Retro: Harley Davidson KRTT

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The other day when JT Nesbitt was frothing at the mouth over Indian being bought by Polaris he said, “The continued Harley/Indian wars would have produced some amazing motorcycles, and the American motorcycle landscape today would be far more sophisticated. There can be no argument that competition, especially in motorsports results in superior products.” Sadly, Indian went out of business, and it’s been a long time since Harley built a bike with anything more than branding in mind. But back in 1968, they hadn’t quite given up. This 1968 Harley Davidson KRTT is owned by Yoshi of Garage Company.

Photos: Sean Smith Video: David Diamata-Stacey

Grant already showed us that there’s no shortage of amazing motorcycles at Garage Company. Wild Customs, ultra-rare vintage bikes, and racing machines. The KRTT falls into both of the last two categories. It’s not often you see a full-on Harley Davidson racing machine, let alone a road racer. The motor company built only 7 KRTTs  in 1968 and Yoshi found this one in a tiny ad way in the back of a 90s Cycle News. Expecting the owner to be a racer or collector, he was surprised to find that an older woman was selling the bike. The story goes that she was the ex-wife of a Harley factory racer. She sold it to Yoshi who, unbelievably, took this irreplaceable specimen racing. With an extremely low seat and a forever reach to the bars, the chin pad is there for a reason. For a soft-spoken Japanese man, Yoshi has some serious balls.

This bike is the last of a handful of examples of impressive motorcycles in Harley racing history. In 1969 they went on to build the XRTT, replacing the KRTT’s flathead with a fancy overhead valve motor. Unfortunately, the bike sucked. Motors blew up left and right because they were poorly designed and couldn’t shed heat quick enough. The bikes weren’t competitive, and instead of building a better motor, Harley quit road racing.

It may be just a silly ‘what if…’, but I can’t help but wonder how different Harley would be today if they’d decided to compete with the Japanese factories. Would they still need to sell the bad boy image, chrome everything, and offer up “Made in America” as an excuse for crappy performance? Or would they be more like the Japanese and European companies who build a variety of bikes for a variety of riders and use racing to both develop new technology and prove their worth.

I got to talk to Yoshi for a few minutes about his KRTT, and he shares his thoughts in this video interview.

Garage Company

  • Robert

    Now THAT is cool!

  • Noah

    So much cooler than my R1

    • Sean Smith

      Isn’t it weird to know that there’s an HD somewhere that’s cooler than your sportsbike?

      Makes me feel weird and sad at the same time. I really wish they would have tried a little harder in racing. Even the VR1000 they built in the 90′s was a really half-hearted effort. Who builds an American sportsbike that’s only street-legal in Poland?

  • Jeromy

    wow first HD I have ever wanted to own…

    • Ceolwulf

      Same here, and I want it quite badly.

  • Zach

    this bike is loud as shit!

  • Deep6Dive

    I would love to see something like this happen again between a HD like that and an indian….. too bad americans only think choppers and cruisers are what motorcycles are about

    • Deep6Dive

      the more i think about it, the less i like harley for just giving up……. how utterly unamerican.

      can’t figure it out, lets quit and move on…. chumps

      • Sean Smith

        Yep. I sat on that bike yesterday and it really made me sad man. To know that at some point in the past, they were racing and trying, and then just put down their tools and said ‘eh, fuck it’ is terrible. It sucks even more when you remember that they killed the other American company that was trying to seriously compete in road racing.

  • rohorn

    The KRTT sort of evolved into the XRTT which begot Lucifer’s Hammer in the mid ’80′s for BOTT – shame you can’t interview Dick O’Brien – that would have been a killer article.

    The ironhead XRTTs did blow up and all that – although one tuner told me stories of making them competitive with alcohol and nitro – no, it wasn’t legal, but it worked. As far as Harley giving up with the XRTT, do some reading on Cal Rayborn and the alloy head XRTT in the Trans Atlantic Match Races. OK – so the factory gave up soon after that.

    Now you know why I had an XR1000 when they were new – I was 20 years old when I ordered it.

    • Sean Smith

      Was that a factory effort or did Cal take his bike and mechanic over there on his own dime?

      • rohorn

        Good question – HD wouldn’t let hom take the newer alloy XRTT. So he took an older iron one instead (on his own dime, it seems). That says a lot about both Cal & HD, doesn’t it!

        • Sean Smith

          And his mechanic stripped the bike after every race and completely went through the motor. I read somewhere that he was pretty sure the only thing that kept it together was the significantly cooler weather over there.

  • JC

    Harley is about selling sizzle not steak. Buell wanted to sell the steak and not compromise engineering and innovation solely for profits. I live in Milwaukee and can’t stand hearing all the HD bullshit. The helmet-less dumb asses that parade around in chaps, bandannas, and tassels are about a bad ass image that comes out on the weekends when the Lexus or Infiniti are in the garage. I’ll take my old Honda over a Harley any day.

    • Kevin


  • Ken D

    This is a picture of your granny when she was 23. It’s so removed from reality it’s confusing.

    Indian will do no better than HD. No matter how much J T Nesbitt taunts them, Polaris will be stitching leather fringes to Victorys before the year’s out.

    If you’ve ever wondered how modern Athenians feel looking up at the Parthenon and wondering where it all went wrong, now you know.

    • Mark D

      …dude, that’s REALLY depressing. And true.

      • Thom

        ditto for me as well . Damn !!!!!

  • HammSammich

    Truly a gorgeous machine, and absolutely sad that they gave up. On Any Sunday, includes a great look into Harley’s involvement in the racing world that makes me similarly sad. Not too long after, the British Motorcycle industry went bust and HD turned their backs on performance innovation altogether…

    • Gene

      Speaking of the British motorcycle industry, has anybody at HFL read “Whatever Happened to the British Motorcycle Industry?” by Bert Hopwood? It’s been reissued and I’d really like to hear opinions or maybe a book review about it, by people that know what they’re talking about.

