Flyover Country. The Rust Belt. No Man’s Land.
Nothing to do, nothing to see, nothing to miss.
That about sums up the Midwest for the millions of Americans who don’t call it home and don’t understand why some do. These ideas aren’t wrong, but they are perhaps too simple, too easily digested, and accepted as fact. So I traveled to Ohio on purpose, as a destination, with low expectations and an open mind.
It helped that I wasn’t in search of the fastest road, the most jaw-dropping scenery, or really anything that will gain acclaim on the internet or in the “real” world. I was just here to ride.
Luckily, I ended up riding a motorcycle well outfitted for that simple goal.
To find that machine was the reason I’m in Ohio in the first place, specifically Lowbrow Customs’ “Pan-american.” The bike is an elegant mutt: a ’79 FLH frame stuffed with a 93-inch S&S Panhead instead of the Shovelhead it rolled out of the factory with.
For those who don’t wander to the custom side of the culture often, Lowbrow is an e-commerce store for parts, accessories, and fabrication pieces. But there’s nothing simple about being in the business of custom. You can’t just sell stuff. You have to be involved with the community by supporting it with time, expertise, and passion.
Lowbrow is steeped in the scene. It sponsors grassroots events, throws its own, supports builders, and builds its own bikes, profiting from the scene but also growing and fostering it at the same time.
Founders Kyle and Tyler Malinky have used Lowbrow to supercharge their own bike-building efforts, including a slew of choppers and more than a few
land speed bikes. But there was something missing.
“I have Flatheads, old Triumphs, and the like, all awesome, but no real road-trip bike,” Tyler says. “I wanted something I could just hop on and ride.”
Stuck in an unrelated webbrowsing hole, Tyler stumbled upon the Pan-american name, and everything came together: Build a bike that can do all 50 states, be as bulletproof as possible, and not be an overwrought tourer.
In a puff of smoke and sound, S&S Cycle appeared like a fairy choppermother to make it happen.
S&S Cycle developed a new program in which it approaches a few of its favorite builders and asks: “Budget is not an issue. What bike do you want to build and why?” If S&S likes the answer, it supplies the motor. The builder supplies the rest.
In Tyler’s case, S&S liked his pitch, so a fresh P93 Panhead, an engine that flouts traditionalism to open up a world of reliability, power, and long-range durability, was dropped at his shop.
The strongest original Panhead displaced 74 inches and put down 60 hp and 65 pound-feet of torque. S&S Cycle’s modern take is up 19ci and puts down a claimed 62 hp and 84 pound-feet.
Engine arrived, Lowbrow got to work, fitting Custom Cycle Engineering cast engine covers and mating the powerplant to a Baker 6-4 transmission with a heavy-duty Rivera Primo inner primary.
The bike’s bulldog stance comes from W&W Cannonball MAG-12 wheels that crib the look of magnesium racing wheels of the ’60s. Lowbrow’s new WX split tank, which pays homage to vintage WR racing tanks, was installed, and the bike received a dunking in black paint and powdercoat.
The rest is an amalgam of H-D Moco and aftermarket parts. An early Wide Glide front end with new Progressive springs is complemented by Progressive shocks. Performance Machine four-piston calipers front and rear offer a significant boost over ’70s-era stopping power. Vintage Buco bags run on mounts fabricated by The Gasbox, who also made the exhaust, adapted a Fat Boy front fender to fit, and supplied the bolt-in oil tank and carburetor mount.
The result blurs generational lines into one cohesive piece. It’s a slinky black number that is both restomod and custom, with the componentry and reliability to gobble miles.
Break-in was done last year on the road from Lowbrow HQ in Brunswick, Ohio, to Born-free out west in Southern California, and then Tyler got married on it. And now I get to ride it.
THE BIKE IS AN ELEGANT MUTT: A ’79 FLH FRAME STUFFED WITH A 93-INCH S&S PANHEAD INSTEAD OF THE SHOVELHEAD IT ROLLED OUT OF THE FACTORY WITH.
