Owned 50 Years: 1939 Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead

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I’ve been called a knucklehead more times than I care to remember, but I should be so lucky to be as cool, unique, tough, or valuable as this 1939 Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead. The seller has this example listed here on eBay in San Bruno, California, just south of San Francisco, and they have set an opening bid price of $89,900, which hasn’t been jumped on yet.

I wish we had more detailed photos of this beauty, but the seller didn’t give too many photos, sadly. They give just enough to make us drool but not many photos that show the details of this rare bike, other than showing the matching numbers, which is important. Still, I want to see dozens of photos for my $90k opening bid. This is a very cool and nice-looking Knucklehead, however.

Speaking of value, we can get that out of the way now since I mentioned the opening bid. Hagerty is at $58,200 for a #3 good-condition ’39 EL Knucklehead, and $88,200 for a #2 excellent-condition example, just for a starting point. I’d be very surprised if anyone clicks on the opening bid, and that isn’t to say that this bike isn’t great, but I don’t know if it’s nicer than a #2 excellent example, is it?

In early 1936, Harley-Davidson introduced the EL engine, a 61-cu.in. overhead-valve V-twin, which had unique rocker boxes that some thought looked like fists, or knuckles, thus the name Knucklehead. A few years later, they came out with a 74-cu.in. version. This Knucklehead is very interesting, as they all are, just due to the history of the country and the world at the time. 1939 was before the U.S. was drawn into WWII, and the World’s Fair was going on, and the Great Depression was still a thing. There were a lot of events going on when this motorcycle was developed and produced, which just makes them even more interesting to me.

I wish we had better photos of the engine on this beautiful bike, but this is about it. As I mentioned, this is Harley’s EL, a 61-cu.in. OHV 45-degree V-twin, which would have had around 45 horsepower, and it’s backed up by a tank-shifted four-speed transmission and a left-foot clutch. The seller says that the current owner has had it for 50 years and it’s been meticulously maintained. The drivetrain was rebuilt in the 1980s and it runs and operates flawlessly, according to the seller. Any thoughts on this Knucklehead, or that opening bid price?

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  1. CadmanlsMember

    I suppose if you’re really wanted one they don’t come up for sale all that often. Someone might bite and that’s probably what the seller is hoping. Add the attachment of owning it over such a long period there has to be some sentimental attachment. These are Harley Davidson history, first of the overhead vale engines from the company. So many were used up and cut up, nice to see one intact.

    Like 4
    • CadmanlsMember

      Got to shut off auto correct Valve. I mentioned cut up, as in chopper. When I worked at that service station in my late teens out of highschool fellow I worked with bought a red chopper with a knuckle head. It was territorial and Zahn was constantly trying to seal it up. But it did run well and usually started 2nd kick.

      Like 1
  2. HoA Howard A ( since 2014)Member

    Love bikes, love Harleys, but honestly, this does nothing for me. Motorcycles evolved out of necessity, meaning, this would be like driving the Model T in todays traffic. The foot clutch and tank shift are like wiping with the other hand, it’s just doesn’t seem right. It was determined, it was best the operator had both hands on the bars at all times. I’ve never driven a tank shift, I’m sure it’s crude. Riding a motorcycle is intense enough, without trying to hand shift, foot clutch, balance, and steer at the same time. For once, the HD haters can have their say so, I’m not attached to these in any way, and an expensive conversation piece that will rarely get ridden.

    Like 9
    • geomechs geomechsMember

      I’ve ridden a tank shift but all the clutches I had experience with were converted to suicide types and not the rocker type you see here. They take some getting used to but once you get the hang of them they aren’t bad. Of course you could always have an Indian, that decided to switch the shifter to the right and reverse the throttle and spark advance. The 45 trikes did that too…

      Like 3
    • Dave

      These bikes take an experienced rider. My friend is a lifetime Harley mechanic and this is what he drives. Essentially becoming one with this special motorcycle.

      Like 2
    • Solosolo UK Solosolo UKMember

      Although not a Harley lover by any means I didn’t find it difficult at all to use the hand shifter and rocker clutch when I did have Harley’s. I had a 1933 Calthorpe Ivory 500cc that had the throttle on the right hand side of the handle bars and the advance/retard and clutch lever on the left hand side, that was a bit of a challenge.

      Like 5
  3. Nevada1/2rack NevadahalfrackMember

    Nice collector bike, but an entirely new learning curve for almost every rider out there today (not ALL, just most). If I’m not mistaken that foot clutch arrangement is what brought on the term “suicide clutch” as some riders made a return spring for the foot control. They launched themselves into intersections and/or other bigger vehicles when holding the clutch then instinctively trying to catch their balance as the bike for whatever reason leaned or tipped to that side: foot goes down, clutch springs and onward they go to the Pearly Gates…

    Like 9
    • John

      The term Suicide was actually used for the Harley set up.
      I had a Knuckle and an Indian Chief and rode them for many years.
      It’s actually pretty easy to use and ride.
      On HD it’s a little more cumbersome because it requires the rider to keep his foot on the clutch pedal at all times.
      Whereas as on the Indian it easier.
      But riding either is not hard at all.
      I still have my Chief and it rides great.

