The People’s Champ: A Harley Panhead with a Merlin hand-crank starter

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
An invitation to build a custom bike for the annual Born Free show in the US is a massive accolade. But the honor is typically reserved for custom builders that are well established within the scene—and that’s where the Biltwell People’s Champ competition comes in.

“Biltwell’s goal for the annual, democratic People’s Champ bike building competition has been the same since day one,” says the company’s founder, Bill Bryant. “Give grassroots builders an opportunity to showcase their talents, earn some money, and gain recognition in the custom motorcycle building world.”

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
In the months running up to Born Free, Biltwell scours every corner of the scene to unearth 12 prospective custom builders. That number gets whittled down by half through public voting, before the finalists gather at the legendary Cook’s Corner bar in So Cal on the eve of Born Free. The winner takes home a cash prize of $10,000 and a coveted spot with the invited bikes at the show.

Last year’s trophy went to Sean Jackson for his incredible 1948 Harley Panhead. As to what exactly it is that he built; that’s hard to say. Part chopper, part steampunk fantasy, it’s a highly imaginative build that shows the skills of Sean, and the crew that helped him build it.

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
Based in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania, Sean’s day job involves working with vintage motorcycles and motorcycle parts as part of Competition Distributing. Most of the bikes that he deals with are even older than this Panhead—so even though he knocked it out of the park, he was way outside his comfort zone on this project.

The bike started as an ex-Florida 1948 Panhead that had suffered the effects of living so close to the ocean. Sean yanked the motor out and handed it over to George Banks and Gary Ellis, who spent six months rebuilding it and cleaning it up. Gone are all signs of the pitting that littered the casings when Sean got the bike.

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
The engine is pretty much the only Harley Panhead part left. Just about everything else, save for the wheels, tires, and brakes, was fabricated from scratch.

That includes the eye-popping modular frame, which, despite appearances, mostly conforms to the original Panhead geometry. Sean designed it using the 3D CAD software SolidWorks, then manufactured it from 1/4”-thick laser-cut stainless steel plates. The rigid ‘swingarm’ was built the same way, with the axle plates raised to lower the overall ride height.

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
All of the chassis plates are held together by countless handmade aluminum spacers, with black oxide-coated stainless steel hardware. As for the plates themselves, Sean painstakingly polished those by hand.

The front end is custom too, but it follows a radically different design ethos. Taking inspiration from the 1930s Harley-Davidson DAH hill climber, Sean and co. fabricated a set of crossover leading link forks and buckhorn-style handlebars. (The way the front springs extend beyond the handlebar risers is a direct nod to the DAH.)

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
Moving to the wheels, Sean ordered a set of Invaders from Led Sled Customs, wrapping them in W&W Cycles Bates Baja rubber. There’s no front brake, but he’s made up for it by installing two Brembo calipers on the single rear disc, bolted to a custom-made caliper mount. It sounds silly, but there’s method to his madness.

One of the master cylinders is activated via a mechanical linkage attached to the foot brake, while the other is hooked up to a special twist grip on the left side of the bars. The Panhead uses a foot clutch and hand shifter, so Sean uses this second caliper as a hill hold. And since it and the throttle run internal cables, the cockpit is as sparse as it gets.

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
A pair of handmade split fuel tanks sit up top, with the bike’s only switches carefully mounted between them. They wear a gorgeous scalloped paint job, laid down by Brian O’Neal. (Sean also credits Kevin O’Neal and Tom Banks for their assistance and support.)

There are numerous other details to take in, from the twisted shaft on the hand shifter to the way Sean has neatly stacked the two rear brake master cylinders next to each other. A Linkert M74B carb sits on each side of the Panhead donk, connected via 3D-printed aluminum manifolds, while twin exhaust headers feed an intriguing underslung muffler. And if you flip up the bike’s leather saddle, you’ll be able to access the crank handle for its post-war era starter.

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
Yes, you read right. This Panhead fires up courtesy of the starter from a V12 Rolls-Royce Merlin airplane engine—the same engine that was used in the legendary Supermarine Spitfire. Cranking it by hand engages a spool drive on the left-hand side of the bike, revving the engine up to around 300 rpm.

You can always avoid all that effort and use the Panhead’s OEM kick-start lever to wake it up instead, but why be boring?

Harley Panhead by Sean Jackson from Biltwell People's Choice
There’s no question that it takes a huge imagination and a healthy skillset to build a machine like this—especially when it has to be rideable, too. “To ensure the bikes are actually ‘go’ bikes and not just ‘show’ bikes,” explains Bill, “they have to be ridden over Ortega Highway, which is notoriously twisty and sketchy, for a total of about 50 miles to the venue. If a bike can’t make it to Cook’s under its own power (no trailer queens here) it can still go on the platform for partiers to admire—but it won’t be eligible to claim the title of the People’s Champ.”

Needless to say, Sean’s Panhead aced the ride—even if he does admit that he was initially skeptical about how well it would perform.

Sean Jackson Instagram | With thanks to Biltwell Inc.