ON THE ROADS OF OHIO
The Pan-american was rolled out of the back of Lowbrow's building. Ohio gave me two story angles to work with: urban or rural. For the urban version, we would trek out to an abandoned dragstrip in the northeast, take grungy chopper pictures, head to Cleveland, get more grungy chopper shots, and then espouse about how Cleveland is rebounding and not bad, and look at all these farm-to-table restaurants and new apartments filled with millennial artisan vegans. Blah, blah, blah.
The other angle was to take the bike westward, motor down Ohio’s arrow-straight roads, get coffee in Oberlin, roll through cornfields, hit Amish Country, respectfully buzz pass some buggies, and then return.
Firing the bike up immediately made the decision for me. It all happens in slow motion. You turn the key, there’s a churning of metal, and then noise oozes out. It’s subdued, loping anger and not a delicate, highly wound urban weapon. This bike was meant for big, open spaces—as Tyler intended.
Cleveland would have to wait for another day and another bike.
“It’s cold-blooded,” Tyler offers. It was, taking a while to warm up on this cool, rainy day.
“Neutral is hard to find too,” he adds. An understatement.
He didn’t mention the clutch has a minuscule engagement band, but I found that out quickly and in front of everybody in the office.
Everything on this bike follows in that vein: hefty, rugged, stiff. Everything gives little feedback and is high effort. Operation is heavy in the way of antique artillery and vintage machinery—overbuilt and dense. Oh, and everything vibrates. A lot. And I forgot to mention the best part. The tires are horrid in the wet. They’re Allstate Diamonds, designed to look old and perform like new. In some non-raining universe that could be true. They are terrible in the wet.
With the heft and available grip, the Pan-american takes a coordinating jig of machinations to operate. Situation: You’re pulling up to a stoplight. Pull the clutch, rev slightly, shift to neutral, apply rear brake, apply front brake.
Rear begins to slide.
Ease off of rear brake.
S—t, not in neutral.
Pull clutch back in, shift down then up.
Front begins to wash.
Relieve pressure on front brake. Reapply rear brake.
Still not in neutral.
Stall. Barely stop at stoplight. Exhale strongly.
Then it sinks in that this is Tyler’s “comfortable” bike. With 84 pound-feet of torque being vibrated through the rear tire, every stoplight and corner was a kind of gamble. Then the gamble wound up snake eyes as I washed the front and tipped over through an oil spill at a stop sign. Blaming the tires is clichéd, I know.
Obviously, tires don’t crash themselves, so an attitude adjustment was in order—and a new shift lever.
The Pan-american is not a bike for mass consumption. It’s not engineered to pander to or flatter your skills like a modern machine. It’s designed how Tyler wants it to be—and mated to a 38-year-old chassis and tires designed to look even older than that. The result is you will go slower than what you’re used to, or else. So I let the bike lead. And the day got better. The power delivery seems more serene once the scenery begins to dry out. The engine surges slowly, surely, throughout the rev range, sort of like being pulled up to the top of a roller coaster, with a gritty resonance up top as it lunges toward redline. Torque is the star of the show, and its abundance scrunches you back in the seat and shoves the bike forward with authority.
Handling is, well… Harleys have come a long way since 1979. And even with this bike’s fancy suspension you tiptoe through corners balancing on the edge of those tires, taking your time, planning your next move, and wrestling it the entire way, as you wallow between tar snakes and trenches in the pavement.
Four-piston calipers front and rear obviously improve braking over stock, but slowing down requires time. You make decisions a quarter-mile ahead of time and forget about fine modulation. You have the option of really stopping or not, nothing in between.
The road stretched on to Oberlin as I adjusted to the Pan-american’s personality.
NO TIME FOR LATTES
Oberlin is a quaint liberal arts college in the middle of Ohio. Tranquil and small, it's built for the perfect coffee break and stood as an oasis before we entered the even more tranquil and quainter fields of Amish Country. And I needed a pumpkin spice latte as we were riding in the beginning of fall, after all.
We stopped for photos when an inquisitive, mustachioed senior with a blue Shovelhead shirt walked up.
