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Panhead Billy Burrows: Running free

By Shadow

Motorcycles were rolling into the bar at the Broken Spoke Campground on Tuesday of the 2013 Sturgis Motorcycle Rally. The bikes were packed in like sardines, but they kept coming. NorCal Bureau Chief Felicia Morgan and I were representing THUNDER PRESS for the Editor’s Choice Bike Show, and we had our work cut out for us. Both Felicia and I favor old iron, and we had our eyes on a cool Knucklehead, an Ironhead, a Shovel and a few more vintage beauties when “Panhead” Billy Burrows silently pulled in on his road-worn Panhead. Game over. The decision had been made. Panhead Billy’s Pan was our Editor’s Choice.

"Panhead" Billy Burrows with "Vision of Dreams"

“Panhead” Billy Burrows with “Vision of Dreams”

I’d first met Panhead Billy five years ago at the Rhinebeck Grand National Meet put on by the Antique Motorcycle Club of America in Rhinebeck, New York. I recognized Billy and his Panhead immediately from photos in numerous magazines. As do many others, I find a certain fascination with Billy’s nomadic existence, but he was just leaving for another event and we didn’t have much of a chance to talk.

Panhead Billy does the maintenance on his bike on the road - Photo courtesy of Panhead Billy

Panhead Billy does the maintenance on his bike on the road – Photo courtesy of Panhead Billy

Billy and I had crossed paths a few times over the years, but the first time I had a chance to speak with him at any length was in Sturgis last year. Over the course of an evening, Billy told us a little about his past, and a lot about the Panhead he calls his home.

Panhead Billy hails from Massachusetts, but he’s been living on the road since 1976, using various modes of transportation. His first big road bike was a Kawasaki, and he started living on the road with that. But he always wanted a Harley. He got his Panhead, a 1960, in Canyon City, Colorado, more than 31 years ago. “It was a basket case,” he says. “It was all apart. The tranny was in pieces, and the engine was all together. But it was a really nice basket case.”

Billy got it for about $1,100 or $1,200—“a fair price for a basket case,” he says. He took it to his buddy’s shop in Canyon City and put it together. He had to get tranny cases, some hardware, some nickel-and-dime stuff… and in two weeks he had it up and running. It was the first Harley he ever owned, and the first motorcycle he ever put together.

When Billy first assembled the bike, it had a Wide Glide front end with a 19″ wheel and a drum brake, a Sportster tank and pullback six-benders. Now she’s got internally wired buckhorns and double four-gallon tanks, and a cat’s eye dash with a speedometer that’s never been hooked up. “I put it together with what was there, and some stuff that people gave me.” The tanks and rear wheel were the only changes he made for a long time. It went from a chain to a belt primary within a few years, and he eventually painted it silver. It’s got a 1960 engine and tranny, a ’93 Springer front end with a disk brake, and a ’48–’53 wishbone frame. It’s been raked out, and the front end is now 4″ over. He runs a 21″ front wheel and a 15″ rear car tire. The car tire was a friend’s idea because he was tired of getting only 8,000–10,000 miles out of a 16″ tire. Billy tells me, “The 15″ tire goes about 40,000 miles and they come with a road hazard warranty.” He goes through two and a half to three front tires for every back one.

The Panhead features a 1960 engine and tranny, a ’93 Springer front end with a disk brake, and a ’48–’53 wishbone frame.

The Panhead features a 1960 engine and tranny, a ’93 Springer front end with a disk brake, and a ’48–’53 wishbone frame.

“This bike and I have developed a passion for each other. A lot of things I had to learn, like the braking power of drum brakes. They’re not too good. After I assembled the bike, I took it for its first ride. There was no doubt in my mind I could ride this bike with a foot clutch and hand shift; I knew I could do it. I maneuvered around traffic, went back to the garage and I hit the wall.”

The shifter knob is a glass doorknob that came off a friend's drill press

The shifter knob is a glass doorknob that came off a friend’s drill press

Billy tells me he rode it to One-Eyed Jack’s, his favorite watering hole in Canyon City, backed it up to the curb and, with the loud, short exhaust pipes, let it bark to announce, “I’m alive, folks!” He loaded the bike in his van and went back to New England. “I couldn’t wait to show my friends.”

“I knew it was something good here, man. Everything just played together. Then I started riding. My days of hot rodding were gone. I got rid of the drag pipes and put some mufflers on before I got in a lot of trouble and before I hurt the engine.” The Panhead became his main source of transportation in ’84. When it got too cold, he headed south. “Probably been to Sturgis from the East Coast 27 or 28 times, a few times from the West Coast. I just started adventuring.”

He works at bike rallies, rodeos, swap meets, sometimes Renaissance fairs… “I do whatever other people don’t want to do; whatever someone wants me to do—painting fences, baling hay; I work an honest living.” What possessed Billy in the beginning? “It’s about the ride. I do it because I can. Kind of like Forrest Gump; just put one foot in front of the other, and before I know it, I’ve been across the country.”

