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Posts Tagged ‘Rikuo Model 97’

Pearl Harbor

It was 68 years ago today – December 7, 1941 – that bombs fell on Pearl Harbor.  It was a stealthy attack that took the lives of more than 2,400 Americans, threaten internment of 150,000 people of Japanese ancestry in Hawaii and was a tipping point for the nation which jumped headlong into its 2nd major war of the century.  It was a day filled with sacrifices and heroism – one that should not be forgotten.

Just six years earlier Harley-Davidson founded the Japanese motorcycle industry.  In fact, from the H-D history page it states:

“1935 — The Japanese motorcycle industry is founded as a result of Harley-Davidson licensing blueprints, tools, dies and machinery to the Sankyo Company of Japan. The result is the Rikuo motorcycle.”

Rikuo Motorcycle

Very little is known about the specifics and mindful of the results Harley-Davidson isn’t doing much talking.  It bears a similarity to the clandestine support the U.S. provided Muslim fighters during the 10-years the U.S.S.R. fought in Afghanistan.  Maybe that’s an overreach?   At any rate, the highly ironic consequence of Milwaukee’s quest for export markets in the 1920s resulted in helping Japan ready for World War II.   It was during the “economic slump” of the 1930s that the creation of a Japanese big twin occurred. It’s known that during the 1920s, Arthur Davidson had aggressively pursued new sales openings, including the establishment of the Harley-Davidson Sales Company of Japan.  It had a comprehensive network of dealers, agencies and spares. In fact, the Milwaukee motorcycle stood so high that Harley’s soon became Japan’s official police motorcycle.

Harley-Davidson exports to Japan all but ceased in the wake of the 1929 Wall Street crash and Great Depression as the global economic crisis crippled the yen. The story might have stopped there but for Alfred Childs, head of Harley’s Japanese operation, who asked: “Why not build Harleys there?”

The motor company was skeptical, but Childs’ persistence finally convince management and the first overseas factory began production at Shinagawa, near Tokyo.  Motorcycles built with tooling, plans, blueprints and expertise directly from Milwaukee — Harley-Davidson built a factory that was considered the most modern in the world. By 1935 Shinagawa was manufacturing complete motorcycles, mainly 74-inch V-series flathead twins.  In 1930, these had become the official motorcycle of the Japanese Imperial Army. Later, when the army became the effective civil power, it declined the chance to convert production to the new OHV Knucklehead, preferring the proven durability of the H-D side-valve twin. It was at this point that the Sankyo corporation forcibly took over control of the “H-D” factory and began selling Japanese Harleys under the Rikuo name. The “74” twin became the Rikuo Model 97.

As it became clear that Japan readied for World War II, Harley cut its losses and got out.  As military demand increased (especially after the Japanese invasion of China in 1937), Rikuo sub-licensed the product to Nihon Jidosha (“Japan Combustion Equipment Co.”). Its “Harleys” were variants of the model 97s, entitled Kuro Hagane (“Black Iron”).

Eerily, the factory had only a few more years to run. Nihon Jidosha was located in Hiroshima.

Research Sources:
Yokohama Kanagawa Prefecture photos of Japanese Harley History HERE.
Classic Bike article (1998) by Hugo Vanneck HERE.
Rikuo (Riku’O) Motor Web Site HERE.
H-D Museum Photos HERE.
FBI History 1930 – 1945 HERE.

Photo courtesy of Nippon News and National Archives.

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