When Harley-Davidson introduced the 1936 Harley-Davidson EL, the news landed with a major thud. Many Harley dealers were somewhat less than enthused once they got the facts and specs on the EL at their annual convention in December 1935, but one of them was impressed enough to fire his pistol through the roof of the convention center.
The changes weren’t as wild as the dealers were led to expect and the 61 c.i. EL was coolly received.
It just goes to show you that insiders aren’t always the best judges of what is great as the EL Knucklehead set a new standard for Harley-Davidson and put the rest of the motorcycle industry on notice that the bar had been raised.
The most important innovation featured on the EL? The switch to a V-twin configuration from the previous ‘flathead’ design and overhead valves. It was those overhead valves which led to the change in shape of the new rocker covers on the powerplant. The engine was immediately christened the “Knucklehead” by owners, a nickname which has achieved iconic status.
The EL motor also boasted a new recirculating oiling system that eliminated the messiness and inconvenience of the previous ‘total loss’ setup from the flathead days.
Unique features on the 1936 EL motor were the rocker-shaft covers and air intake. The timing case cover was designed and re-designed no less than three times during the initial model year of the EL, and each change was considered and improvement by riders.
The bike’s welded fuel tanks were a piece of art when considered next to earlier tank designs, and the tank-mounted instrument panel began a styling cue trend still in evidence on Harley models to this day.
The efficiency advantages of the EL’s overhead-valve arrangement didn’t kill the flathead V-twin, but it surely hastened its demise.
What really made sales of the EL take off? A stunt.
In April 1937, Fred Ham, a Pasadena motorcycle cop took his Model E to Muroc Dry Lake, set up a five-mile circle with flags and flares and took off on an all-day, all night iron butt challenge. Stopping only for fuel, oil, refreshments and a broken rear chain during the 20th hour of the marathon, Ham traveled 1,825 miles, averaging 76.02 mph. In so doing, he managed to set 43 new speed and distance records for himself and Harley-Davidson’s Model EL and did more than the entire H-D promotions and marketing department to create the legend of the Knucklehead.
The ‘Knucklehead” engine was a two cylinder, 45 degree, pushrod actuated overhead valve V-twin two valves per cylinder. The original ‘Knucklehead’ engine was manufactured until 1947, though replica engines, cases and parts a still manufactured today by various companies.
A relatively low production run of 1,829 Knuckleheads produced for 1937 means that these lovely pieces of engineering are sure to hold their value for many years to come, and you can have this one for something over $100,000.
If you buy this beauty, you’ll need insurance, so check out our guide to buying classic motorcycle insurance here…