That was the year that was! For me, it was my first year!! But a lot of history had already happened. There had been two world wars, a canal dug in Panama, the airplane was invented, rockets and missiles weren’t far behind, and India won its independence. The propellor would soon be replaced by jet engines and radio was giving way to television. Oh, there was a lot more to happen. Since the turn of the century transportation had gone from the earlier horse to the steam engine to the gasoline engine and transportation, both two-wheel and four-wheel, had evolved and improved. And that’s where we will start the story of this important (at least to me) story.
The fall of 1947 brought the end of the Kuucklehead, Harely-Davidson’s first Overhead Valve (OHV) production engine. Harley’s magazine teased that the new news would be the “biggest motorcycle story of the year” and that the new OHV model would carry The Motor Company into a bright new future.
Yet the change, like much of Harley-Davidson history, was more evolutionary than revolutionary. An updated top end for the popular OHV engine consisting of aluminum cylinder heads, hydraulic valve lifters, redesigned cylinders with internal oil feed and return lines replacing the often leaky external lines, and a chrome plated, stamped steel “pan” cover that completely enclosed the rocker arms and valves of each head. This new “top hat” quickly became the common moniker for what we now affectionately refer to as “Panhead Harleys.”
These updates produced a motor that was smoother, quieter, more oil tight, cooler running, and more maintenance free, yet no lighter or more powerful than its predecessor. (History will repeat with the introduction of another new engine design, now called the Shoveled, some eighteen years later. Again, better and requiring less maintenance than the Panhead, but still heavier and even slower.)
Other than the top end, little else was changed for 1948. Even the styling was almost exactly the same as on the 1947 Knucklehead. Regardless, the new model was an instant success and even more popular than the previous model.
The gradual changes continued in the years that followed with hydraulic forks replacing the old springer front ends in 1949. This new bike, for the first time, was given a name by H-D, rather than just a set of initials; branded as the “Hydro-Glide.” During the next decade things were slowly modernized. The hand shifter was replaced with a foot shift and hand clutch, and, by 1958, the hard tail suspension was replaced with a hydraulic swing-arm yielding another new moniker from Harley, “Duo-Glide.” Ultimately the kick starter would be replaced by the “Electro-Glide” electric starter. The modern era had arrived.
The legacy and designs that these new models were built upon were based on the old Knucklehead design slowly improved since its release in 1936. (Really more like 1937, as it was a slow start for Harley at first). Their major rival, Indian, never did go OHV and slowly disappeared, partly due to the competition of this new technology from Harley.
In 1947 the war was over and the soldiers, sailors, and airmen were returning home. Over one million former servicemen entered college on the G.I. Bill and prepared for a more prosperous future. Business was booming, but prices were going up too. The new Harleys that began rolling off previously part shortage limited production lines jumped over $150 in price from around $450 to $600. It was during this jubilant time that the Motor Company began the design and preparation for the next generation of OHV machines. Although Indian wasn’t much competition for Harley’s more state-of-the-art machines, overseas manufacturers were.
When the Knucklehead was first sold, biplanes were still the main stay of the U.S. Army Air Corps. Now the sleek P-51 Mustang was becoming obsolete through the introduction of jet airplanes. How long could Harley’s rapidly aging design of push rods and air-cooled twins survive. That’s the odd part of the story. They did survive and thrived right up to today’s computerized world. Part of that story is due to nostalgia and the undeniable “style” that Harley continues to exhibit. But it was also the result of continual, albeit rather slow improvement.
Although Harley-Davidson sales were booming, our allies from England and Europe were having even a better time. A flood of sophisticated and lightweight bikes from England, Italy, and even war torn Germany were hitting our post-war shores. The young and reckless who had been the primary marketplace for motorcycles — which in that era included thousands of discharged fliers, sailors, or soldiers who were looking for a new high to replaced the terrifying thrills of combat — were not going to be satisfied with Harley’s old “biplane.”
