Have you ever wondered why WWII Japanese bikes looked like Harleys?

Sometimes a motorcycle tells a story, and the Rikuo RT2 spins a tale of cooperation and national interdependency that preceded a period of strife with connections that contemporary readers may find surprising. It takes us back to the Great Depression, when the Harley-Davidson Motor Company struck a deal with Japanese manufacturer, the Sankyo Seiyako Corporation, and sold them the plans and tooling to produce their VL model in-country. The rest, as they say, is history, and this machine was named by The Society of Automotive Engineers of Japan as one of the 240 landmark machines of the Japanese Automotive Technology. It also has the distinction of having served armies on both sides of the Pacific theater during World War II.

  • 1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
  • Year:
    1932- 1958
  • Make:
  • Engine:
    V-Twin
  • Displacement:
    750 cc
  • Top Speed:
    60 mph (Est.)

Rikuo RT2 History

1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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If you’re the least bit familiar with classic H-D designs, you’ll probably take a look at this bike and think to yourself “but it’s a Harley,” and you’d be partly right. The MoCo was in dire financial straits due to the Great Depression, and production was down to operating at 10-percent of its previous capacity. To compound the pain for Milwaukee, the British had taken steps to limit H-D’s competitiveness against its domestic machines by levying steep tariffs on the American brand’s products. Japan similarly hit H-D products with an unsustainable tax due to the perceived threat it posed to the Japanese motorcycle market. (Oh, how times have changed!)

To raise some much-needed capital, the MoCo began building models that were destined for Japanese sales in Japan under the Dabittoson Harley Motorcycle Co, Ltd. branding. This fairly cozy relationship would continue into the mid-’30s when an increasingly nationalistic and militaristic Japan un-invited the U.S. company and its American workers. The Rikuo company sprung from the Sankyo Corp., and the moniker translates to “Land King.” It built the renamed Rikuo RT2 mainly for the Japanese military with around 18,000 units to hit the road. Production would continue under Rikuo until it was sold to Showa in 1950, and by 1959, the hey-day of the RT2 was over.

Rikuo RT2 Design

  • The epitome of classic design
  • Chrome Instrument panel
  • Hinged rear fender
  • Single dial for the speedometer
1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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The design of the Rikuo RT2 is a real classic that embodies the look of the American ’tween-war cruisers that were common from both H-D and its domestic foe, the Indian Motorcycle Company. It lead off with a full front fender complete with chrome trim that sported deep sides to obscure about a third of the front hoop. Rwu forks rocked the classic beercan skirts that covered and obscured the inner fork tubes from view, and that coverage extended to encompass the entirety of the tripletree for a clean, dressed-up look up front.

A single round headlight can houses the cyclops headlight and doubles as a shelter for the electricals. The fat front end gives way to a classic teardrop tank with an equally classic chrome instrument console housing the round speedometer that makes up the only instrumentation to be found on this bike.

A gap at the rear of the split tanks leaves room for the seat pivot that, along with the pogo-stick seat post, provided the only relief from the shocks and jostles at the rigid rear end. The saddle was a two-up construct complete with chrome rails around the back to help keep your riding buddy aboard, and a pair of fold-up footpegs complete the passenger’s amenities. Out back, a hinged rear fender eased the aggravation of removing the rear wheel somewhat, and it came with a tombstone-ish taillight and chrome appointments to finish out the bike in style.

Rikuo RT2 Chassis

  • Drum brakes
  • Laced wheels
  • Wide, low-rise handlebar
  • 510 lbs, dry
1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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Mild-steel tubing makes up the downtube/cradle-style frame and rigid rear end. Naturally for the time, mechanical drums provided all of the braking power front and rear because it would be a hot minute before hydraulic discs became the standard. Laced wheels round out the rolling chassis with what looks like 18-inch hoops. The handlebar was also typical of the era with a low-rise and lots of pullback, and it was rather wide to provide ample leverage over the front end. The RT2 was also a fairly hefty machine at 510-pounds, dry, which was rather heavy for the times.

Rikuo RT2 Drivetrain

  • 750 cc side-valve Harley-Davidson engine
  • 22 hp @ 4,250 rpm
  • 29 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
  • Easy-access mixture adjustment
  • 4-speed transmission
1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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Power for the Rikuo RT2 came from a 750 cc (45.77 cubic-inch), side-valve Harley-Davidson engine. It was an air-cooled, four-stroke mill that ran the now famous, 45-degree V-Twin configuration. It was a pre-Knucklehead (OHV) design that had flat heads and inverted valves, two per jug. The valves rode on tappets that followed individual lobes down in the right-side cam case.

