Almost everyone knows about Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Many would think the company was started in Milwaukee by a couple guys named Harley and Davidson, but that’s only half of the story.
It was actually Harley and three Davidson brothers. So why isn’t the company called Davidson-Harley? Reportedly, the original idea for the motorcycle came from William Harley, so the Davidson brothers, nice guys that they were, thought it would only be fair to have the company called Harley-Davidson. The company history dates back to 1903, and it was incorporated in 1907. There have been 24 motorcycle companies in the country and Harley was one of only two motorcycle companies to survive the Great Depression.
Apparently, that first Harley team was good. They sponsored a racing team that was quite successful and later sold the U.S. Postal Service, military and police departments on using motorcycles. Motorcycles played an important role in World Wars I and II, and Harley provided more than 20,000 motorcycles for the First World War and more than 90,000 for World War II.
Harley has had numerous owners and gone through good and tough times, but through it all became the one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world. In addition to the Milwaukee plant and headquarters, the company has plants in Pennsylvania, Brazil, India and Thailand. In 1981, Harley was purchased by a group of 13 investors headed by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson, the son of one of the company’s former presidents and grandson of co-founder William A. Davidson.
Harley has done an excellent job keeping the Harley-Davidson name in the public’s eye. There have been movies like “Easy Rider” and the comedy “Wild Hogs” featuring Harley motorcycles, and there are all kinds of Harley-branded products like shirts, boots, jeans, jackets, beer mugs, etc. They became the premier motorcycle brand, but their products appealed to mostly older male riders. That has been a blessing and a challenge almost since the company’s beginnings. How to get younger buyers interested in Harleys?
So in 1961, Harley introduced the Harley-Davidson Topper, the only motor scooter the company ever made. Expecting a scooter boom, the Topper was planned to cut into the lucrative scooter business that Cushman had been enjoying for years. Marketed to “nonriders,” the Topper was relatively inexpensive, about $400, (approximately $3,730 today) and economical to operate, advertising “up to 100 miles per gallon.” It was a step-through design, like Cushman’s, meaning the rider sat on the seat with legs forward with feet resting on a flat floor. The Topper was manufactured through 1965.
Today’s feature is a completely original 1964 Harley-Davidson Topper owned by Danville resident Mark Harrigan, who is a big collector of motorcycles. He plans on keeping this scooter “as-is” because he likes originality, and that reduces his worry if it gets scratched or dented. “Plus,” he said, “it’s only original once.” He owns 25 other bikes, most of them Harleys. He recently acquired this scooter with a $1,000 payment to a friend’s estate. Harrigan thinks the scooter hadn’t been started for 20 to 30 years. With an investment of only another $300, he got this 58-year-old scooter running like a Swiss watch (a slight exaggeration).
It has a front hand brake and rear drum brake operated with a floor pedal. Most motor scooters or motorcycles this vintage are started with a kick pedal, but not the Topper. It uses a pull rope to start it like a lawn mower or outboard motor. With a couple of tugs of the retracting starter pull rope, the 9-horsepower engine roars to life. The 9-horsepower engine was the “hot” model of its day, as the standard engine was only 5 horsepower, which allowed the operator, in some states, to drive without a license. It has a fiberglass body and can carry two people. The fuel requirement is a gas/oil mix. The underside of the gas cap is a measuring container for the correct amount of oil to dump into the gas tank when filling it.
I saw most of Harrigan’s fabulous motorcycle collection, and I was a little surprised when he said, “This thing is so fun, it’s just one of the most fun-to-run bikes. They say it will go about 45 mph, but because of the 165-cc engine it’s technically freeway-legal. I took it from an on-ramp to an off-ramp on the freeway just for the heck of it, and I got it up to almost 60 mph. It was really pretty smooth.”
Unusual features for a motor scooter are the parking gear, which was standard on this model, and the enormous glove box under the handle bars, probably a dealer option. There is also storage space under the seat plus a luggage rack on the rear. It is estimated that about 6,000 Toppers were produced in the five years of manufacture and probably less than 100 of them are in running condition today.
Have an interesting vehicle? Contact David Krumboltz at [email protected] To view more photos of this and other issues’ vehicles or to read more of Dave’s columns, visit mercurynews.com/author/david-krumboltz.