Lonnie Barretta is a Harley traditionalist. He's also a hoarder that doesn't like to let things loose when he gets them. He's been saving knick-knacks, paddy whacks, and all things motorcycle since he was a wee lad. Luckily for him-and us-it's the reason he was able to build this true original '56 Panhead at home.
Lonnie has lived in Santa Rosa, California, his entire life, and after he graduated from high school in 1964, he picked up this stock '56 Panhead from the original owner. He loved the bike. He spent most of his time tinkering with it when he wasn't riding, but as fate would have it, good ol' Uncle Sam came a callin' and Lonnie was drafted to Vietnam. His motorcycle pastime was sidelined until further notice.
These vintage studded saddlebags were available directly through the Harley-Davidson Parts and Accessories catalog in 1956.
These vintage studded saddlebags were available directly through the Harley-Davidson Parts
Luckily, Lonnie was discharged in December 1968, and could once again get back to some normalcy: motorcycles. Transitioning from military life was tough, but to make ends meet, Lonnie worked for his uncle in the construction field. At the same time, he tried working for a bike shop as a wrench but it wasn't the best fit for him. "Dealing with the public isn't really my kind of thing. I went to work at a motorcycle shop to see what it was like. If the customers left me alone then it was OK, but if they came back to the work area, I'd spend more time talking than working. So I said, 'Hell with it,' and got the hell out of dodge," Lonnie states. Lonnie ended up sticking with the construction trade for the rest of his career.
The stock handlebars came with the blue rubber grips. Lonnie was originally going to ditch them, but to keep everything original; he had to keep them on.
The stock handlebars came with the blue rubber grips. Lonnie was originally going to ditch
Back to the bike: the year was 1969 with free love, drugs, rock 'n' roll, and of course choppers the norm. Being that Lonnie had the wrong bike for that era, he bought a '66 Shovelhead; however, he needed to use the rigid frame on the '56 to make the chopper proper. He pulled the Shovel motor and stripped all of the parts off the '66 and bolted everything to the '56 frame. The remaining Panhead parts (everything but the frame) were saran-wrapped nice and neat, boxed up, and off they went into obscurity for many years.
The '56 stayed a chopper, still sporting the original Shovelhead for about 20 years, until his buddy recommended that Lonnie get with the times and put an Evo motor in the '56 frame. Lonnie hesitated at first but then agreed. After getting the motor completely dialed-in at his home garage, he went to stick the motor in the frame and sure enough it wouldn't fit. Down but not out, he left the '56 where it was and began working on other projects.
Lonnie's a bit different than the traditional motorcycle enthusiast. His garage is outfitted with everything needed to "do a bike" without leaving his home. He's been collecting tools ever since he was 16. Mills, lathes, presses, and every tool imaginable to build a bike are housed in Lonnie's super-garage. Hell, he could open his own shop if he wanted. In the winter of 2008 he put all his tools to work and got started restoring the original Panhead to its stock form.
He started by ditching all the chopper parts off the '56 frame. Then off the shelves and out of the boxes came the saran-wrapped parts. To his surprise, the plastic worked quite well in protecting the pieces since the front fender and gas tank are still adorned in the stock '56 paint. Lonnie managed to coax his brother, who owns a paint/body shop, to paint the frame and the rear fender, which needed a touch-up. But when that was done, Lonnie just needed to bolt the pieces back together to make Humpty Dumpty whole.
The original Panhead engine obviously needed to be gone through since it sat for more than 40 years. Lonnie was stunned at how it fared. "The motor was in such good shape, it still had the hatch marks in the cylinders. And I didn't have to put any new parts into it, just replace the valves," Lonnie recalls. He also went from the traditional points ignition system to a more modern ignition. "The one update I did do was install a 12-volt system. I bought a 12-volt ignition, which eliminates having a relay or a regulator, and you hook the generator right up to it. It's easier to get headlights for a 12-volt instead of the standard 6-volt, too," Lonnie states.
Once he buttoned the engine up, he mounted it into the freshly painted frame, and got busy bolting the rest of the original parts back onto the bike. It took him roughly four months to complete the build, and now that it's done, he rides it around on special occasions such as bike shows, weddings, birthdays, barbecues, etc. If you're in the market for some original vintage iron, the Panhead is for sale. Give Lonnie a call and make history yours.