Dan Paransky's Blount County shop is rich in large boat motors, motorcycles, and European cars. Giving a tour, he is preceded by a lit cigar that he is not actively smoking, much as the priest follows his censer.
"This engine is pretty much a jewel," he says, priming a particular favorite. "It's a real quiet, smooth-running beast. Let's see if we can make it happen."
The motor comes to life. Never mind that the motor is on a squat, restored, one-and a-half-ton, late 1950s pavement roller. It's name, Pudgy, is pronounced in custom hand-lettering worthy of an Auburn Phaeton.
"It's very hard to explain what we do," says Paransky, who came to Tennessee from Pittsburgh 35 years ago, with multiple advanced degrees in engineering from Carnegie Mellon and a first-generation Harley-Davidson Sportster, which he still owns and rides. "For the most part, if the person knows what they want, and if it can be done, I try to make that happen for them. I try to take their idea and put it into metal. What matters to me is making it happen. That's my thing. I like to turn their ideas into something concrete. We lean toward the art side."
On this gorgeous summer day, Paransky made it happen for a group of touring Euro-bikers from New York who had come to do the Smokies. A Ducati broke down, and no dealership shop in 865 or 423 could help. Finally, Destination Motorcycles connected the out-of-towners to Paransky, with what is apparently a common introduction: "If he doesn't have it, he'll make it." Today's challenge fell somewhere in between. Paransky's assistant, Eric Cannon, had ridden his own 2001 Duc Super Sport to work. Paransky robbed an internal transmission lever from Cannon's bike and adapted it to fit the ailing tourist.
Paransky's gift appears to be creative and original mechanical thinking. He has a rep as a Rolls Royce mechanic, and two Silver Clouds await his attention. Paransky has cultivated a diverse clientele that enjoys bringing him challenges, and he diplomatically explains that he's more likely to discriminate based on owner than on machine. He admits to being mystified by brand snots.
"A real rider will say to you what you hear from me: I never saw a motorcycle I didn't like," says Paransky. "I'm looking for one thing; I'm looking for one outstanding quality that that machine may have. I've never met a motorcycle that didn't have something that I really, really liked. I have my favorites. I like my Harley-Davidson. But I also have a Honda Pacific Coast and I'm very fond of it. These people that think that the Davidson is the only motorcycle on the planet, that's pretty much the Johnny-come-lately crowd. Those are the people that have just kind of got into it.
"Motorcycles are, right now, quite the item. Years ago you'd be going down the street and see a motorcycle and it would be something you'd really look at. It's not that way anymore. The motorcycle market has really expanded. The demand for motorcycles has increased fantastically, and I think it will continue to do so—vastly to the benefit of the culture."
Paransky and Cannon agree that if nothing else, the growing number of motorcyclists makes us all safer, by making motorists more accustomed to sharing the road. East Tennessee is certainly a thriving market, and has its share of eccentric owners of eccentric machines… who ultimately need an eccentric mechanic. (Paransky painted Sara Hedstrom's Tiffany-box-blue Ducati Monster, seen on the cover of the June Handlebars.)
From a work bench, Paransky picks up what is obviously a gas tank, but out of context, the big hunk of stripped and shining bare alloy could just as easily be a body part for some descendant of Terminator.
"This tank is the very source of our existence," says Paransky. "If it wasn't for these, we wouldn't eat. This is from the ever-so-frequently crashed GSX-R."
Paransky rotates the tank in front of him, explaining how and why it was repaired rather than replaced.
"What we did was cut this piece out," he says, pointing with his cigar, "which was mashed into a little ball. We straightened it out and then we brazed it back in. Now we're sort of picking out the brazing points."
And the rider?
"He's fine," says Paransky, though he admits he can't remember how the tank got smashed, and asks Cannon.
"He low-sided at Little Talledega and separated from the machine," says Cannon.
"Right," says Paransky. "Took a little trip of his own."
Every circle of cycling friends has its elders. But Paransky's imagination and open-mindedness and hardcore engineering cred somehow makes him seem a little more enlightened than the typical Iron Butt or guy who's gone through a lot of bikes. Naturally, there is a tale about how he came to own his 1958 Harley XLCH some 46 years ago, when he was 16.
"At that time I had a BMW R69S," Paransky recalls. "I would go down to the Harley shop because they sold this wonderful engine cleaner. One day I went down there with my mighty BMW to this Harley store to buy some of this stuff. I pulled up and started a conversation with a fellow who was riding a Sportster. I had never ridden one. I said, plus or minus, I'm curious about how it stacks up against the BMW. He said, ‘Why don't you take it for a ride and find out?' So I went across the Seventh Street Bridge and came back across the Ninth Street bridge and I was sold at that point. I said this is a pretty raucous motorcycle. This thing is wild. I think I want one of these. So I set forth on a search for one."
Paransky's XLCH is about as stripped down as you can get and qualify for plates. It does not look comfortable, but it does look engaging. It's the perfect footnote to HD's new line of Dark Customs, which is the antidote to a long-running trend of endlessly adding chrome-plated accessories to big bikes. (See Take That Ride, pg. 8)
Is it a coincidence that Paransky rides a 40-year-old Sporty with 230,000 miles on it that looks a hell of a lot like Harley's '09 line? Of course not. Back in the day, Paransky ran with Willie G. Davidson, grandson of the company's co-founder and current H-D VP of styling. It was also Willie G. Davidson who helped rally family investors to buy the company back from American Machine and Foundry in 1981.
"Many, many years ago," says Paransky, "in the '60s, Willie G. Davidson was a route salesman for Harley-Davidson. He would go around to the dealers and take their orders, etc. One day Willie G. and a bunch of us went over to Moby's for lunch. Moby's was the bar/grill that was shown in the movie Flashdance. I asked Willie, ‘What do you think is going to happen to the motor company? Where does the value lie in this?' He said, ‘I think the image has as much value as the product does.'
"Here it is, 40 years later and that happens to be very much the truth. They're not selling the steak, they're selling the sizzle. They know what they're doing. They're marketing whizzes. They know who their demographic is, and they know exactly how to sell to them. The bikes are worlds better."
Paransky's cigar has gone out. He's tired of talking about motorcycles and breaks for lunch. Passing Pudgy, he explains how motorcycles are just one part of his own toolbox Tao, a lifelong circular quest to match interesting forms with functions that are worthy.
"A steady diet of motorcycles and motorcycles only, I'm not certain I would enjoy," he says. "I like to try different things, and then bring the different things together. This was a refugee from the junkyard right next to Smoky Mountain Harley-Davidson. We sandblasted. We painted. We made steering arms."
He pauses just long enough for you to say to yourself, "Right, but it's still a frigging antique pavement roller and this is still pretty much a motorcycle shop."
"And we roll the gravel driveway with it, so the motorcycles can come and go."
For more information, reach Dan Paransky directly at 865-660-8860.