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‘37 Rikuo Type 97

Posted on February 8, 2016 by Andrew in Classic. 33 comments


Written by Martin Hodgson.

The theory of Six Degrees of Separation supposes that everyone is six or fewer steps away from any other person in the world. In the motorcycle industry, it is fair to say the same is true of every model ever made by every manufacture to ever exist; but which motorcycle is separated by the least steps? Which one sits right smack-bang in the centre? Surprisingly, the Answer is the Rikuo Type 97; an American-powered bike produced in Japan by a conglomerate of many small companies that would later become the automotive kings of Asia. And all as a result of protectionist policies designed to assist British Manufacturers with technology passed to German and Italian companies through the War Alliances of the time. It is no wonder, then, that this 1938 Type 97 belongs to our bike-and-battle-obsessed friends at the Motos of War collection in Russia known as The Motorworld by V.Sheyanov.


For all the incredible stories that make up the history of the world’s motorcycles, perhaps no other can rival that of the Type 97. In the 1920s the UK introduced tariffs to protect its industries including its motorcycle manufacturers and at the same time the increasingly militarised government of Japan was subsidising its own motorcycle industry to protect its domestic producers. This took a huge toll on Harley-Davidson’s export sales and by the time the Great Depression hit in 1929 the Milwaukee company was on the verge of bankruptcy. Through a series of complex events the Imperial Japanese Army, fast becoming the defacto Government of Japan, acquired a license to reproduce the HD Flathead engine in Japan under license. Given the IJA had already invaded Manchuria, the license should never have been granted under US law. But the IJA hid their involvement behind a company called Sankyo, who not only acquired the license but had an entire Harley engine factory transported to Japan from the US.

“Sankyo not only acquired the license but had an entire Harley engine factory transported to Japan from the U.S.”


Production of both the Flathead V-Twin engine began immediately and by the time the engine was being pieced together for this particular bike in 1938 the design might have been Milwaukee owned, but the components were all being made in Japan and the task of construction was given by the IJA to companies scattered around the country including some that would become household motorcycle names and one that would later become Mazda. Having refused to buy a license for the new Knucklehead design the Japanese companies had become masters of the Flathead and it was renowned for its reliability. With high-compression the engine produced a healthy 28hp at just 4000rpm with more than enough torque to power the sidecar-motorcycle combination. Part of this torque came from the increased capacity to nearly 1300cc over the 1200cc American version of the VL design. Although Harley-Davidson was developing its engine in a similar vein, on each side of the Pacific the path to increased performance and reliability were very different. By 1938 HD had been producing their VLH engine for two years with 80 cubic inches, while Rikuo’s were 77ci but somehow the Japanese were producing more torque, the secret to which was a state guarded secret.


That extra torque became vital considering the drivetrain loss that is associated with powering an extra wheel as the Type 97 does with both the rear wheel and that of the sidecar being driven. To achieve this, a wet multi-plate clutch works in conjunction with a three speed gearbox to send drive to the rear wheel. From here a coupled driveshaft sends power directly across the rear of the side car to its wheel hub. This was an early addition to the sidecar equipped Rikuo’s as Japan’s invasion China and particularly in Manchuria required a military vehicle capable of performing in adverse conditions caused by war, lack of infrastructure and the sheer muddy nature of its operating environment. Aiding in this endeavor was the significant amount of ground clearance of both the motorcycle and sidecar, with the drive components all elevated in the design to avoid bogging and striking debris.


Capable of transporting three fully equipped soldiers, the Type 97 was still known for its remarkable maneuverability. The Japanese spent considerable development on the suspension to achieve this remarkable feet and it starts with the rigid frame that was assembled and welded in such a way that it would flex to deflect the impact of large rocks or rough ground. The front suspension too was precise and sturdy for the time, consisting of a friction dampener and varying length pendulum style forks to dissipate energy. The rigid rear meant that there was less stress on the driveshaft for the sidecar but a relatively soft leaf spring arrangement allowed the weight of the total vehicle to shift rearward under increased acceleration providing additional grip when traction was lost.


Assisting that level of grip came from deliberately narrow wheels carrying heavily knobbed tyres that not only dispersed water and mud but ensured the maximum amount of weight was applied to each square inch of tyre making contact with the ground. The body work is also a key clue to the intended use of the machine, huge mud stopping fenders were fitted front and rear and the aerodynamic side car was mounted high above its own frame rather than sitting in a cradle. The fit and finish are what you would expect from a Japanese vehicle with minimal controls and instruments designed to cope with adverse climatic conditions. While the rider and passengers sat on well-appointed hard-wearing leather-bound seats extra options were minimal as the weight of such a vehicle ballooned.


