The Black Dahlia

Article By: Milwaukee Mike

Photos By: Chris Callen

As some of our faithful readers know by now, I have been spending a fair amount of time around the St. Louis area. It is one of the perks of my days, that I have the ability to see the quality machines that are coming out of this area. It is mostly due to the fact that Cycle Source has been working with the St. Louis Cycle Showcase and the efforts of Randall “the gentleman of leisure” Noldge. It is because of his show that I first got to see the efforts of Shawn Long and the amazing work that comes out of his shop, Imperial House. This particular bike was built last year for the Born Free show. It is named The Black Dahlia. The name came as part of the history of the year that the bike was born. For those who do not know the story or haven’t seen the movie, in 1947 an infamous murder occurred in the hills outside of Hollywood. It is mostly remembered because of the gruesome and heinous nature of the state of the victim. In particular, there were ravens on the body which is reflected in the artwork on the tank. Shawn told me that since the bike was making its debut in California and it’s a ‘47 Knucklehead all the chips were falling into place. The bike he was going to build was going to be like the machines that people would have been riding in that same time period. After all, there was no big aftermarket so blending parts was all done in the name of speed and performance and not as much for looks. This gave birth to a style that obviously still rings a chord with us today.

Shawn knew that when he got the invite for the Born Free show that the heart of this bike had to be a Knucklehead. Since there are not a lot of spare Knuckleheads out there he got in touch with one of the biggest sources for vintage gear in that area. Grimey, over at Stripped Down Cycles is the man. For those who are uneducated in the ways of old American iron, there is no one better in that part of the world than Grimey. He sourced the engine and transmission as well as did the rebuild to stock specs on both. The icing on the proverbial cake in this mix was the double Linkert combo to make this girl move. But to do this correctly he used a one of a kind manifold to attach the twin M88 carbs. A 3D printed model was manufactured and given to Aric Heckman Customs to cast the prototype in aluminum. Once the heart was ready to beat, the body needed to be put together. For that, Shawn started with a stock ‘41 frame and changed nothing on it, just cleaned it up to prep for paint. With the motor and frame ready it was time to start figuring out the way this bike was going to look. Shawn knew that the bike was to have a stock stance with a thin outline. To achieve that some fat needed to be trimmed. First, the oil tank was narrowed by ¾” so it didn’t stick out past the profile of the frame. Next, the Wassel banana tank was narrowed, sectioned, shortened, and the filler cap was relocated and high mounted to achieve that “oh so right” look. The next piece of the puzzle were the wheels. Shawn took the stock Harley hubs and laced them to a pair of Dunlop stainless rims that normally would reside on a mid-‘60’s Triumph, polished to a high sheen by a local who goes by the handle of Smothers.

Then both wheels were wrapped in a matching pair of Pirelli MT53 skins to keep this machine stuck to the pavement. Of course the rear was going to need some Imperial House magic. The star hub was actually two rear hubs that were cut and then expertly welded back together by Shawn. That set the body correct, now the front end needed to be figured out. Shawn had a fair amount of time working on British customs and he had 2 options for the front end. One was a pre unit spring over hydraulic with chrome covers, very period correct. The other was a ‘37 VL Harley springer. As you can tell the springer won. The stance was now complete, now the special touches could begin. One of the things that sets this bike apart is that all the parts on this girl are original, both in the American and British department. The body was now complete and the motor was mounted. It was time to start letting the creative juices have free reign. The first stop was at the exhaust, Shawn did the whole thing from scratch. He started with a bend kit from Biltwell and fabbed the bends, and the rippled ends. Once that was all set he made stainless, highly polished mid controls. It is the perfect setup for this style of bike. Now that the foot controls were sorted it was time for the hands, the Bare Knuckle Choppers risers and narrowed handlebars top the front. The rear was tied together by the in-house custom fabricated sissy bar. Of course, the bike needed a seat and in this case Shawn made a steel pan and then handed it over to DS Original for the fine leather wrap. The final cherry on top of this sundae was the paint job. Shawn named this bike The Black Dahlia long before even one iota of work got done; a practice he does on every build. He believes that giving a build a name helps to guide the process and give it the “soul’ it needs to guide the look of the bike. For those with an artistic soul they can understand how these bikes can “live” and if it can live it should have a name. As I said earlier the gas tank is adorned with Shawn’s original artwork of the raven. It mirrors, the ones found on the body of Elizabeth Short (the Black Dahlia, see what I did there… taught y’all some history!) I especially like that it is not the typical paneled and flaked bike you see so much of today. But the true beauty of this paintjob is in the base layer. It is true Murano Pearl from the good old days. It was given to Shawn via one of his paint gurus, Joe Koenigsmark (Shawn’s brother from another mother). The cool thing about this pearl is it fades from gold to pink to blue depending on the sunlight and the angle you see it from. Shawn informed me that he absolutely buried the tank in pearl first and was going to just do a small touch of the cobweb effect but did that on the entire tank at Joe’s behest, and it works! It is even more amazing in person than in pictures. Another hurdle that had to be crossed in the build process was that of chrome. With Brown’s going out of business less than 30 days before this one started the chrome had to be spread out over 4 different shops in 4 different states. Luckily, it all matched and the sheens were all the same.

