Years produced: 1953-1957
Total production: N/A
Claimed power: 22hp @ 4,250rpm
Top speed: 70mph
Engine type: 747cc side-valve, air-cooled V-twin
Weight: 230kg (506lb)
Price then: N/A
Price now: $12,000-$15,000
MPG: 35-40 (est.)
“Nothing tickles me more than annoying Harley-Davidson riders who bought a new bike six months ago and don’t know how to change their own oil,” Troyce Walls says, owner of a Japanese Harley-Davidson - the Rikuo motorcycle. But then, Troyce always has liked making waves.
You may remember Troyce from our May/June 2006 issue, where we highlighted his gorgeous 1973 Kawasaki Z1 — along with his habit of annoying classic British motorcycle enthusiasts by comparing the handling of his Z1 to that of a Norton Commando. Like we said, Troyce likes making waves.
Troyce’s favorite way to confuse the Bar and Shield crowd is his Rikuo. “The Rikuo is fun at shows,” says Troyce, grinning as he speaks. “People don’t realize that it’s ‘Made In Japan.’ They think it’s a Harley VL flathead until they see the nameplate.”
The Rikuo looks like a Harley because it is based on Harley’s design for a side-valve V-twin, because Harley-Davidson taught the Japanese how to set up the Rikuo motorcycle factory and because Harley-Davidson sold the parent company the blueprints for its side valve V-twin. Yes, believe it or not, this all really happened.
Back in the day …
The story of the Rikuo begins about four centuries ago. European traders had discovered Japan, which was split into fiefdoms engaged in a prolonged civil war. The victor, Tokugawa Ieyasu, clamped down on contact with the outside world. He believed that the Europeans were supporting one or another faction in attempts to gain control over the country.
Fast forward to 1853 when American warships, under the command of Admiral Perry, paid an unwelcome visit to Japan and forced the country to open its doors to outsiders. By 1867 it was clear to the Japanese government that it had a choice: Either become a colony like so many other non-European countries, or learn European technology as fast as possible. Japan chose to modernize, and put as much energy into learning Western ways as it previously had in keeping foreign influence out. By the early 1900s, Japan was beginning to industrialize, and was becoming a power in Far Eastern affairs. Transportation was key to Japanese development, but most Japanese roads were narrow, unpaved tracks.
The beginning of an industry
The Japanese were interested in motorcycles as inexpensive transportation. A few Japanese inventors were turning out prototype machines, but there was no real indigenous motorcycle industry and a limited choice of imports. It was at this point that Alfred Rich Child entered the scene.
“Alf” Child was born in England, and after a series of adventures landed a job with Harley-Davidson. After World War I, Harley sent Child to Africa to explore investment opportunities, and then, in 1924, to Japan. In the early Twenties, over 50 percent of all American-made motorcycles were exported. Indian was actively exporting sidecar outfits to Japan at this time, and Harley was very interested in expanding its export business in the Far East. Harley’s powerful, low-revving engines were just the thing to push a loaded sidecar up and down narrow, rutted tracks.
In Japan, Child successfully entered into talks with Sankyo Company Limited. As part of their negotiations, the parties agreed that Child, a talented dealmaker and problem solver, would stay in Japan as the managing director of a newly formed corporation, which would import Harley motorcycles and parts for Sankyo. Harley’s export operation got an additional boost when Japan’s Army and Navy purchased its bikes for military use. A number of local police departments also purchased Harleys, and over the next few years 400 Harley-Davidson dealer and service outlets were established throughout the Japanese islands.
But the landscape changed in the fall of 1929 following the Great Depression, when the value of the yen dropped by half, effectively doubling the price of imports from America. It was at this time that Alfred Child suggested Harleys be manufactured in Japan.
