The Mecum Las Vegas 2021 motorcycle auction will take place from April 28 through May 1, and we’ve already told you about two beautiful Crockers scheduled to cross the auction block at the event. As usual, though, those are far from the only extremely special pieces of motorcycle history on offer. Did you ever want to see a full set of Harley-Davidson Knuckleheads in one place? Folks, it’s all happening in 2021.
Most years, Mecum plays host to significant collections that are looking for new homes, and 2021 is no exception. The J.C. Burgin collection comes from the estate of the late Johnnie Clifton (or JC) Burgin, and his wife, Bernadine. Based outside Tacoma, Washington, Burgin collected and restored around 50 impressive vintage and antique motorcycles over the lifetime he dedicated to his shop, Vintage Motorcycles Northwest. Nestled among all those gems is one of each of the 12 different Knuckleheads that Harley made between 1936 and 1947, which is a rarity in and of itself. Now, all those bikes—as well as the rest of Burgin’s impressive collection—are about to go up for auction at no reserve.
The Motor Company’s first overhead valve V-twins rolled out to customers as 1936 models, but of course underwent thorough and secretive testing prior to that introduction. Although the company had done OHV singles before, this was completely new territory, as was the newfangled recirculating oil system the company integrated into its design. Early test units put through their paces in wilds of rural Wisconsin apparently didn’t have rocker covers at all, according to Motorcycle Classics. That, of course, meant the top end leaked quite a bit, so Harley had to figure out a way to fix it if it was going to push forward.
Bear in mind that while Harley-Davidson was shifting from much more commonly accepted side-valve engines to its groundbreaking overhead valve design, the Great Depression was an inescapable fact of life. In 1929, the MoCo had sold a perfectly respectable 24,000 bikes. However, by 1933, that number was down to about 3,700. To say the pressure on chief engineer William Harley and his crew was immense would be a supreme understatement.
Thankfully, by the public 1936 introduction of the first-ever Knucklehead, Harley-Davidson had solved its top-end leakiness woes. While it wasn’t called the Knucklehead immediately, that iconic rocker cover fix is ultimately why it came to be given that name in later years. The 1936, 61 cubic inch model came in two versions, a standard E with 6.5:1 compression, and the EL sport, which featured a bump up to 7:1 compression instead. A new 4-speed constant mesh transmission came standard on both models. Just 1,526 of these bikes were produced in that first year.
Fast-forward to 1942, though, and America was in the midst of the second World War, with plenty of restrictions in place. For that year, only 620 EL models rolled out of Milwaukee, which made these bikes significantly rarer to begin with. In 1943, only 158 E models were ever made. Knucklehead production numbers during the war were significantly hampered, and didn’t start to bounce back into the thousands until 1946. Although the larger 74 cubic inch Knuckleheads started rolling out in 1944, the Motor Company was already moving on to Panhead development, and the Knucklehead era officially ended with the 1947 model year.
Since all of the Burgin Knuckleheads are beautifully restored and on offer at no reserve, they’ll likely all find new homes with enthusiastic Harley-Davidson collectors. If you’re interested, the 2021 Mecum Las Vegas auction starts on April 28, which is just eight days away as I type this.