In the early 1930s, Harley-Davidson was in trouble. The rising popularity of Ford’s Model T automobile, the Depression, and protectionist tariffs overseas had significantly hurt Harley’s motorcycle sales. So when Japan’s Sankyo company approached in 1932 with an offer to license Harley’s signature Flathead engine, the Milwaukee company jumped at the chance—unaware that Sankyo was acting in concert with the Japanese army and that they were selling top technology to a country with whom the U.S. would soon be at war.
Sankyo dismantled an entire Harley engine plant and rebuilt it near Tokyo. The resulting motorcycle was the sturdy, maneuverable Type 97. Japan used the bike, branded under the Rikuo name and capable of transporting three fully-equipped soldiers, at home and overseas throughout the war. Its significant ground clearance served it especially well in the muddy, undeveloped terrains of Manchuria and Southeast Asia. Although Japan built more than 18,000 Type 97s, few survive today.