By the mid-teens, William Harley and Walter Davidson were tired of sitting on the sidelines.
For more than a decade, the founders of Harley-Davidson had carefully built a motorcycle company that began in a 10-by-15-foot shed into one of the world’s top-selling brands. And having succeeded in that, they decided it was time to focus on racing.
They had spent years watching their main U.S. rival, Indian Motocycles, beat them on the dirt ovals and point-to-point races of the day because Harley’s production bikes were no match for the specially built race machines that Indian was fielding. Something new was needed.
The task of creating a Harley racer was given to engineer Bill Ottoway. Basing his design on the existing Model 10E, a 1,000cc twin with an inlet-over-exhaust “pocket-valve” arrangement, Ottoway produced a race-only version, which would become known as the pocket-valve racer. All non-essential parts were discarded, and a short, low loop chassis was built that allowed the rider to crouch low to cheat the wind.
Perhaps as significant as the decision to build a true racebike, though, was the commitment to hire factory riders for a fully sponsored team. The move put Harley on par with Indian, which had been fielding its own race team for years.
One of the Harley team’s first official races was a 300-miler in Savannah, Georgia, in November 1914. Indian won, Excelsior was second, and Harley was third. And just like that, a rivalry was born. The following year, Harley-Davidson started recording wins in earnest with riders like Otto Walker. It would be the beginning of a racing heritage that has continued all the way into the 21st century.
Technically, those first pocket-valve engines were superceded in 1916, when the factory developed highly advanced eight-valve motors, with four overhead valves per cylinder, just like most modern Superbikes. But in actuality, the earlier bikes continued to run as a backup to the eight-valves, which had early reliability issues.
"The pocket-valve bike was the factory’s stalwart warhorse for years,” says Daniel Statnekov, who owns this immaculately restored 1916 model now on display in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio.
But since they were built to be raced and not sold, very few of the pocket-valve machines remain. And that makes this one, restored by Brad Wilmarth and sporting one-off factory forks and large-capacity gas tanks, extremely rare.