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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 1 of 5: The V-Twin engine is probably the most recognizable piece at first glance, but if you take a second look, there are a lot of things that shouldn't or could't be.

One of the secrets of success in any novel, stage or screenplay is the pow­er of what the textbooks call the Willing Suspension of Disbelief. What this means is that those of us in the balcony, the bleachers or curled up on the couch have to accept facts, logic and circumstance bey­ond what our experience would predict. Prepare to do that now.

At first glance, much of what you see here seems instantly recognizable—a V-Twin motor, for example. But a second glance reveals a lot of things that shouldn’t or couldn’t be. That’s because this motorcycle is the rarest of the rare. As far as our inquiry can tell, there only two of these motorcycles left in existence. And this wasn’t a prototype. This motorcycle, the venerable Kurogano, or “Black Iron,” was mass-produced by the Jap­anese during WWII and saw duty in the home market and overseas. Suspend your disbelief a bit more when we tell you that this particular bike appeared magically in the Sierras of Central California, where it was wounded by a bullet from an irresponsible deer hunter. How did it get from Japan to California? No one knows.

The restoration of this black beauty has been in progress, in fits and starts, for about 30 years. And it wasn’t until after the restoration was at the not-quite-complete stage seen here that the owner could really document what he has. Not only that, what he has isn’t what he thought it was. As we progress through this story, keep looking at that V-Twin and keep in mind a bit of sweet irony: The Japanese motorcycle industry was started, nurtured and expanded with the expertise, engineering and encouragement of Harley-Davidson.

Shortly after the idea of the motorcycle synergized with American enterprise and Yankee know-how, Harley-Davidson and rival Indian exported worldwide. In the 1920s, Japan hadn’t become a truly in­dustrialized nation, and Harley-Davidson owned the lion’s share of the world market. H-D was the official mount of Japan’s police, army and even the Imperial Guard. The de­mand for Harleys in Japan was so strong that Milwaukee established a complete system of dealers, agencies and spare parts, all of it under the banner of the Harley-Davidson Sales Com­pany of Japan.

As an odd sort of omen—and aside from the bike on these pages—in 1924, the Murata Iron Works began making a copy of the 1922 H-D pocket-valve J model. It was tested by the Japanese army and rejected as poorly constructed. The lesson was taken to heart, clearly, as Murata went on to build the Meguro, itself the ancestor of Kawasaki. But then, in 1929, the world’s economy got the staggers and the yen’s value dropped to the level where imported Harleys were too pricey for the market. H-D Japan’s head man, Alfred Childs, had a bold and daring idea: build a Harley factory in Japan.

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© Brian Blades

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