85 years ago, amid worldwide doom and gloom, The Motor Company forged ahead.
Harley-Davidson’s house magazine, Harley-Davidson Enthusiast, was first published in 1916. It would go on to become the world’s longest continuously published motorcycle magazine. Over those many years, it and The Motor Company survived a lot of serious ups and downs.
Some issues of the magazine were of particular significance simply because of the period they reflected. In the 1930s, for example, a worldwide economic depression, the rise of fascism in Europe and Asia, communism in Eastern Europe and Russia, and the world stumbling toward war made publications from that time historic in themselves.
In November 1936, as much of the industrial world hunkered down in survival mode, Harley-Davidson made a major move investing in an all-new engine design for their line of bikes, despite those turbulent times. That month’s issue of the Enthusiast included the introduction of the lineup for the 1937 model year.
Among them were the 61 cubic inch overhead valve E, ES (sidecar), and EL models that had been introduced in the 1936 model year. They would eventually be given the nickname “knucklehead” because of the rocker covers that resembled the bare knuckles of a clenched fist.
The 61 cubic-inch (1,000cc) models were a break-out innovation in Harley-Davidson history because the engine was the first overhead-valve, hemi-head design in the Motor Company’s production bike history. It was a bold investment made in very uncertain times.
The E model was the basic machine, producing about 37 hp with a compression ratio of 6.5:1. In the EL, a 7.0:1 compression ratio helped the engine produced about 40 horsepower.
Harley-Davidson factory rider, Joe Petrali used a partially-streamlined, factory-supported EL to set a land speed record of 136.183 mph on the beach at Daytona in 1937. Also that year, a team of riders rode an EL to a 24-hour endurance record covering a total of 1,825 miles at an average of 76 mph!
The other bikes in the lineup for the 1937 model year retained the classic flathead, side-valve V-twin designs in 45 (750cc), 74 (1,200cc), and 80 cubic-inch (1,300cc) displacements. The 45 cubic inch model had a three-speed transmission, while all the other models had four speeds and a three-speed with reverse optional transmission was available for each model.
The narrative in the magazine about the new models was, appropriately enough, enthusiastic. Its colorful text was supplied by the editor and Harley dealer, Hap Jameson.
“They’ll knock your eyes out, these 1937 gas chariots will. They’re far and away the most revolutionary, the sleekest, the most graceful motorcycles ever put together in America.”
And, “Of course you remember what a sensation the 61 OHV created early in 1936 when it flashed across the motorcycle horizon. After years of rumor, it suddenly and quietly appeared on the scene. What an earthquake of excitement it caused! The 61 was the main topic of conversation wherever riders gathered. The 61 brought a renewed interest to motorcycling. There was a rush to see just what this new and different motorcycle could do. And what it couldn’t do!! Wherever the 61 OHV appeared at hill climbs, at race meets, at T.T. races, and at endurance runs, this super cycle kicked up its heels and ‘went places.’ Boy! That baby sure did make a hit.”
OK, it’s a little corny, but it is, after all, a sales pitch and the vernacular of the times was much different from today.
The time of the OHV engine had come and with it, greater performance per cubic inch and improved reliability overall. The other things that came along with the 1937 models included some subtle but important improvements, such as roller bearing mains, dry-sump pressurized circulating engine lubrication, built-in instrument panels, new four-speed transmissions, and chrome-moly steel front fork and a new double-loop trussed frame on all but the 45 model, to name but a few.
In its debut year, the 61 E model sold 152 bikes, the EL 1,526 and the ES 26 bikes (MSRP: $380 for all three, sidecar extra) with sidecar gearing in the transmission in the ES. The 61 c.i. engine continued on in the lineup until 1952 in the 52EL, 52ELS and 52ELF Hydra-glide models alongside the 74 c.i. (1,200cc) panhead-powered 48FL and 48FS models that ran at the top of the line until replaced with the shovelhead in the 1957 XL Sportster line and later in the FL Electra Glide in 1966.
The high-water mark for production of the EL models was 1948 when 4,321 were built. As with most other civilian motor vehicles, World War II affected all models not part of war materiel production. For example, in 1943, production of the WLA 45 c.i. flathead powered war department purchased model soared to 24,717 units, while production of the EL, which was not being purchased by the federal government was cut to just 53 units.
As for the side-valve flathead engines, which were introduced in 1929 DL model, they soldiered on in several models, lasting until 1973 in the Servi-car that came with the 45 c.i. engine.
Ironically, it was the 45 c.i. flathead model that helped fund the development of the 61 c.i. engine. In the early 1930s, Harley-Davidson struck a licensing deal with Japanese firm Rikuo to build the bike in Japan for domestic sale there. The deal generated fresh cash for both the manufacturing rights and the sale of the equipment that went along with it.
Now, as back then, there are economic problems impacting almost every sector and enterprise worldwide, including Harley-Davidson. In its history, Harley-Davidson has survived the impacts of the global Spanish influenza epidemic, World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, and every recession since then. So, if history is any indicator, Harley-Davidson will evolve, innovate and forge ahead.
Learn more about Harley-Davidson’s remarkable history:
- Rider’s Library: The Encyclopedia of the Harley-Davidson
- Rider’s Library: The Timechart History of Harley-Davidson
- Rider’s Library: The Harley-Davidson Century
- Rider’s Library: 100 Years of Harley-Davidson
- Rider’s Library: The Harley-Davidson Story, Tales from the Archives
- Rider’s Library: Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Archive Collection