If one were to list the most unusual motorcycles made by Harley-Davidson, the Sport model would have to be included.
For 1919, Harley-Davidson introduced the model W, or “Sport.” Built in two versions, a magneto or battery ignition, it was very similar to the Douglas brand, an influential British motorcycle. The original intent of the Sport was to produce a viable export model, as this was a period of rapid expansion for H-D outside the U.S.
The most notable aspect of the Sport model was the powertrain. It was a flat twin, meaning the cylinders opposed each other and were positioned low and in line with the frame. This resulted in an engine that was in virtually perfect balance when running.
Unlike any other H-D® motorcycle, the intake and the exhaust shared the same manifold. The 600cc engine turned a flywheel that was external to the crankcase. This design allowed for a larger flywheel diameter, and thus smoother drive.
The final drive was a chain, completely enclosed in an oil bath. The Sport could also claim to be the first Harley-Davidson® motorcycle with an automatic oiling system and the first motorcycle with a graphic design on the gas tank, a shield, other than the previous Harley-Davidson logotype.
The Sport model was also different in many other regards as well. It was the first consumer Harley-Davidson motorcycle to utilize a keystone frame, meaning the engine was a structural part of the entire motorcycle. The overall design of the chassis lent itself to lighter weight, a mere 257 pounds. It also serves as the first Harley-Davidson model to have a name. All other H-D motorcycles at this time merely had a letter designation.
Evidence points to the Sport being the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle marketed to women. A print advertisement of the era touted the Sport as “The woman’s outdoor companion,” and a cover of The Enthusiast magazine from 1920 depicts a woman rider on the Sport.
The early Sport models were available for $335, and the price dropped to $275 in the final year of production. It had always enjoyed greater popularity among European riders.
The lack of popularity in the United States was due partly to the relatively low power of the bike. But the Sport enjoyed a good run.
When the bike was discontinued in 1923, almost 10,000 Sport motorcycles had been built.
It was the first motorcycle to top Pike’s Peak in Colorado and set the “Three-Flag Record” from Canada to Mexico – a trip that was more than 1,700 miles – in under 65 hours in 1919. The Sport model was a unique exercise in styling and engineering.
Check out the H-D Museum’s digital exhibit “The Little Engine That Could: Adventure and the Harley-Davidson Sport Model” on Google Arts and Culture.