Harley-Davidson has been making motorcycles for the public since 1903.
Over the years, the Milwaukee-based company has changed the engines used to power those motorcycles seven or eight times.
Each type of engine has been given a unique nickname generally based upon the shape of its valve covers, and Harley-Davidson enthusiasts can classify a bike by those covers.
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One of the rarest is the “knucklehead” because the valve covers have contours resembling the knuckles of a person’s fist.
Knuckleheads were used by the company from 1936 to 1947. The “panhead” replaced the knucklehead in 1948 and was made until 1965 when Harley-Davidson replaced it with the “shovelhead.”
Panheads received their nicknames because the valve covers resemble upside down pans.
Because panheads aren’t quite as rare, a number of local residents own and ride them.
That includes a group that has gathered the third Saturday of September for an afternoon of riding.
This year’s ride took them from the Bluebird Cafe in Vallonia to Story, Nashville and Bloomington and then back to Vallonia via Medora.
The ride is organized by Steve Read of Vallonia with the help of Tom Patman, also of Vallonia.
“I came up with the idea for the ride after looking through old photos of some of the guys around here that used to ride,” Read said. “We thought we would get all these bikes together and drive around and get some pictures and have a good time because it’s not very often you will see 10 or 15 old panheads together at one time. It’s kind of rare.”
The ride has grown from about 12 riders during the first one to 19 for this year’s ride, conducted Sept. 16.
Read, who has been riding his 1953 panhead for 26 years, said the weather is just right for riding in September.
“We make up a different route every year and kind of putter around and try to have a good afternoon while riding these old bikes,” he said.
There’s only one issue the riders have each year — starting their bikes at the same time.
That’s because all of the panheads with the exception of the 1965 model had kick starters.
That’s the one thing that makes his bike special, said John Schafstall of Seymour.
“The 1965s have electric starters,” he said.
Patman, who owns several Harleys, including a 1964 panhead, and restores motorcycles, said many riders he has talked with over the years have owned panheads and then sold them.
“Now, they regret it because they are getting harder to come by,” he said. “All them old bikers want panheads.”
Donny Durham of Vallonia has participated in all five rides and driven a 1950 panhead with his wife, Kaye, in the sidecar.
“My dad (Morris) bought it in 1965. He was going to fix it up and never did,” Donny said. “Me and my brother wound up owning it and decided to get it up and running.”
Durham said he has had a motorcycle since he was 13 or 14.
“I enjoy riding them, and I just enjoy being with the other guys who have these bikes,” he said.
Kenny Sweeney of Brownstown rode his 1951 panhead, which also has a sidecar.
“I bought it at an estate auction about 15 years ago,” he said. “I found the sidecar over in Davenport, Iowa. I paid extra money for that sidecar because the numbers on it matched the numbers on the bike.”
He’s not sure how the bike and sidecar ever separated or how he was able to reunite them.
“It was just luck,” Sweeney said. “I couldn’t believe it when I found it.”
Sweeney, who completed the 4,200-mile Motorcycle Cannonball Endurance Run across the country in the fall of 2014 on a Harley-Davidson DLV, said he’s not sure why everyone wants a panhead.
“It’s probably just a nostalgic thing,” he said. “These bikes are probably about $30,000, while a knucklehead costs you $80,000. They’re all expensive. I just like these old motorcycles, but they’re aggravating to work on sometimes.”
Anyone with a panhead interested in riding in 2018 may send Read a text message at 812-530-1369.