The Bizarre 1920s Harley-Davidson That Was Never Sold To The Public

We start our tale with a caveat. Technically, Harley-Davidson made its Model 17 8-Valve Racer available for purchase starting in 1916. At the time, the Federation of American Motorcyclists was the governing body of two-wheel racing in the US (via American Motorcyclist). FAM required all racing bikes to also be available to the public.

But the legendary motorcyle company didn't intend for them to be on the roads. As such, it came up with a simple fix for offering a bike they didn't really want to sell: It priced the 8-Valve Racer at a staggering $1,500 — roughly four times the price of comparable bikes, per MCNews. By way of comparison, at the time, the same amount of money could have rented two New York City apartments for over a year (via Country Living). The price and a limited run  kept the 8-Valve Racer racing instead of providing the public with daily rides. And MCNews reports fewer than 50 were ever built.

What was so special about the Racer that Harley-Davidson wouldn't entrust it to potential customers? The answer is both simple and gamechanging, representing the formation of a market strategy that would inform the motorcycle business for years to come.

The fastest thing on two wheels

The exclusivity of the 8-Valve Racer was about speed. Harley's first major foray into racing prioritized speed over absolutely everything else, emphatically including ease of use. An account in Drive Mag described it as a demanding ride even for someone used to hitting triple-digit speeds. Unleashing that power on the streets in the early 1900s would have been dangerous.

The design paid off in spades, however. The Racer became Harley-Davidson's showpiece — a savage competitor that made the company's name in racing and caused people to buy its more user-friendly offerings. The Racer's reign began as a 1916 entry to the Dodge City 300-mile, the era's motorcycling equivalent of the Indy 500. The Racer dominated, winning with ease. Further victories followed. In 1921, the Racer would set a world record as the first motorcycle to win a race with an average speed above 100 mph. It repeated its success at races throughout its history, collecting its final wins in the late 1920s (via Motorcyclist Online).

At present, only a handful of 8-Valve Racers are known to still exist. In 2015, a model sold in Australia for A$600,000, currently about $407,000 U.S. dollars (via Shannons). It's a characteristic end for Harley's first great flex, an 8-valve racing nightmare that devoured the cement and wooden–board tracks of the early 20th century.