Mellow Yellow: 1961 Harley-Davidson FLH Panhead

In 1961, there was nothing on the market quite like the big 648-pound Harley-Davidson FLH.

| November/December 2014

1961 Harley-Davidson FLH
Claimed power: 60hp @ 5,400rpm
Top speed: 100mph (claimed)
Engine: 1,208cc (74ci) air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin, 87mm x 101mm bore and stroke, 8:1 compression ratio
Weight (dry): 648lb (295kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG: 3.75gal (14ltr)/35-45mpg (est.)
Price then/now: $1,400/$13,000-$20,000

1961 was the heyday of the drive-in, the diner and big cars with fins. Popular culture was definitely American-centric. Across the country, jukeboxes everywhere were Tossin’ and Turnin’ with Bobby Lewis, Falling to Pieces with Patsy Cline, and looking for that Runaway with Del Shannon. The Beatles, the British Invasion, unrest on college campuses and the anti-war movement were still in the future, and the civil rights movement was just gathering steam. In 1961, optimism was the order of the day, and America was the place to be.

U.S. motorcycle enthusiasts of the day were a small, hardy lot, buying about 60,000 motorcycles a year. Honda had appeared on American shores in 1959, and by 1961 had gained a small but significant share of the market. The Nicest People ad campaign was still two years in the future, and despite efforts by the AMA and the British importers to improve the image of motorcyclists, much of the U. S. public saw motorcyclists as suspect people with grease under their fingernails. There was some truth to this observation — if you owned a motorcycle in 1961, you probably worked on it.

Choices, choices

Besides the small Honda motorcycles that were beginning to appear in high school parking lots, American riders of 1961 could choose between BMW flat twins from Germany; Matchless, BSA, Norton, Royal Enfield, Velocette and Triumph motorcycles from England; and Ducati singles from Italy, to name just a few. The sole American motorcycle company (ignoring pint-size builders Mustang and Cushman), Harley-Davidson, sold 10,467 motorcycles that year. Harley had pretty much sewn up the police bike market, which was not an unmitigated blessing as the big, heavy patrol vehicles favored by police departments weren’t necessarily what the rest of the buying public wanted. A lot of the 60,000 motorcycles sold in 1961 were light and sporty imports.

That isn’t to say Harley-Davidson wasn’t trying to make bikes the general public would want, and H-D’s lineup for 1961 was extensive. Harley had purchased an interest in Italian manufacturer Aermacchi the year before, and the first Sprints, stylish and sporty 250cc singles, were now appearing in dealers’ showrooms. Other offerings included Super 10 165cc 2-stroke single lightweights, Topper scooters, and Sportsters.

The 1961 FLH, however, was like nothing else on the market. It weighed 648 pounds dry, with a 60-inch wheelbase. The 60 horsepower engine would pull that massive chassis to almost 100mph. For comparison, the contemporary and faster Triumph Bonneville T120 weighed 404 pounds dry, had a 56.5-inch wheelbase and made 46 horsepower at 6,500rpm. Yet the FLH was apparently what police departments wanted, so that was what Harley built.

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