A different path
With the Depression looming, and worldwide export markets floundering, manufacturing Harleys in Japan seemed like a good idea. After extensive negotiation, Harley and Sankyo agreed on terms and royalty payments, which were approved by Harley’s board in late 1931 or early 1932. Sankyo would pay $3,000 (over $60,000 in today’s money) for blueprints, and pay royalties of $5,000 for the first year, $8,000 for the second year and $10,000 for the third year.
Harley engineers came over to set up the factory and show their Japanese partners how to build bikes. With Harley providing the know-how and Sankyo providing the financing, the first real motorcycle factory in Japan was built in Shinagawa, and went into full production in early 1935.
In late 1929 Harley-Davidson switched from the inlet-over-exhaust J model Big Twins to the 738cc (45ci) and 1,213cc (74ci) side-valve V models. The first V-twins had numerous teething problems, but after these were sorted out the side-valve engines performed well under Japanese conditions. The Shinagawa factory commenced production of side-valves under the name Rikuo, “King of the Road.”
This profitable arrangement, which quite probably contributed substantially to Harley’s solvency during the Depression, came to a sudden end in 1936 when Child’s operation was provided with one of the first overhead valve Knuckleheads. The Sankyo company tested it, didn’t like it, and refused to buy a license to produce Knuckleheads. This refusal led to a breakdown in the friendly dealings between Harley and Sankyo.
When the dust settled, Sankyo no longer had a licensing arrangement with Harley. In response, Child set up a separate import facility, but this new arrangement only lasted a few months: Japan was becoming increasingly militaristic, and was once again closing the door to trade and outsiders.
In 1937 a Colonel Fujii came to call on Alf Child, and offering what were generous terms given the darkening environment, asked to purchase Alf’s business. Alf took the hint, sold his holdings in Japan, and moved his family back to the U.S. as quickly as possible.
Since Harley couldn’t afford to hire Child (it was still the Depression, after all), he went to work for the Bendix Corporation. Later, he worked out a deal with BSA, becoming the U.S. importer for the brand.
“The King” continues
Meanwhile, Rikuo continued to build motorcycles, most of which were sold to the Japanese military and local Japanese police departments. About 18,000 Rikuos were built between 1937 and 1942. Based on the Harleys of the early Thirties, the lineup consisted of 750cc (45ci) and 1,200cc (74ci) V-twins, all with total loss lubrication. Many of the 1,200cc Rikuo’s had an integral driveshaft to a sidecar wheel, and they were used extensively in the Pacific theater by the Japanese military.
There was a hiatus after the end of the war, but Rikuo resumed production in 1947. Postwar, Rikuos were primarily sold to police departments, although doctors and other wealthy professionals would buy them. About 1,500 to 2,000 were produced per year through the late Forties.
In 1950, Showa Aircraft bought Sankyo. At the time, Rikuo was building 30hp, 1,200cc sidecar outfits. In 1952, Rikuo reintroduced the 747cc RO, a 22hp side-valve with a top speed of 68mph, and upgraded the 1,200cc sidecar hauler. These were all very similar to the ancestral Harley side-valve, with manual advance, no return springs on the throttle and still using total-loss lubrication. The first production Harley to have dry sump lubrication was the Knucklehead — the source of the Sankyo/Milwaukee breakup.
The rest of the Rikuo’s parts were no more advanced. The front forks were girders and there was no rear suspension. None of this mattered, since Japan was desperate for transportation, and Rikuos were sturdy and easy to fix with a minimum of tools.
In the postwar era, the fledgling Japanese motorcycle industry often shortcut the R&D process by copying proven designs from other countries. Rikuo was no exception. In 1953 the Model A, a copy of the British single-cylinder 345cc BSA, appeared. This bike was lighter, cheaper to produce and had almost as much power (20hp) as the V-twin. In 1956 Rikuo copied a single-cylinder BMW, which actually produced less power.
In 1958, the by-then antique V-twin received dry sump lubrication, foot shift and hand clutch, and a new model designation, RT. But it was too late: By this time Honda and other makers were building reliable overhead cam, electric start motorcycles, and the police departments that were Rikuo’s mainstay switched over to other brands. Production ceased in 1958, although bikes were assembled from existing parts through 1960.
