Unlike most late-model used Harley-Davidson motorcycles, antique Hogs require a buyer willing to make a special commitment. They must be extremely patient, willing to wait months and sometimes years for their desired machine to appear on the used motorcycle market. Buyers must also be flexible, willing to see a potential concourse winner in a dusty motorcycle that's been hibernating beneath a tarp in a garden shed. And most of all, antique Harley-Davidson customers had better possess at least a modicum of mechanical skills, as motorcycles of this vintage will eventually require some maintenance.
That said, Kim Krummel, chief of the Harley-Davidson education department at Orlando, Florida's Motorcycle and Marine Mechanics Institute, says the antique domestic motorcycle market remains robust because these vintage two-wheelers offer such a different ownership experience than modern motorcycles. "My favorite antique Harley of all time is the 1954 K-Model, which was the little 45 cubic inch precursor to the early XLCH Sportster series. The K-Model actually had a side-valve engine and drum brakes, but when you ride one, even today, there's a feeling of rawness and a direct connection with the bike that you really don't see today. I always say everyone who's about to buy a brand-new Harley should have to spend a few days riding a '66 Sportster with a kick-start and a magneto ignition so they can see how far motorcycles have come and how spoiled we are today," Krummel said.
As the former owner of several vintage Sportsters dating back to the early 1960s, I can relate: On board a vintage Harley, the ride will be far more vibey than a modern bike due to a lack of rubber engine dampers. Whether we're talking panheads, knuckleheads, or the venerable 45ci side-valve flathead, these engines make more noise under load than a Kenmore dryer filled with old Converse All-Stars. However, there's a directness and panache to the vintage bike riding experience that has some owners swearing off modern machines altogether.
You'll marvel at some of the nifty technological gee-gaws invented by mid-century motorcycle designers, like the push-pull throttle on '60s Harleys, a strange and wonderful device that, due to a lack of throttle-return springs, permitted riders to remove their throttle hands from the bars by simply shoving the twistgrip into the throttle housing, where it would maintain speed until twisted back in the opposite direction. You'll learn to either curse or love kick-starting protocols and the smell of spilled oil. Krummel, who teaches students who weren't even born in the panhead era to repair these sought-after motorcycles at MMI, revels in the low-compression and ease of maintenance of these less complicated engines. except, of course, for Sportsters equipped with Magneto ignitions," he jokes. Electric starters became factory equipment for the panhead's final production year of 1965, and inventive mechanics have devised a means of retro-fitting the electric starting system on earlier models, which involves adapting the '65 panhead cam and primary covers, along with the necessary starter, upgraded generator, clutch and wiring.