Spend any time around bikes and you learn quickly that when people walk up to you when you’re on a motorcycle, they’re looking to talk about theirs. For hours. I knew then I would not have time for my latte. “Why’s the generator like that?” he began, in that chilly Midwest way that says, “Why are you here?”
He didn’t give me time to answer before he began again. (Note: There’s an internal alternator and the “generator” is now the oil filter.)
“I’ll never buy a new Harley. The EPA took all their performance parts.”
This is not true, of course, but my new friend was busy taking out his phone to show me his Electra Glide and original flathead.
They were bikes tied to significant milestones in his life, the flathead his high school years and the Electra Glide his latest new bike in 2007. But with the discussion of the Milwaukee-eight, he made it clear he had no plans to upgrade because, “You can’t work on them anymore.”
I tried to steer the "conversation" back to this particular bike, but he was not interested.
And with the closure of our chat, it was time to head to somewhere even more change-averse— Amish Country.
SERENITY IN A STRAIGHT LINE
Not a gauge in sight, the classic, minimalist view of the bike is complemented by the somewhat pinched “in” feeling riding position that strikes a balance between comfort and steeze, presence and stance.
And as the miles poured on, the allure began to make sense.
The Pan-american is a sensory funnel. Sights, sounds, and views are gathered up and concentrated by the drama and focus required from the motorcycle.
On the Milwaukee-eight I’d recently ridden, I could cruise with almost no effort. I could screw with the radio and corner with one hand, all while perfectly comfortable. Brakes and suspension are engineered to downplay harshness for my heinie. Power delivery is smooth, effortless, and rich. Fairings block wind.
The Pan-american does none of those things.
There is no radio, no turn signals, not a speedometer, tachometer, odometer, nor windshield. Everything is also heavier around the edges and requires more focus to ride two steps ahead of the situation at hand, lest you overshoot a corner or stop sign.
It’s a package that makes you realize that going long distances is supposed to be hard. And it used to be harder. You used to leave to go cross country and end up lost in the Rockies with your friend’s ribs between your teeth.
So the Pan-american sits in the middle between pandering and hard-core traveling, and the focus the bike requires makes average rides better because of it.
There was no landmark of note on our way to Amish Country. In fact, it was all straight roads and wide-open expanses. But as speeds creep to 75 and you click into overdrive, the world slows down as motor, brain, and body become synced at the same frequency.
At these speeds, the motor is in its sweet spot. The heft and handling of the motorcycle is not an issue as you waft thickly down the road.
It’s serene. And you feel as if you never have to stop until you hit the ocean of your choice. East or west, it doesn’t matter.
Cornfields, abandoned farms, and the infinite stretch of land become more intense in color and scope since you’re paying more attention instead of “browsing” by them.
Nothing of note came from that afternoon of riding, no amazing photos, no back-road bombing, nothing to brag about at all. But it was still a peak experience because the bike is such a visceral machine. We didn’t even make it to Amish Country. It was a memorable day of doing nothing at all, on a machine that challenged me and forced me to slow down and enjoy the ride. On anything more refined I would have been bored to tears.
The Pan-american stands in sharp contrast to modern bikes. The Milwaukee-eightpowered touring machines being a prime example of this. The Milwaukee-eight is an engineering project with many masters ranging from the EPA to classic Harley-davidson customers to the weekend enthusiast to the newer rider. It’s a miracle that it pleases those divergent audiences. But through that, it becomes diluted. Like most modern bikes.
This bike answers only to Tyler’s whims. This singular focus and uncouth attitude is a luxury in an era of mass, accessible performance. Outfits such as Singer (Porsches) and Icon (Broncos, Land Cruisers) have known this for a while on the car side: People will pay to trade convenience for sensation. The Pan-american, although a one-off, is a prime motorcycle example of this model. It blends a vintage temperament with modern reliability and exceptional finishing.
It’s not built to carve roads but to observe them. And for strafing Ohio, it’s the best tool for the job.
Because if you’re going to go straight and slow, you might as well do it in style and enjoy the show.