Bungee cords help keep the period-correct Champion primary cover affixed

Bungee cords help keep the period-correct Champion primary cover affixed

When I asked Billy how many miles he has on the bike, he simply responded, “I don’t know. I never hooked up the speedometer or odometer. I haven’t had a vehicle with a speedometer or odometer that works since 1979. I don’t keep track. That’s not why I do it. I do not know how fast or how slow I’m going or how many miles I’ve ridden, but I will tell you where we have been.”

Billy uses an old leather boot under the seat as a heat guard

Billy uses an old leather boot under the seat as a heat guard

 

Panhead Billy with his granddaughter Ava - photo courtesy of Panhead Billy

Panhead Billy with his granddaughter Ava – photo courtesy of Panhead Billy

Billy’s Facebook page answers some of the most common questions people ask when they meet him on the road: He uses at least 800 gallons of fuel a year, and in spite of his not keeping track of mileage, he reckons he puts between 25,000 and 30,000 miles a year on the bike. He’s visited 800 Harley-Davidson dealerships and all the state capitals, except for Alaska and Hawaii, as well as almost all the Great Lakes—all but Lake Superior.

I wondered what he carries on his bike. It was August, so he described his summer wardrobe and the other gear he packs: “Two pairs of jeans; sometimes three, but I don’t need three. Probably too many T-shirts (four or five), and a long-sleeved T. Now I buy good socks—maybe four pairs. A bathing suit and towel. A hooded sweatshirt, leather jacket, gloves, stocking cap, scarf, helmet, sleeping bag, two Pendleton wool blankets, my journal and writing implements, shampoo, which I also use for soap, toothpaste and I use my fingers for a toothbrush. And bandanas as wash rags.

“I carry some tools, primary belts, spark plugs, set of points, set of brushes for my generator, patch kit for tires, electric air pump, tire irons, tent, tarp—I use the tarp more than my tent. I would rather sleep on the tarp on the ground or I make a lean-to if it’s humid. I’ve been carrying most of this stuff for a long time. When I get too much stuff, I ship it home to friends.”

Billy says, “I’ve been on the road 28 years straight except for when I got involved in a hit-and-run accident in ’93 in Piedmont, South Dakota. I spent six months in the VA hospital in Hot Springs, had several operations and spent a year and a half on crutches.” He’s been on the road ever since.

Near Bear Butte, South Dakota, as Billy ponders his next adventure

Near Bear Butte, South Dakota, as Billy ponders his next adventure

The Panhead has had three names. The first was Sacajawea (a.k.a. Bird Woman), after the female Shoshone Indian guide on the Lewis and Clark expedition. Then was Illusions, the name Billy gave her after he read the Richard Bach book of the same name, where all the protagonist wanted to do was fly a biplane from cornfield to cornfield. In the end, he thought he was an illusion. “And now her name is Vision of Dreams—she takes me to my dreams,” Billy says.” She’s like a hunting dog you take out of the pen. It knows it’s going hunting. The tail wags; the tongue wags. When I fire up the Panhead, she knows she’s going someplace too.”

Billy takes great pleasure “inspiring people who might want to get out and enjoy their lives.” He says, “I’ve been blessed. I get to go to some really fine parties, and I get to meet some really fine people. And it’s really gratifying that people remember me. I’m nothing special. The young kids with the bobbers; they remind me of myself when I was young. They just think of riding, not of breakdowns. Now I think of preventative maintenance. If the bike breaks down, if it fails me, it’s because I’ve failed it.”

Panhead Billy follows a lot of American Indian history, as well as Revolutionary War, Civil War and Spanish-American War history, which weaves its way into their journeys. He estimates that at least 90 percent of their riding is on two-lane roads. They have followed many historic byways such as the Pony Express Trail, the Trail of Tears, the Lewis and Clark Trail and the Chief Joseph Trail. Billy’s message to everyone who rides is, “I recommend seeing America before you get too old.”

Panhead Billy at the AMCA Rhinebeck Grand National Meet in 2005

Panhead Billy at the AMCA Rhinebeck Grand National Meet in 2005

 

15 comments

  1. Thanks for the great story on Panhead Billy. Nice to hear about some of his early background. I met Billy in 2010 while riding on a cold day in April going up Monarch Pass, Colorado. We stopped at the Summit House and talked awhile in the parking lot before going inside for hot coffee to warm up. It felt good to hang out for as long as possible in the warm restaurant while Billy loosened up with stories.

    I had been bending my StreetGlide quickly around the wild curves of the Pass as I always love to do when I came upon Billy cruising sedately as though he had no particular time to be someplace, which he never did. He looked longingly at my modern machine, and I looked admiringly at his road warrior Pan, wondering how many miles were on her. I laugh now at how “green” I must have sounded then when I said I ride a lot, thinking that the 70,000+ miles on my current bike was “a lot”. He was gracious enough to not say anything, but I bet he hears that every day.