In Japan, Rikuos are rare and expensive collector’s items. They were never exported to the U.S., and only a handful have made their way to this side of the Pacific.
“Five years ago, I became conscious of Rikuos,” explains Troyce, who has quite a collection of classic Japanese motorcycles. “I have a client in Japan who is interested in Panhead and Shovelhead Harleys, so I send him Harleys, and I buy pre-U.S.-export Hondas from him. I told him I was interested in a Rikuo, so he started sending me ads.”
Rikuos in Troyce’s price range were not easy to find, but finally one turned up that, although not running, seemed to be complete, with an engine that turned over. Troyce bought it, and had it crated and shipped Stateside.
“I pulled it out of the crate and put it up on the lift,” Troyce recalls. (Troyce does a lot of his own work and has a well-equipped garage.) “The first thing I did was try to find out why it didn’t run. The carburetor was very simple, like an early Schebler. I got the carburetor working, and set it up the best I could from my experience working on Harleys. I also cleaned the points and sealed the tanks.
“You use regular gas; I think the compression is about 6:1. You can kick through just by pushing your foot on the starter. Turn on the gas, turn on the choke, turn the left grip to retard the spark and turn the throttle a quarter turn. There are no return springs, remember? With the ignition off, kick twice. Then, turn the ignition on and kick hard.” The first time he started the bike “it put up a smoke fog that drove all the mosquitoes out of this part of the county,” Troyce says.
At first, Troyce didn’t realize the bike had a total loss lubrication system, and would only stop leaking if it was out of oil. “Luckily, I stopped before I wrecked it,” he says. He learned to set up the oil pump, which is on the right side of the engine. “Drain the oil from the sump, drive a measured distance, and drain the oil again. There is a button on the left of the crankcase that makes this easy. Measure the drained oil and set up the pump accordingly.” After the oil pump was properly set, the bike continued leaking a little and smoking some, but not badly enough to upset the neighbors.
The 1957 Rikuos still have the left-hand shift. The rocker clutch engages if, like the one on Troyce’s bike, it is properly adjusted. “I can put both feet down at stops,” Troyce says. The big saddle is mounted on a sprung seat tube, which takes some of the bumps out of the road. The “Ful-Floteing” seat was a major Harley advertising point in the early days.
The Rikuo pulls well from a stop, and is capable of 45-50mph. “It’s hard to tell how well it handles, but it seems to track well, even with the old tires. The drum brakes are adequate for the size and speed of the bike,” Troyce says.
“My interest is piqued by this machine. I enjoy the old lawnmower engine. I like simplicity, even if it is a little crude. I’m fascinated by things Asian. And it is SO much fun at shows.” MC
Special thanks to Martin Jack Rosenblum, Harley-Davidson historian, for sharing his research. The blueprint payment terms are stated in Jerry Hatfield’s INSIDE HARLEY-DAVIDSON, (1990) Motorbooks, page 114.
Six things you didn't know about the early Japanese motorcycle industry
6. The first motorcycle sold in Japan was an American Mitchell: Two were imported in 1903.
5. N. Shimazu built the first motorcycle ever in Japan in 1909. In 1925, he started production of the Arrowfast, a single-cylinder, side-valve machine. The 250cc version was the first mass produced Japanese motorcycle.
4. Indian exported motorcycles to Japan before World War I, and Prince Hirohito (later Emperor) may have ridden an Indian.
3. Harley-Davidson was one of the most popular motorcycles in Japan in the 1920s, when there were about 400 Harley-Davidson dealer and service outlets throughout the Japanese islands.
2. Frederick Barr, Harley-Davidson assistant factory manager, spent two years in Japan getting the Rikuo factory in Shinagawa on line.
1. In 1935, S. Nagai, the head of the Rikuo factory, made a speech hailing Barr as “the father of the motorcycle industry in Japan.”