culture
Although the Panhead Harley-Davidson ceased commercial production in 1965, its status as one of the most legendary motorcycles of all time still endures to this day. Harley-Davidson's Panheads became synonymous with rolling down the highway and exploring our great country.
When Harley released the first Panhead in 1948, they were able to take advantage of huge changes across America. More and more highways began to cut across the landscape, and returning American servicemen who had experience riding military Harleys in World War Two wanted to take advantage. The Panhead was the perfect motorbike for the job. Its bold new engine design and updated chassis solved the problems that had made older Harleys unsuitable for long-distance riding. In the first production year, over 12,000 Panheads roared onto America's new roads. Over the next 18 years, nearly 100,000 Panheads were sold.
Legendary American stars like Elvis and Jerry Lee owned Panheads and the landmark 1969 film “Easy Rider” saw two Panhead Harleys take a starring role. Peter Fonda's character rides the now-famous “Captain America” chopper – festooned with stars and stripes – while his co-star Dennis Hopper rode a red and yellow bobber-style Panhead. Another key part of the Panhead's legacy was the custom bike scene. The concept of customizing motorcycles had been around for decades already, but many established bike builders saw the Panhead as the perfect building block for their wildest ideas. Eclectic modifications like chrome plating, metal-flake paint schemes, and pin-striping were just the tip of the iceberg.
America's Panhead obsession is still going strong today as a new wave of custom bike builders are creating modern versions of these iconic bikes, with big stars like Brad Pitt commissioning their own take on the Panhead.
With a legacy stretching on for over 60 years, it's easy to see why the Harley-Davidson Panhead is such a legend.