In the next ten years, British bikes in particular were to completely dominate the American scene. At the same time, Harley was consciously shifting its target audience from thrill seeking, testosterone loaded young men to making motorcycles that would appeal to a broader segment of society. And H-D wanted to make them repeat customers for life.
This was a good long term strategy, but didn’t do well in the short term. While the British alone were selling tens of thousands of motorcycles, Harley hoped their long term plans would come to fruition.
As I said, prices were going up, there was a housing shortage for the millions of returning military who quickly started families, there were several labor strikes and the U.S. entered a cold war with Russia and the communists. Soon we were worried that the commies were in Hollywood and under every bed. In one of the saddest events, the father of the A-bomb which quickly ended the war with Japan was stripped of his security clearance primarily because he disagreed with the current Atomic Energy Commission’s strategy of development of a more powerful H-bomb.
Technology was just beginning its boom. Medial science found cures for diseases, Edwin Land invented the instant camera, and commercial air travel bloomed. Television took its place in the center of post-war homes and shows like Howdy Doody entertained we baby boomers. Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier and Jackie Robinson broke the race barrier. What would come next? Rock and roll and selfies. It would only take time.
This all started at some point in 1947. In March of that year, a first-born boy was delivered at St. Joseph’s hospital in Lewistown, Montana. That boy would grow up in this modern world and end up typing these words to you on a modern Mac.
But what of the Harley Panhead? It would spawn everything from baggers to choppers. From bikes fully equipped with windshields, saddle bags, and ultimately satellite radio and cruise control road bikes to fantastic works of art rendered in steel and chrome. Whether stripped down to duplicate the British style or dressed up for a 1500 mile journey, Harley fit the bill. Harley outlasted the British invasion and the later Japanese invasion. The latter required a little help from Uncle Sam in the form of tariffs on large displacement imported bikes, and ultimately the Japanese motorcycles started to copy the Harley big V-Twin.
The Panhead spawned the Shovelhead, each step an improvement. In 1984 it was the EVO for “Evolution” engine that fulfilled the promise of 1936. This new engine was lightweight and reliable and as maintenance-free as any of the completion. Yet it could be improved further. Largely under the pressure from Uncle’s EPA, major changes were made to improve the emissions and sound output of the venerable big Twin leading ultimately to the modern Twin-Cam Harly engine with electronic fuel injection and a master computer in charge of everything from fuel input to spark timing and exhaust output. There’s even a model that shuts down the back cylinder when idling to keep it from overheating. GPS navigation and anti-lock brakes round out the modern Harley. Yet the sound goes on and on.
Will environmental concerns finally force Harley-Davidson to become water cooled, jacketing the great cylinders and probably toning down the “rump, rump”? Only time will tell. For now I’m just celebrating that magic year of 1947 when the greatest became even greater.
Even though it has been many years of change, 70 of which I’ve born personal witness, and the world today has exceeded the imagination of that young boy growing up in a little town in central Montana, I am able to look back and see how the small changes were made toward perfection. Back then, it was “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” For example, Harley modified the clutch four times on the old Knuckle until reaching a design that was used unchanged until the ‘80s. That’s Harley for you. If it breaks, make it bigger. Pretty soon it quits breaking. Then you have that problem solved. The Knucklehead was version 1. And as all software consumers know, don’t buy version 1. The Panhead was version 2 of the overhead valve designs. Now we’re getting somewhere.
Some 70 years after the Panhead, we are on version 6 of the OHV and, in a sense, Hareley's version 8 of the V-Twin called, quite appropriately, the "Milwaukee Eight."
- 1909 First V-Twin
- 1929 Flathead
- 1936 Knucklehead
- 1947 Panhead
- 1966 Shovelhead
- 1984 Evolution
- 1999 Twin Cam
- 2016 Milwaukee Eight
Evolution, not revolution. (See where number 6 came from?) Meanwhile Mac is on version 10 and Windows plans to skip 9. So it seems OK for HD to claim “eight.” Maybe we should look for a computer operating system out of Milwaukee. Which would you prefer?