That weight was considerable, 500kg and stopping it in such conditions meant that the sidecar had its own drum brake to assist. But given that Japan had largely only built small capacity engines for their motorcycle industry it was the clever acquisition of the Harley-Davidson engine design that made powering such a machine possible. The fact that a major US company had effectively given superior technology at a bargain price to a country that would very soon be the enemy following the bombing of Pearl Harbor is a major reason why information about the Type 97 is so scarce.

“A major U.S. company had effectively given superior technology at a bargain price to a country that would very soon be the enemy”


Although it is believed some eighteen thousand vehicles were produced, largely for the IJA, very few survive today. Many examples used in China, Mainland Japan and Manchuria were destroyed, a face-saving exercise for both sides and although Rikuo survived the war and produced V-Twins of a smaller capacity by the early ’60s the company had ceased to exist.



But one final twist would bring this whole story full circle and show just how intrinsically linked the Type 97 is to so many motorcycles that we even ride today. Revealed years later, the Rikuo brand originally established by the Sankyo company, who had acted on behalf of the IJA to dupe Harley-Davidson and US law makers was sold in 1949, including all their parts, plans and designs, to a company still known today, Showa. A leading suspension component manufacturer who not only supplies the likes of Honda, Ducati and Kawasaki, but to Harley-Davidson themselves.


It is truly one of the greatest stories never fully told and you can not only sit on this piece of motorcycle history but take it for a ride too. Simply contact The Motorworld by V.Sheyanov to find out how and twist the throttle on a machine that packs more motorcycle DNA in its core than any other. Tell them we sent you.

  • Миша Михайлов

    It is serious military motorbike.

  • Alasdair Sykes

    That’s got to be the biggest set of bars I’ve ever seen. Maybe it’s so the pillion can take over steering duties if the guy up front feels like taking a break? Loving the write-up Pipeburn.

  • guvnor67

    Brilliant!! And another great story well written. I really wish I had the time and money to get over to this museum, and i can only guess what other gems not yet featured they have there?! Fantastic stuff!!

  • Fantome_NR

    This is why I come to Pipeburn. Thank you!

  • Doublenickle

    An amazing story; who knew? If people had found out during WW2 they would have burned Harley Davidson to the ground. No joke.

    Still what a great story. Thanks, Pipeburn!

    • Hardley T Whipsnade III

      Trust me its not any better now . With all of what the Motor Company is doing today they still should be drawn and quartered . Fact is looking over the many skeletons in their closet(s) both currently and over the decades drawn and quartered may in fact be too kind

      • Jim Stuart


        You’re drawing a pretty tough line there given the level of war crimes committed by other major companies both foreign and domestic. As far as I know Harley Davidson didn’t use forced slave labor to stoke the boilers at the Milwaukee factories. Henry Ford and the steel barons did more to supply the German war machine and took full advantage to profit once the focus of domestic production turned to warfare.

        Ferdinand Porsche Sr. spent time in a French prison for his war crimes which in my mind certainly paints a picture of justice handed down by the victors, not that it wasn’t justified.

        All things being equal and assume that blind justice exist, drawn and quartering the the whole lot might have been a public service until a new generation of greedy bastards took over the reins.

    • ccc40821

      Harley-Davidson’s sale of motorcycles to Japan, and the ensuing license production of the big twins was no secret to those Americans, who knew just a bit about the motorcycle trade. Harley-Davidson needed the money to stay afloat, that’s all. Even the most jap-hating bigot would understand that.
      Ford Motor Company allowed the GAZ factory in the Soviet Union to build Ford A’s and AA’s, Consolidated did the same with the PBY Catalina, and Douglas did it with the DC-3.
      To paraphrase in Sal in ‘The Godfather’: “Tell the Americans it was only business. I always hated them.”

      • Doublenickle

        I knew a few WW2 veterans, most of them have passed on. Nicest bunch of guys you would ever want to meet. But when they talked about Pearl Harbor and worse yet, the Nazis, they weren’t so nice anymore. There was a lot of latent hostility there even 40 or 50 years later. You can call them bigots, but you would have had to walk in their shoes a few miles to earn that right. It was a different time and a different world.

        On the business side of things, Ford did much worse things helping the Nazis before the formal declaration of war. So did Standard oil. Not saying it was right; but in that respect your observations are spot-on.