      Like 5
    • John

      The scenario you describe of “launching” into an intersection is something that maybe an inexperienced rider would do.
      On the Harley’s you have to keep you foot on the clutch at all times.
      Thus the Suicide term was used for Harley clutches only.
      On Indians you could take your foot off once shifted and it would not “Launch” you.
      When stopped you simply put it in neutral, then lean to the right engage the clutch put it in gear and go.
      I owned both a Knuckle and a Chief.
      The Indian were much easier and fun to ride.
      Still have my Chief.

      Like 3
      • Solosolo UK Solosolo UKMember

        I have owned three 750cc Harley’s, ’39, ’41, 43 and they all had the rocker clutch where when stopping the bike the foot clutch would be engaged, the lever then selected first gear and when the light changed the clutch could be slowly released and the bike would slowly proceed. Simples. Never had a problem.

        Like 3
  4. Harvey HarveyMember

    I think this clutch pedal stay where you put it. A suicide clutch is like a car or truck in operation. Nice one, would be fun to own and ride on the road less traveled. Out of my price range.:-)

    Like 4
    • John

      I had both a Knuckle and a Chief
      On the Harley it will not stay you have to keep your foot on it at all times.
      On the Indian you could take your foot of once it was shifted.
      The term Suicide was actually used for the Harley set up only.

      Like 1
  5. BA

    Yeah suicide shifter it was called for a reason but hey you were not going that fast & you undoubtedly had a leather jacket & instead of a helmet enough grease in your hair to keep your head from striking full on but glance off any objects but unsure if that was in effect in 1930s or 1940s !

    Like 1
  6. Ike Onick

    “EL knucklehead”? Mexican Harley. Who knew?

    Like 6
    • Jon

      EL meant it was a 61 cubic inch
      Don’t know where you got Mexican Harley?

      Like 0
      • Ike Onick

        I knew the sarcasm was a bad idea.

        Like 5
    • Scotty GilbertsonAuthor


      Like 4
    • geomechs geomechsMember

      Lol! Love it!

      Like 2
  7. jim

    You never know some knucklehead may buy it

    Like 2
  8. chrlsful

    a ‘throw away’ in 60s, 70s, what a ride ($) now. To:
    The nay sayers, U can’t enjoy just asa sculpture? Anything
    from the 40s down is eye candy for me. Love mechanical breaks
    cloth covered wires, engineering (steam punk) etc. AND it runs, can
    B a daily for some. I’d put ahundred a wk on it…

    Like 3
  9. Jon Kataisto

    Sounds like nobody has heard or used a “heel & toe” clutch. It will stay disengaged until you want to release it. A suicide clutch is just that, need to keep your foot on it. Let your foot slip and that will launch you if you don’t stall it out. Did that while riding my 45” flathead two wheeler with a jockey shift (under your left leg) into a tin shed when the throttle also stuck wide open. Pushed the shed 5 feet off the foundation before I could shut it down !

    Like 6
  10. Colorado Toad

    I was a 13 year old farm boy when I bought an ex-track bike. A Harley 45 inch flat head. Only concession to putting it back on the street was to add a rear wheel with a brake, no front brake, no lights, about a foot of flex pipe for an exhaust, we lived out in the country so noise was no problem and enough rear fender to keep you from losing the family jewels if you slid off the back of the seat. The license plate was held on by the axle nut. The true “suicide clutch” was a short length of angle iron bolted to the left side of the engine, true on or off. Now picture this scenario, you have to stop on a hill due to a traffic light, so you slip into neutral while rolling to a stop, holding the bike in place with the rear (the only) brake, the light turns green and you realize there is no way to function the “suicide clutch” because your left foot is holding the bike up, you can’t use your right foot cause it is holding the brake.

    Like 0
  11. Bob

    The first knuckle head I ever saw was a chopper. Back around 1970 I think that was a common date for older Harley Davidsons.

    Like 1
    • geomechs geomechsMember

      My first knowledge of a chopper was around 1965 when the Hells Angels got a lot of attention. I got a model of Ed Roth’s custom chopper for Christmas and I was hooked on bikes forever. It would be about that time I realized the difference between a Knuckle and a Pan and the Knucklehead would forever be my favorite…

      Like 2
  12. Norman Stevenson

    My older brother had a 45 with hand shift and rocker style foot clutch, but it also hat handlebar controlled lever operation too! Factory mod!

    Like 0
  13. Scotty GilbertsonAuthor

    Auction update: this one ended with no bids.

    Like 1
    • Nevada1/2rack NevadahalfrackMember

      Someone thinking they can get BJ/Mecum/Sothebys money via eBay isn’t considering the dwindling number of folks that know HD didn’t always have sealed batteries, electric start, EFI, ABS and that this year HD will offer 350cc models imported from China.
      We’re slowly fading away, folks-let’s help each other try to get our personal Eleanor before we’re all gone.

      Like 0

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