Magazine writing: My barn-find Harley


When I found this old Harley-Davidson in a barn, I thought it would make a great story for one of the motorcycle magazines. I wrote this story and shipped it off and was surprised when it was rejected. I sent it to a couple of other magazines and they rejected it, too. I soon figured out why: Motorcycle magazines love “before and after” stories. They want to see the old unrestored bike, and then they want to see the bike all done over and like-new. I thought the fact the bike was still in the barn somewhere was interesting, but I guess the editors didn’t agree. The lesson: Stick to the formula, no matter how tired and hackneyed it may be.

Editors note: I just found an old photo of the bike, which I have inserted (12/01/2014).

I found it in a barn



You’ve seen it a million times. You page through your favorite motorcycle magazine and come to a dazzling spread on a beautiful antique Harley, restored and polished to perfection.  The story always says something like:

“This fine-looking 1948 Panhead has been carefully restored to better-than-new condition. Before the restoration, the only thing left of the original was a valve stem cap and a half-pint of gear oil.”

And then comes the worst part:

“The Panhead was found in an old barn.”

There are a lot of old barns in New England and I’ve looked through plenty of them, but I’ve never found an old motorcycle. Never an Indian, never an old Knucklehead, never even some interesting old parts. Nothing.

Nothing, that is, until two summers ago.

image002I was at a party at a house out in the country, about 50 miles from home. I was making small talk with the host, standing around in the front yard, when he brought up my favorite subject.

“You’ve got a Harley, right?” he asked. Then he nodded toward the barn that was hidden behind some pines a hundred yards away. “You know, I’m glad you’re here, because you might be able to tell me what I got out there in the barn.”

Oh, boy, I thought, maybe this is the big one. An old Harley, buried up to its passing lights in hay, complete and waiting for a little polish and some fresh gas. It was hard to keep from running ahead of the guy, but I wanted to act nonchalant.

It was dark in the barn and it took a bit for my eyes to adjust.

“It’s over here,” the guy said, squeezing himself past an old pickup that was parked near the door.

Once I got past the truck, I looked into the blackness of the barn. Near the back, I could make out the rear wheel of a motorcycle, and the excitement of the moment evaporated when I recognized a white 10-year-old Yamaha dirt bike leaned up against an old canvas tarp.

“Plenty of them around,” I said.

But my host was only half-listening. “Here, help me move this dirt bike out of the way,” he said, grabbing hold of the bars and wheeling the Yamaha against a far wall. Once the Yamaha was moved, the guy hoisted up the tarp and flung it over a nearby stall door.

And there it was. A red Harley v-twin. I could see it was a Panhead, but my eyes were still fighting the darkness, and I squinted to try to make out more.

“I think it’s a Harley,” my host announced. “At least, that’s what the guy said it was when he brought it in here. A 1948 Harley.”

The Harley was mostly visible, but it was firmly wedged in among an eclectic collection of barn junk, and we couldn’t pull it out into the light. You could see it was pretty much complete. It had been done up in the “bobber” style of the 50s and early 1960s – a skinny rear fender cut off at the topmost point of the tire, taillight and license plate bracket mounted up at the very end of the fender, ape-hangers, and rakishly–angled floorboards. It also had a great old hard leather seat with fringe dangling around the back edge. If it was a ’48, somebody had replaced the springer front end with a Hydraglide.

While I looked, my host was telling me all he knew about the old Harley, which wasn’t much.

“When I built the barn 15 years ago, this fellow asked me if he could leave his motorcycle here for a while because he was in the middle of a divorce,” he said. “He brought it over, but never came back for it. Think it’s worth anything?”

The guy said the owner rode the bike to the barn, and remembered that the owner said second gear was bad.

So there it was.  An old, half-forgotten Harley, 90 percent complete, sitting in a barn, waiting for somebody to come along and coax it back to life.

It seems simple, but it isn’t. The guy who owns the barn doesn’t own the bike. The real owner is still around, but the two of them haven’t seen each other for years. So who do you buy the bike from? I could probably approach the original owner, but I don’t know who he is, and the guy who owns the barn isn’t telling.

And while the barn owner may not know anything about motorcycles, he does know something about the value of a dollar. He’s not exactly sure what he has out in the barn, but he is pretty sure that it’s worth a few bucks, and he’d like at least a few of those dollars to end up in his pocket.

So there it sits, covered up with an old brown tarp and guarded by a 10-year-old Yamaha, just the way it was when I tripped over it two years ago.

Yes, I want it. Yes, I’m trying to figure out the best way to delicately handle the three-way negotiations that are going to be necessary for me to acquire it. And no, I’m not going to tell you where it is. Absolutely not.

Burt watch this space. Maybe one of these days you’ll come across a spread on a red ’48 Panhead. The story will say.

“This fine-looking 1948 Panhead has been carefully restored to better-than-new condition.  When first obtained, the only thing left of the original was a bobbed rear fender and a fringed seat.”

And then the best part:

“The Panhead was found in an old barn.”


Postscript: I told my Harley dealer about my find, and he told me to go back and get the VIN number off the bike so he could do some research. He told me the number should be on the left engine casing.  I went back to the barn, looked for the VIN, and found it – or, rather, I found where it used to be. Someone had ground it off. My barn-find Harley had been stolen at some point in its life. Not wanting to get involved with a stolen motorcycle, I let it stay where it was.



One thought on “Magazine writing: My barn-find Harley

  1. Not all terrific stories get published. The reason: dumb editors with so many rules they can’t see the Harley for the barn. I’m certain this piece will be appear in your book, which you’ll probably have to self-publish, knowing editors as I do,
    Great job.
    Gil Peters

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