        But business didn’t carry the respect then that it does now. The people of Wisconsin would have torched the Harley factory in a New York minute if they thought they were supporting the Japanese; especially after Pearl Harbor.

        • ccc40821

          ” You can call them bigots, but ….”

          Please read what I write, and think about it before hitting the keyboard.

          As for the good people of Wisconsin (I know a few), I think they were smart enough to know – after Pearl Harbor too – that there was nothing wrong about this particular business relationship in the years before the US and Japan became enemies.

        • On the business side of things let me also add IBM’s conscious involvement—directly and through its subsidiaries—in the Holocaust, as well as its involvement in the Nazi war machine that murdered millions of others throughout Europe.

    • Davidabl2

      Had Harley tried to sell anything to Japan after the Pearl Harbor attack, yes they would have “gotten burnt down.” After all they were a small company without the political connections of somebody like Ford or Standard Oil. Ford factories still under Ford ownership built trucks for the Nazis, believe it or not, while the USAF generally avoided bombing those factories. But what really offended most Americans of the era was the Ford was paid reparations by the US after the war for damages to its German factories when they did get hit by the USAF. People were still telling that story-and were still pissed off- m. M

      • ccc40821

        Agree on that, as Harley a) had plenty of orders coutesy of The Allied forces, and b) it’s a pretty safe bet the US government would not have granted an export license for motorcycles going to a country, that had declared war on the US.
        But it’s not relevant to in regards to the above discussion, which was about the public knowledge of H-D’s sals to Japan prior to WW2..

  • Harley T Whipsnade III

    The other perhaps even more obvious one would have to be all the Russian built BMW’s that later morphed into Urals . As for all the shenanigans pulled by Harley Davidson when it came to this bike : suffice it to say there’s more than one reason Harley survived and Indian didn’t . Harley’s upper ranks were( and still are ) filled with back stabbing , law breaking , bribing and slipping under the floor boards types ready and willing to circumvent any law imaginable for the sake of of the almighty dollar . The irony today being ; the majority of the H-D faithful consider the Motor Company to be the most patriotic of American manufactures [ both two wheels and four ] despite facts such as this . The reality being H-D will still sacrifice anything including their buying public , employees as well as any shreds left of their integrity on the holy alter of greed

    To end on a positive though . Great article , photos and excellent writing good sir !

    • Bicho

      ………to end on a positive thought.INDIAN is back,to take H-D scalp……..!

      • guvnor67


    • Eric

      You say this as if this were in any way exceptional these days. Two words: Goldman Sachs.

  • Jim Stuart

    At 1,102 pounds unloaded and only 24 horses to push it under extreme conditions I guess it’s a couple steps above walking. Perhaps a better idea would have been a battalion of skilled Ninjas on Honda Trail 90’s?

  • You could make a movie out of this bike. What a story…

  • ccc40821

    Rikuo was but one design license built in Japan. My favourite is the original Kawasaki W series, which were basically metric & oil tight BSA A10 twins.

    • A little more modern-looking than the A7. Perfect copy of the side cover, though. Love it, despite the lack of originality…

      • ccc40821

        Earlier 500 cc models still carried the Meguro name on the tank, while the last of the line had Z1 clocks and brakes. At a vintage bike rally in Japan I saw the Whole lineup, and thought if I’d ever have a large British twin again – well – I’d get the Japanese one.

    • Doublenickle

      When I was 13 a friend of the family had a green Kawasaki 650(?) four-stroke twin that I got to sit on and dream about flying down the street with it. Alas, all I got to ride was the Yamaha 90 scrambler. I have tried to find out more info on these bikes, but to no avail. Thanks for the memory!

  • Eric

    Absolutely fantastic story, Andrew. Keep up the great work! I love reading all of the stories here, but the historical reviews take Pipeburn to an entirely new level.

    • guvnor67

      And of course it stirs up some quite interesting conversations between the viewers of this site!

  • sethasaurus

    Are you f’in kidding me?
    “remarkable feet”?

    • Motown

      you’re right, it should totally be “THESE remarkable feet”.

      literature these days. pshh. 😉

  • the watcher

    At least H-D got some cash; the Japanese manufacturers never paid the Brit industry a penny, ho ho!

  • acuity

    And as I read this wonderful article I am bombarded by an HD advert in the background.

    “Freedom comes at many prices”

    Gives a whole new meaning doesn’t it?

    Fuck HD.