Motorcycle: Twins - Model K, 1952 - 1956
Date: Sunday, October 31 @ 23:06:07 UTC
Topic: Motorcycle, Motorcycles, Motor Cycle
Model K, 1952 - 1956
If a single model demonstrated Milwaukee's problems during the post-war years, it was surely the Model K, unveiled in November 1951. Virtually a technological throwback, the "K" was born into an age when competition from Europe was intensifying almost monthly. Opposition machines offered high-performance overhead-valve engines with 100 mph- (161kph) plus performance and the finest chassis ever built. In response, Harley-Davidson offered as its premier model an antiquated, long-stroke, side-valve twin as its premier sports model, which struggled to reach 80mph (129kph).
Advertised as "America's Most Sensational Motorcycle", the "K" was "designed to outperform, outride, outlook, outvalue ... any motorcycle in its class." Of course, this was only true if a class existed for absurdly slow and out-dated machines - which it might if Milwaukee's plea for a 40 per cent tariff on imported motorcycles had succeeded in May 1951. Harley literature claimed 30 horsepower for the Model K, only a little less than the contemporary 650cc Triumph Thunderbird. Whether true or not, the V-twin was no match for the 103mph (166kph) Britisher. Yet remarkably, Joe Leonard became first American national champion in 1954, on a machine substantially derived from the K. Its other saving grace was that it was the only large-capacity motorcycle
Hollywood stars could be insured to ride in other words, the K was so slow, it was considered safe.
True, the K was the first Harley-Davidson twin to feature suspension at both ends: "easy riding" double-action telescopic forks up front with a swinging-fork rear end (oddly, a sprung seat was retained.) By the standards of Triumph, BSA and Norton in particular, the handling was ponderous and mushy, although the eight-inch (200mm) brakes weren't bad for the time. It offered a hand-operated clutch and in a demonstration of supreme optimism, its speedometer was graduated to 120mph (193kph).
Nor was the K dependable, at least initially, as it was beset by a variety of performance and reliability problems. Perhaps the worst was its habit of breaking its "large, rugged" transmission gears, until a switch to forged parts after 1954. In many other respects, the bike was sturdy and sensibly conceived, such as in the use of taper-roller bearings for the swing-arm pivots. Bore and stroke were identical to the WL's: 70 x 97mm. The four-cam, air-cooled engine enjoyed generous finning to its aluminium heads and iron barrels, and it featured in-unit construction of engine and gearbox, with triplex chain drive, long before this became widespread among competitors.
Some years after the age of the K, Harley revealed what many had suspected — that it was only a stop-gap model to see the company through until something better could be developed. Although history records that the Model K was superseded by the Sportster, something more radical was envisaged originally. The familiar 45-degree V layout was dropped in favour of a wider 60-degree engine to be known as the i KL, with "high" cams, twin carburettors and side-by-side rather than forked connecting rods. This would have S increased secondary vibration, although the wider V angle would have gone some way to reducing primary imbalance.
Evidently, the KL project ran into patent conflicts with Vincent and ran out of development time, although it is possible that the progress of European machines convinced Harley that something even more potent was required. By way of a stop-gap to the stop-gap, a drastic 19mm increase in stroke raised the Model K's capacity to 55cu in (883cc) for 1954, and power to a claimed 38bhp, in an attempt to stay at least within sight of the Brits. The cover of The Enthusiast showed one Elvis Aaron Presley on board just such a machine in 1956, by which time work on the model's successor was already well in hand. As well as the basic KH, a tuned Super Sport Solo KHK model with high-lift camshafts, polished ports, leaner styling and lower handlebars arrived in 1955. Though they were ostensibly intended for racing, most found their way on to America's streets where they proved far more acceptable to American sports riders - their top speed exceeded 90mph (T45kph). After 1956, the old flathead expired and was replaced by the first of the overhead-valve Sportsters. As the KR and KRTT, it soldiered on for more than a decade as Milwaukee's principal racing iron.
Engine: side-valve V-twin
Capacity: 45.3cu in (742cc)
Peak power: 30bhp
Wheelbase: 60in (1,525mm)
Top speed: around 80mphb (130kph)
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