By: chesshirecat

May 03 2010

Category: Uncategorized


Harley-Davidson motorcycle flathead engines

The flathead engine saw service in Harley-Davidson motorcycles beginning with the “Sport Model” opposed twin produced from 1919 to1923, and continuing in 1924 with single cylinder export-model 21 cubic inches (340 cc) and 30.5 cubic inches (500 cc) singles and continued in the Servi-Cars until 1973. In the domestic U.S. market, the 45 cubic inches (740 cc) DL model (1929 to 1931) and its technical descendant, the RL model (1932 to 1936), started Harley’s side valve tradition in the 45 cubic inch displacement class. The DL and RL models featured a total loss oiling system and were succeeded in 1937 by the WL 45, which had recirculating oil lubrication. The WL went on to serve in WWII as the U.S. and Canadian Army’s primary two-wheeled mount and subsequently as a civilian middleweight through 1952. The engine continued virtually unchanged with various G-based designations in the three wheeled “Servi-Car” until production ceased in 1973.

In 1952, the K series flatheads was introduced, selling in parallel with the W series (which was discontinued after 1952), designed to compete with British sporting motorcycles of the time, as the American motorcycle Association allowed the 750 cc sidevalves to compete against 500 cc overhead-valve bikes. The K models featured a unit construction engine and transmission case, right side foot shift and left side foot brake, and evolved from 45 cubic inch (1952 to 1953) to 55 cubic inches by a 0.75 inches (19 mm) increase in stroke length (1954 to 1956) over its five year retail market run. The K series was replaced by the overhead valve Sportster series in the retail market in 1957. However, racing versions of the 750 cc K model, designated KR, continued to be produced in very limited numbers for some time after, winning both roadraces and dirt track events against overhead valve bikes limited to 500 cc through 1969, when the American Motorcycle Association finally decided to change the rules and make the venerable flatheads uncompetitive. The K racers were replaced first by the iron-head XR 750cc overhead valve engine, and two years later by the alloy-head XR, which continues in service in flat track racing to this day.

In 1930, the 74 cubic inches (1,210 cc) VL flathead replaced the JD Big Twin, which had featured intake-over-exhaust (IoE) valve configuration. The VL had a single downtube frame and total loss oiling, culminating in an 80 cubic inches (1,300 cc) version (VLH) in 1935. In 1937, that engine was redesigned to include a recirculating lubrication system, and designated the model U, and it went into the same frame and running gear configuration as the model E Knucklehead, which had originated in 1936. The U continued to be produced in varying configurations as a 74& cubic inch U & UL (1937 to 1948), and 80 cubic inch UH & ULH motor (1937 to 1941). By that time, the first year of the aluminum-head Panhead, it had been thoroughly superseded and outsold in the marketplace by the superior performance of the overhead valve model Big Twins.



  1. I love this pic…should have it framed and in my office! Everything about this is cool, from the flathead to the boots to the piston & connecting rod in the box! Well done Marilyn!


  2. Nice write up Chessie. The One thing that I would add is that the 1929 DL 45 cubic inch Flathead was the first V twin flatty offered by Harley. I have a friend who has 2 of these bikes. One is a vintage Hillclimber. It is amazing to watch him dance it up a slope !

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