1936 Harley-Davidson | EL Model

Knucklehead History

To understand how and why Harley-Davidson and the rest of the motorcycle industry got to where it is today, it is important to first understand the 1936 model EL. The motorcycle is most noted for its 61-cubic inch powerplant: The famed "Knucklehead" engine.

The first overhead valve V-Twin engine Harley-Davidson made for public purchase, the Knucklehead gave Harley-Davidson customers unprecedented power.

Also, the very look of the engine that resembled a clenched fist to the eyes of many showed that H-D believed in the styling importance of a motorcycle’s engine.

Over time, Harley-Davidson’s overhead valve V-Twin engines would be what separated Harley-Davidson from its competition.

The styling of the motorcycle itself can be credited as the inspiration for all modern cruisers.

The teardrop gas tank shape, horseshoe oil tank, teardrop dashboard, 4-speed transmission, circulating oil system, the lines and angles of the frame and the art deco gas tank logo were all radical departures from previously conservative motorcycle styling.

They would become among the most copied features of any Harley-Davidson model and proved to the motorcycle buyers of the day that they could travel in style.

To get some sense of the impact the motorcycle had, remember that all Harley-Davidson V-Twin engines to date have been based on the Knucklehead.

Also remember that ever since 1936, a motorcycle’s styling often means as much to a customer as does its performance.

Don’t forget that features such as the "springer" front fork assembly and horseshoe oil tank have found great popularity in the modern era, including non-Harley-Davidson motorcycles and aftermarket manufacturers.

This is without even listing all of the EL features that never disappeared from motorcycle styling after 1936.

With the all-new model EL in 1936, Harley-Davidson took a big gamble, and an even bigger one by producing 1,526 units in the first year of production. But, as history judged, it was a gamble worthy of the ages.

Photograph courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives.