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The Stranger-Than-Fiction Saga Of Harley-Davidson's Japanese Stepchild

Cycle World Logo By Allan Girdler of Cycle World | Slide 2 of 5: This story must be one would dare make up anything so outrageous.

Now, the four found­ers of Harley-David­son were still alive and active ... and skeptical. Not even the Japanese had much faith, but Childs persisted and the deal finally was done: Harley would ship plans, tooling, blue­prints, would loan some personnel and also build a factory in Japan, with one of the few restrictions being that the product would not be exported out of Japan. The necessary investment capital came from Sankyo, and the plant was built next to that pharmaceutical giant’s headquarters at Shinagawa in Tokyo.

According to Childs’ recollection years later, production began in 1929, and by 1935 the Shinagawa plant was building complete machines, assembled from parts made in Japan. Thus began the Japanese motorcycle industry. According to accounts from the time, the H-D factory was the most modern production facility in the country, with engineers and investors coming from all over the nation to see how it was done. But wait, there’s more.

Harley of Japan’s main product was the 1200cc ... i.e., 74 cubic-inch ... sidevalve Twin designated the V series and introduced in the U.S. late in 1929 as a 1930 model. In 1930, the Japanese version of the V was designated the official motorcycle of the Japanese army. Then things got rough. The Japanese military took over the civil government and the new leaders didn’t like the H-D connection. At the same time, just as the Shinagawa plant went into full production, Milwaukee introduced the Model E, the overhead-valve Knucklehead which, in vastly improved form, is still with us.

Milwaukee suggested Shinagawa convert from the old sidevalve 74 to the new ohv 61. Shinagawa demurred, on the grounds that the new model wasn’t yet proven and the old model was just what the main customer, the military, wanted. They compromised. Sankyo took full control of the Shinagawa plant and changed the brand name to Rikuo, while Harley-Davidson’s Childs switched to importing and distributing the new Harleys. Childs was a personable man who strongly believed in his project in Japan, but the war clouds were clearly on the horizon. He was also an astute businessman; and when a Japanese friend, a certain Col. Fujii, came around with an offer to buy the Harley operation, for gold, and suggested that Childs whisk his family aboard the next ship out, Childs said yes, twice. (One more aside here: The popular translation of the name Rikuo, in English, is generally given as Road King—which would be neat, because 60 years later we have the current Road King.

But it ain’t so. According to the best translators and a reading of history in Japanese, the name actually means Continent King and was taken from a Keio University song. Molding Continent King into Road King takes more imagination than the average poetic license permits.) Back with history, World War II began for Japan with the invasion of China in 1937. The Rikuo had been designated Model 97 by this time, and the military’s demand for the rigs outdid Shinagawa’s supply. To meet that demand, Rikuo licensed a copy of its licensed copy, so to speak.

© Brian Blades

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