Harley-Davidson and Pyongyang are not names that go together naturally, to put it lightly. Aside from being ruled by a fat boy, creating a tenuous connection to Harley-Davidson with its famous Fat Boy model, Pyongyang and North Korea are the last place where one would expect to see anything connected to such an American icon. Nevertheless, Harley-Davidson has a long history there, pre-dating the current regime by decades, proven by photographic evidence unexpectedly found in an aged photo album in a little-known archive by yours truly several years ago. Never before published (except for the cover photo, which I put on the internet last year here and in print earlier this month here), these photos may be the oldest evidence of Harley-Davidson in Asia in existence.
The cover photo shows one of the earliest Harley-Davidsons of all, a 1913-15 Model 9B. With a 35 cubic inch (565cc) single cylinder engine with inlet-over-exhaust valves producing 5 horsepower, single speed transmission, and rear wheel hub clutch, it had bicycle pedals for starting, for auxiliary power, and to actuate its rear wheel coaster brake. Its configuration made it more a large moped than a motorcycle as we understand it today. The rider smiling beneath his natty pith helmet is “Rev. Reppert,” a Methodist missionary with the American Christian community that lived in Pyongyang, Seoul, and many other cities in Korea before the Second World War. He and his machine are riding a ferryboat near the city of Haeju, just north of the 38th Parallel in what is today North Korea, which happens to be where part of my family comes from. His Harley-Davidson was a rare motor vehicle in a technologically primitive land where mobility came from muscle power, as evidenced by the gnarled leg of the boatman, who looks like he has towed countless tons of boat, passengers and goods with those massive quads and calves.
A sign of the scarcity of motor vehicles in the country at the time is this photo of Rev. Reppert and his Model 9B transporting “our friends … Mrs. Ira Jones of Japan on the gasoline tank and her son Winston on my back” to the railroad station. Mrs. Ira Jones looks like she is not at all amused to be riding sidesaddle on steel on bumpy dirt roads and would rather get there in any other way. Rev. Reppert’s ride was likely a private import that he brought from the United States, since Harley-Davidson sold motorcycles to the Japanese government for military and police use in the 1910s but did not have an official commercial sales channel in Japan and Korea during that period.
Even for VIPs, a motorcycle was apparently the best that could be expected, although church rank had its privileges. Here “Bishop Burt” and “Paul Burt” are getting a ride from “Mr. Cable” in a boater hat with his Harley-Davidson and sidecar combination, with the bishop getting to ride in the sidecar. (Fans of the Marx Brothers will notice the obvious resemblance to Harpo chauffeuring Groucho in a motorcycle and sidecar in Duck Soup.)
Harley-Davidson did not have the American missionary community of early 20th Century Korea entirely to itself, as shown by this photo. It shows a motorcycle that appears to be an Indian, judging by it having a curved front girder fork rail instead of the parallel straight rails of Harley-Davidsons. It shows “Mr. Wachs” in the rider’s seat, with his son behind him, in Pyongyang.
Mr. Wachs also had a sidecar to go with his Indian, as shown here.
The motorcycles in these few photographs are only a sliver of the story of motor vehicles during this period in North Korea, which includes the Ford Model T in Pyongyang featured on this website in 2014 and other vehicles that were never photographed or whose images have not survived the passage of almost a century. It apparently included non-American machines as well, as shown by this photo of a bicycle shop in Pyongyang, whose friendly proprietor in his riding pants appears to have a British single cylinder Rudge for sale. These Harley-Davidsons, Indians and others would have been among the most far-flung of the products of the American and other western motor vehicle industries of the time, and they were part of a forgotten era when Americans lived throughout North Korea and Pyongyang was one of the main centers of Christianity in Asia. It is unimaginable today, and the likes of it will never be seen again.