The Knucklehead Arrives: 1936 Harley-Davidson EL

The Harley-Davidson EL with its overhead valve engine took awhile to perfect but the wait was worth it.

| November/December 2015

  • 1936 Harley-Davidson EL
    Photo by Sedrick Mitchell
  • 1936 Harley-Davidson EL
    Photo by Sedrick Mitchell
  • 1936 Harley-Davidson EL
    Photo by Sedrick Mitchell
  • It wasn’t until Harley-Davidson introduced the Panhead engine in 1948 that enthusiasts coined the Knucklehead nickname.
    Photo by Sedrick Mitchell
  • Foot clutch requires a certain skill.
    Photo by Sedrick Mitchell
  • Fishtail muffler is classic 1930s, as is the great cream and blue paint scheme.
    Photo by Sedrick Mitchell
  • 1936 Harley-Davidson EL
    Photo by Sedrick Mitchell
  • Owner Don Hart with his 1936 EL Knucklehead. “It feels much lighter than it is,” Don says.
    Photo by Sedrick Mitchell

1936 Harley-Davidson EL
Top speed:
60.33ci (988.56cc) air-cooled OHV 45-degree V-twin, 3-5/16in x 3-1/2in bore and stroke, 7:1 compression ratio, 40hp @ 4,800rpm
Weight (wet):
515lb (234kg)
Fuel capacity/MPG:
3.75gal (14ltr)/35-50mpg
Price then/now:

The iconic “Knucklehead” — the overhead valve 61-cubic-inch V-twin introduced by Harley-Davidson in early 1936 — is a milestone motorcycle and one of the most important American bikes ever made. Yet up until the last minute, it was uncertain whether Harley would release the bike for sale. 

In the early days before World War II, Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson sent test riders of new models out into the wooded hills of rural Wisconsin. The experimental models were unmarked, and testers were instructed to stay away from towns and dealerships. The point of all this secrecy was to keep the rumor mill down. The motorcycle world was very small, and even without the Internet or cheap, long-distance telephones, rumors would spread from one end of the country to another faster than a Twentieth Century Limited locomotive. In the case of the Knucklehead, the secrecy had an additional purpose: Harley didn’t want news of its new overhead valve engine to get out before its engineers had fixed its very leaky top end.

Beginnings of the sidevalve

For 1930, Harley-Davidson introduced an inlet-over-exhaust big twin to replace its aging sidevalve setup. Unfortunately, the new VL twins had multiple problems, resulting in a general recall and warranty replacement of expensive parts. Even with the repairs, the sidevalve engines were not as fast or reliable as desired, so Harley started looking for a replacement.

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