  • Archer

    A bit of a shame that the video cameraman didn’t show a bit more of the bike. Remarkable story, remarkable rider.

  • Denzel

    Thanks for finding these cool bikes… Sean, you guys are handsome and all that, but next time have the camera spend some time on the bike :-)

    edit: great minds…

    • Sean Smith

      I figured I’d shoot video of the bike if Yoshi decided to start it up, but I knew I was gonna video the interview because the sound quality is better. The stills are WAY better than video would have been.

      • Archer

        Sean, I am sure you understand that video combined with stills gives you a better overall flavor for the subject matter. It was just a suggestion. Do appreciate the interview.

  • Gene

    They didn’t just give up… HD & their customers became very technology-adverse in the ’60s. Look at how the ABS is so thoroughly hidden on their current models that have it. Look at the reaction to the V-Rod of “not being a real HD”. Look at the “oohh, a rear suspension is too modern” hardtail crap.

    When HD did the VR1000, one of the mechanics has mentioned that management spent most of the time trying to wish away the laws of physics, and that the whole exercise was a waste of time, money, and talent because they were so clueless.

    They still have their heads stuck firmly in the sand even when it’s handed to ‘em on a silver platter by Erik Buell.

    I’m glad I have an SV-650 so I know what a modern sport V-twin is like… can a brutha spare me a dime for a Ducati? :-)

    • rohorn

      One tuner told me that the styling dept forbade the VR1000 team from running any sort of ram air feed into the airbox.

      I would dearly love to see a good book written about that whole endeavor and the interference that came from the non-participants at HD. I’m guessing that job security there is no longer an issue for many involved.

  • Thom

    When you look back at Harley Davidsons such as this is when you ask yourself …….

    WTF Happened !!!

    So much promise back then . So little accomplished today .

    Kind of ( more like exactly like ) the American Automotive Industry .

    Industry Leaders to Mid Level Mediocrity to Abject Garbage attempting to resurrect itself .

    • bluegrass

      Seems like all the shot callers at any of these companies are all finance guys, and seem to have little to no knowledge of the product, other than numbers and charts. When people like this run everything, this is what ends up happening.

  • Case

    ahhh that second picture is so awesome. This bike is so gorgeous. The HARLEY-DAVIDSON and checkered flag is so awesome. Shit. This makes my soul hurt. Why the bizarre fascination with the v-twin? Why not try harder? Why not copy the other guys and see if maybe you can do it their way, but better? Because that was too hard? Fuck that. You’re an engineer and that’s your job: to solve hard problems.

    Or you can just sell t-shirts. Lots of margin in t-shirts.

    • Sean Smith

      Hell, they could easily have made it work with a v-twin. Look at Ducati, KTM, and and the Rotax motors used in Buells and Aprilias. Twins do have advantages.

      You can build a freakishly skinny bike with a twin. They turn much faster than a 4-cylinder because the crank is so narrow and has so much less rotational inertia out on the ends, and the spaced out power pulses are great for rear traction under hard acceleration. Sure, you need a bigger motor to make the same power, but racing regs allow for that.

      Hell, even the XB12 with a sportster motor is a pretty fast bike. All they really needed to do was build their cylinders and heads out of aluminum. Nowadays, aluminum cylinders are usually nikasil plated, but even back in the 60′s you could have iron sleeves made that would have worked just fine.

      If they’d done that, the bikes would have lost at least 20 pounds and the motors would have not only stayed together, but made more power. Build the cases out of aluminum, and they could’ve saved another 20. This isn’t even hi-tech stuff.

      Even today they use cheesy ridiculously heavy iron parts. The XR1200X weighs in at a whopping 573 pounds. A Ducati Sport 1000 is 401. The bikes are basically the same size, have steel frames, and big aluminum v-twins. The XR and the Duc both do 91hp. That same motor that’s used in the XR makes at least 10hp more in Buells, but Harley decided that it’s better to sacrifice power and ultimately fun so that the bike can look a certain way when it’s parked. A larger airbox and different pipes are all that’s changed on the Buells.

      • Critter

        The XR1200 just makes me screem WTF?
        I would love to have an XR750… maybe with front brakes and some lights thrown on to make it street legal. No other changes necessary except maybe some crap i can take off later to get it through emissions.
        But NO! They took the general look of it, threw out everything that made it an awesome dirt track bike, and came up with that bloated turd.

      • rohorn


        Sportsters always had aluminum cases – even the flathead K models that preceded them had them.

        As far as engine weights go, the ’80′s 4 speed Evo 1200 Sportster engine only weighs about 20 lbs more than the supposedly lightweight Yamaha XS650 engine. Yes, I used to keep a scale in the shop to measure that sort of thing.

        That said, the bloat HD has “developed” into the Sportster line since then is beyond stupid – and one more reason why I don’t mess with them anymore.

        • Peter

          Doesn’t most of the ‘bloat’ in the XR1200 and the sportster line primarily come from the rubber mount engine? The frame has be be made bigger and stronger because the engine does not carry any load.

          I test rode an XR1200 last spring, the paint-shaker at idle was enough to blur your vision if you gripped the bars tightly.

          • bluegrass

            yes,much of the weight gain came in 04 with the rubbermount design. Even though the bikes gained buell XB heads, losing the trap door for easy access to the gear box, and the crappy battery box design are among my gripes with the newer sportsters.

            However, the newer bikes are much more civil, as harleys go anyway. If you think vibes were bad with the xr1200, you need to try an old framemount with a duel fire ignition system.

          • Sean Smith

            I think the bloat is pretty much everywhere. Who else uses cast iron for a freakin exhaust hanger?