Induction control fell to a Linkert-style carburetor that, due to its bronze-body construction and lack of shaft seals, had a tendency to suck air around the butterfly shaft bosses for a mixture that progressively got leaner over time. The good news is, both the idle circuit and main circuit relied on jet-and-needle adjusters that had knobs that were easy to access, even under way, so you could dial in the mix by ear and seat-of-pants as needed, up to a certain point.

Power flowed through a chain-type primary drive on the left side, and the shifter for the four-speed transmission was on the left side, along with the clutch, with the throttle grip on the right side. These features are what made it popular with everybody but the police. Law enforcement liked the Indian products for their left-side throttle grip that allowed a right-handed rider to draw his sidearm on the move. The four-speed gearbox had a direct-drive final ratio (non-overdrive) and a chain-type final drive to put the power to the pavement. It generated 22 horsepower at 4,250 rpm with 29 pound-feet of torque at three grand and a top speed around 60 mph.

Engine: 45° V-Twin, Side Valve, Air-Cooled
Displacement: 45 Cubic Inches
Horsepower: 22 hp @ 4,250
Torque: 29 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
Electrics: 6 Volt, Battery, Coil
Fuel System: carburetor. linkert
Ignition: generator and battery
Starting: Kick Only
Primary: Chain Driven
Transmission: 4-Speed
Final Drive: Chain Driven

Rikuo RT2 Competitors

1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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1932 - 1958 Rikuo RT2
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There were, literally, dozens of minor Japanese marques in play in the period between the two World Wars, and of course, American imports from Indian to contend with. While the police liked the latter, the military and civilian market was all about the former, and around 18,000 units were made for use by the Japanese Imperial Army.

The Rikuo RT2 would continue to see production after the war, which would bring it into competition with Honda-san’s fledgling company and its super popular Super Cub. Most of the Japanese machines at that time ran smaller displacement two-cycle engines in the 49 cc-to-200 cc range to fall far short of the size and power of the American iron.

He Said

“There you have it folks, a truncated history of what I consider to be a very interesting bike. I’d be willing to bet many of you had no idea H-D and Japan had such history, and I’ll go ahead and throw you another nugget. If not for help from H-D, Mr. Honda would likely not have had the staying power to survive the Japanese motorcycle war that eventually gave rise to the Big Four. Y’all remember that when fans of one decides to bash the other. By and large, their histories are inextricably intertwined.”

She Said

My wife and fellow motorcycle writer, Allyn Hinton, says, “The Depression Era was a tough time for a lot of manufacturers. The financial struggle killed some and spawned some, but it surely was a time for mechanical invention and innovation. If Harley hadn’t made the decision to set up shop in the Asian market, they may well have gone the way of Indian and shuttered their doors. It wasn’t until Piaggio picked up the Indian banner that they really started flourishing again. The Rikuo RT2 stands as a sign of the times, indeed.”

Rikuo RT2 Specifications

Engine & Drivetrain:
Engine: 45° V-Twin, Side Valve, Air-Cooled
Displacement: 45 Cubic Inches
Horsepower: 22 hp @ 4,250
Torque: 29 lb-ft @ 3,000 rpm
Electrics: 6 Volt, Battery, Coil
Fuel System: carburetor. linkert
Ignition: generator and battery
Starting: Kick Only
Primary: Chain Driven
Transmission: 4-Speed
Final Drive: Chain Driven
Chassis:
Suspension: Telescopic Fork, Sprung Seat
Wheels/Tires: 5.00″ x 16″
Brakes: Drum, Front & Rear
Dimensions & Capacities:
Wheelbase: 61 Inches
Weight: 510 Pounds

Further Reading

Harley-Davidson

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All images featured on this website are copyrighted to their respective rightful owners. No infringement is intended. Image Source: nationalmcmuseum.org

Source: National Motorcycle Museum

TJ Hinton
T.J got an early start from his father and other family members who owned and rode motorcycles, and by helping with various mechanical repairs throughout childhood. That planted a seed that grew into a well-rounded appreciation of all things mechanical, and eventually, into a formal education of same. Though primarily a Harley rider, he has an appreciation for all sorts of bikes and doesn't discriminate against any particular brand or region of origin. He currently holds an Associate's degree in applied mechanical science from his time at the M.M.I.  Read More
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