Spoils of Victory: 1948 Harley-Davidson S-125

The roots of the Harley-Davidson S-125 go all the way back to World War II.

| January/February 2017

1948 Harley-Davidson Model S-125
125cc air-cooled 2-stroke piston port single, 6.6:1 compression ratio, 52mm x 58mm bore and stroke, 3hp
Top speed:
Single Langsenkamp-Linkert
3-speed, chain final drive
6v, magneto ignition
Single downtube steel cradle frame
Girder fork front, rigid rear
5in SLS drum front and rear
3.25 x 19in front and rear
Weight (dry):
Fuel capacity/MPG:
1.75gal (6.6ltr)/90mpg (claimed)
Price then/now:

Who would have thought that a Harley-Davidson model would have its origins in Nazi Germany? That’s the case of the small-bore Model S-125, launched in 1948 following Germany’s defeat in World War II.

To the victor go the spoils, and since the Allied Forces (led by the United States, Great Britain and the Soviet Union) were victorious in World War II, they helped themselves, in the form of war reparations, to some of the loser’s goods. Among the booty, the Allies gained access to intellectual property belonging to Nazi Germany for such things as the V1 rocket (space travel, here we come), submarine and jet-propulsion technology — and motorcycles. Wait, motorcycles? Well, yes, and in this case the reparations included plans for a small bike powered by a 125cc single-cylinder 2-stroke engine originally developed in 1919 by Danish engineer Jorgen Akafte Rasmussen living in Saxony, Germany. Rasmussen called his small yet efficient piston-port induction 2-stroke engine Das Kliene Wunder, which roughly translates to “The Little Marvel.” In later years, people in Nazi Germany knew the bike that it powered as the DKW RT-125, and at war’s end plans for the little motorcycle were judiciously passed along to the U.S., Great Britain and Soviet Union to do with as they pleased.

Britain gave BSA (British Small Arms) the nod to build what became known as the Bantam, and the good folks running the Kremlin turned their DKW blueprints over to Soviet industrialists to build what became the Minsk M1A. Later, with the rise of the Soviet-backed Eastern Bloc of nations, Poland’s engineers were made privy to the DKW’s blueprints, leading to creation of the SHL M03 for adventurous comrades to ride. And, in a weird twist of fate, the little DKW even helped Yamaha of Japan enter the motorcycle market in 1955 with its YA-1. All this sharing makes you wonder: Had obscure countries like Iceland or Andorra expressed interest in supporting their own motorcycle industries, might they too have gained access to the DKW for their prototypes?

In any case, as a reward for its role in supplying the Allied armed forces with more WLAs than Hitler and his gang could blow up, Harley-Davidson was awarded its own set of DKW blueprints. That was of particular importance for Harley because the Milwaukee-based company was in want of an affordable, low-maintenance model to attract entry-level riders (read: beginners, consisting mainly of young people) to dealerships. Thus was born the Model S-125 (although, depending on the source, the bike was also called the M-125, or simply the Model S or Model M).

Moreover, the bike was rather successful in terms of overall sales, its 10,000 units sold in 1948 accounting for about one-third of all Harleys sold that year. But in his book Harley-Davidson: The American Motorcycle, author Allen Girdler suggests the Model S isn’t a success story. Rather, it’s “More like a fable complete with moral, which is that having a good idea isn’t always enough.” Simply, small bikes generally equate to small profits for the mother company. The big bucks then, as now, rested with the Big Twin models.

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