I have heard from many people that have built bikes for big shows about how stressful and taxing it can be to pull off that task. We as spectators don’t see the long hours and commitment it takes to build this motorcycle porn. Lucky for us it is still done, and in so many parts of the country. Make sure you go out and support them. Shawn told me it was a great honor to be a part of the Born Free 7 and didn’t know how well he would do and didn’t really care. It was amazing to him to have guys who he has known for their paintwork not only like his but compliment and appreciate the amount of difficulty that went into his. This was way better than a trophy to him. Shawn would like to say thanks to Grimey, Paul, Joe, Jason Weber and Matt Jackson and of course his bride for putting up with the long hours and his missing presence. I personally would like to say I can’t wait to see what Shawn comes up with for next year’s St Louis Cycle Showcase. If you are in the need of some custom paint or finishes get hold of Shawn at Imperial House or check him out on line or on Facebook, tell him Cycle Source sent ya!

The Black Dahlia Tech Sheet

Owner: Shawn Long

City: Sparta, IL

Fabrication By: Imperial House

Year: 1947

Model: Harley-Davidson FL

Value: Valuable

Time: 7 Months


Year: 1947

Model: H-D FL Knucklehead

Builder: Rod “Grimey”Davis/Stripped Down Cycles

Ignition: Points

Displacement: 74”

Pistons: They’re In There

Heads: Freshened Up OG

Cam(s): Lil Bit

Carb: Dual Linkert M88/Siamese

Dual Intake- Imperial House

Air Cleaner: Nah

Exhaust: Imperial House

Primary: Imperial House


Year: 1952

Make: Harley-Davidson

Shifting: Jockey Shift

Clutch: Foot

Make: Rivera Primo


Year: 1940

Make: Harley-Davidson

Front end

Year: 1933

Type: VL Springer

Builder: Harley-Davidson


Front Wheel: Laced Star Hub

Size: 19”

Front Tire: Pirelli MT-53

Front brake: Missing

Rear Wheel: Laced Star Hub

Size: 18”

Rear Tire: Pirelli MT-53

Rear Brake: Mechanical Drum


Painter: Imperial House

Color: Brilliant Pearl

Type: Straight From The Unicorns

Graphics: Imperial House

Molding: Lil Bit


Bars: Killer Stellings Bend

Risers: Stellings Angled Risers

Hand controls: Missing

Fuel tank: Modified Wassel Banana

Rear fender: Wassel Non Ribbed Chrome

Seat: DS Originals

Foot Controls: Custom Stainless

Oil Tank: Narrowed Harley Horsehoe

Headlight: Swap Meet

Taillight: Custom

Mirror: Speed Dealer Customs

Speedo: Missing

Photographer: Chris Callen

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