The Knucklehead That Changed the History of Japan

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In 1936, Harley-Davidson began producing motorcycles powered by their new “Knucklehead” engine.  The Knucklehead was a major leap forward in engine design, going from the older side valve arrangement to one in which the valves were located over the piston.  The basic overhead valve layout is still used today in all current Harley-Davidson engines.  The photo above shows one of the first Knuckleheads to be imported into Japan and although it may not have been clear when the photo was taken, these new machines were the catalyst that started the Japanese motorcycle industry.

Back in 1930, Harley-Davidson was suffering through the Great Depression.  Desperate to keep revenue coming in the door, Harley-Davidson made a deal to license a motorcycle factory in Japan.  After five years of hard work, the factory finally started producing complete motorcycles.  These machines were based on the V-series side valve engines, so when the Knucklehead was introduced, Harley-Davidson insisted that the Japanese pay to license this new engine as well.

The Japanese were not only unwilling to license the Knucklehead engine, but they were so enraged by Harley’s strong arm tactics that they broke all ties with Harley-Davidson.  This did not mean that they closed down their factory though.  Instead they continued producing motorcycles under the new name of Rikuo and eventually began supplying machines to the Japanese military.  Lessons learned from building the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle factory were soon applied to build other factories and before long new motorcycle companies were being formed all across Japan.  Thirty years later, Harley-Davidson found themselves competing with these new Japanese companies that they helped to form back in the 1930’s.

For a more in depth history of Harley-Davidson and Rikuo, check out the following four part article:  Harley Goes to the Far East




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