Harley-Davidson and Pyongyang are not names that go together naturally, to put it lightly. Nevertheless, Harley-Davidson has a long history there, pre-dating the current regime by several decades, proven by long-forgotten photographs unexpectedly found in the archives of the Methodist Church. They were there because the Americans who lived in Pyongyang brought with them a few of the motor vehicles that were becoming increasingly common back in the United States in the 1900s and 1910s. The Ford Model T, early Harley-Davidsons, and other American icons arrived in small numbers for use on occasions when people needed to move through the countryside around Pyongyang.
The first photo shows a Methodist clergyman with one of the earliest Harley-Davidsons, 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 the engine (the kickstarter was not yet in use), for occasional pedal power, and to actuate the rear wheel coaster brake. Its configuration, common and fully modern in the early 1910s, made it a large moped rather than a motorcycle as we understand it today. The rider smiling beneath his natty pith helmet is “Rev. Reppert,” and 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. (All details about persons and places are from hand-written notes on the backs of each photo.)
A sign of the scarcity of motor vehicles in Korea at the time is this photo of Rev. Reppert and his Harley-Davidson 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 the steel gas tank on bumpy dirt roads and would rather get there in any other way. There would have been few if any other choices in a country reliant almost completely on muscle power, as demonstrated by the gnarled calf of the boatman in the previous photo, who looks like he could move a barge with his legs.
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,” visiting from the United States, 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.
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 the sidecar, in Pyongyang.
Motorcycles in Pyongyang 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. It may have originally belonged to one of the British, Canadian, or Australian families who lived in Pyongyang as members of the Presbyterian mission.
These photographs may be the earliest evidence of Harley-Davidson in Asia, pre-dating the existence of any official sales channel in the region. I made an attempt to donate them to Harley-Davidson’s archives about a year ago, but I did not hear back from them and have seen no evidence of them or anyone else using any of these photos, so they probably have appeared nowhere else except in a blog post that I published last year. They are a unusual artifacts from a vanished time.