Actually, it happened for almost three decades.
It all started in the early 1930s, when the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, like everyone else, was mired in the Great Depression. By 1932, in fact, the Milwaukee factory was running at about 10 percent capacity, and sales were below 4,000 units a year.
One bright spot had been exports, but in Japan, Harley sales were also plummeting, because of an unfavorable exchange rate.
Enter Alfred Rich Child, an independent business agent authorized to represent Harley-Davidson in Japan, China, Korea and Manchuria.
Child figured he could reduce the retail price of a Harley to a Japanese customer if the machines were built in-country. He convinced the home office to sell Harley machine tools and licensing rights to the Japanese Sankyo Seiyako Corporation, which would build Harleys in Japan.
In dire straits, Harley agreed to the deal, and a new, Japanese-built model appeared under the “Rikuo” name. Roughly translated, Rikuo means “Land King,” or “King of Road.”
The deal continued for several years, until Harley-Davidson produced the EL 61 OHV Knucklehead in 1936. Child couldn’t convince Sankyo to buy the licensing rights for the new machine. That disagreement, coupled with the rise of a militaristic government in Japan, put an end to Child’s, and Harley’s, relationship with the Japanese Rikuo company.
Despite that split, Rikuos continued to be built in the Japanese factory. In fact, military versions of the Rikuo were built for the Japanese army during World War II. When civilian production resumed following the war, the motorcycle was limited largely to police and courier use.
As late as the 1950s, though, as many as 2,000 Rikuos were built each year, with the engine having been expanded from the original 750cc to 1,000cc, and then to 1,200cc.
This unrestored 1958 Rikuo RT2, owned by the Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum and on loan to the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio, is an example of the last 750cc version built.