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  2. Thank you for publishing this story it was wonderful to read about a free spirit. I was fortunate enough to do the same for 3 years back in 2000. After near fatal car accident. As a female rider there are few solo women travelers. I have a completely different outlook on life and decided to take off and not stop until the road ended. This was the most wonderful fulfilling exciting 3 years of my 55 year life. At some point I’d love to write a book about my travels and those who know me love the many stories I tell about my trip and the people I’ve met along the way. You just can’t keep a free spirit down. Bravo, Panhead. Ride on..

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    Rodney Reply:

    I meet Billy yesterday in Panama City Beach FL, had a beer and a great chat with him. His bike was setting next to us at the picnic table as we chatted and listened to the band. I you see Billy buy him a Miller High Life and have a chat great guy. Good luck Billy enjoy the ride

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  3. 05012015 met billy yesterday at an independent motorcycle shop in my home of lillian, al. he said he was coming up from new orleans. he pulled in while we were eaing a hot dog at the hot dog stand at the motorcycle shop. since we only have one restaurant in our small town (two considering the dine in option at subway), we occasionally go see the hot dog lady and get a hot dog, chips and drink from her and share good conversation. yesterday we saw billy ride in and after he unmounted and relaxed for a moment, we invited him to sit at our picnic table and have a hot dog with us. we talked about his bike, where he’s been, and where he’s going. we talked for more than an hour and then he hit the road again, this time heading to panama city. we were ready to leave and followed him to the bridge across perdido bay; he continued across the bridge and on to conquer panama city and worlds beyond and we turned right and headed home to fix another broken something or other.

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  4. Met Panhead Billy at a gas station just outside of Panama City the Sunday after the 2015 biker weekend. I approached him to discuss my M-74 Linkert I had on my ’55 pan. Billy, thanks for the advise. Cheers. [ the Canadian, oh ya, I’ll ride with you to the Gaspe ]

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  5. Met panhead billy at a motorcycle get together in hampstead,md. Was interested in his bike so me and a few guys pitched in for the entry fee to enter his bike in a bike show. We awarded him 1st place for best rat ride. Awesome bike with many memories

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  6. got the pleasure of meeting Billy today at Thunder Mountain in the Rockies. He and I shared stories of music loves and I loved hearing of all the great places he has seen. He truly is a remarkable individual that lives life through riding the open road. I will always remember our conversation. Thank you Billy!

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  7. I had the GREAT pleasure to have meet Billy on OCT.11 2015 in Cotopaxi CO.
    with two of his friends. I was immediately drawn to that bike ! Then out of the store comes Billy. All smiles, and proud as hell. This is the guy we all want to be in this life, but get stuck in the world of paying bills and taxes. Bill, i hope to ride with ya someday, or at least in your shadow. Thanks for you !

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  8. Had the pleasure & honor Panhead. Billy yesterday at the Gator Nationals in Gainesville Fl. (2016) man!! I wish I could have heard more stories but my ride was leaving…I’ve ALWAYS wanted to be a “Billy” maybe someday!! Ride On Brother Billy !!! God Bless…The Tin Man

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  9. this is the kind of guy that i wish they would make a movie of very interesting fellow for sure bet he has a interesting story

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  10. I met Billy on Saturday, October 1st in Cherokee NC. I talked to him because he definitely looked like someone with interesting stories and his bike speaks for itself. He was kind and soft-spoken, and just like the stories about him suggest, he brought up seeing the country on my bike “before you get too old” right away.

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  11. Hey, Billy. Hope all is well? Hope your in the South now it’s cold here in PA. Hope to catch up with you soon Would like to go for a rip with you My brother from another mother. Hope you will keep pushing the miles before you have to push the daisies. Live To Ride, Ride To Live……See you Soon With Jimmy D…

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  12. Met Billy at the ‘Norton Hill’ campground at Barber’s this Fall. Cool guy w/ a classic old Panhead.

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  13. Hey billy just met you yesterday enjoyed our short time we had to talk hope the highway’s keep you safe come back to ouzts bar and have another cold one be safe my new friend keep living the dream hope to see in thunderbeach Panama city

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  14. Hey Billy,

    I was wondering what your motor specs are what kind of flywheels,bore and stroke,heads,carb,
    and what has been your best luck of keeping her together?
    i am currently building a panhead to travel around the United States about a 10,000 mile trip and i thought who would be better to get advise from then you.
    I have made a few trips on my ole 76 shovelhead back and forth from Florida to Sturgis and i am just looking for something more and i choose to ride on what i build.
    So any help from you i would be great. Mine you all of my trips are low budget don’t have a lot of money.

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