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1960 H-D Topper

Milwaukee goes scootering

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It probably seemed like a fair bet at the time.

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The year was 1959. World War II was fading in the country’s memory, the baby boom was coming on strong, and there were plenty of young people in need of transportation. Several companies—Cushman and Vespa among them—were selling scooters nearly as fast as they could make them.

Maybe, Harley-Davidson brass figured, America’s sole remaining motorcycle company should get into the market. Thus was born the Topper, Harley-Davidson’s enigmatic and short-lived scooter that was about as far removed from the firm’s big-bore road bikes as a two-wheeled vehicle could be.

“Tops them all in beauty! Tops them all in performance!” said the ad copy.

Hmmm. OK, to its credit, the machine did have a few innovations. Its Scootaway Drive—a variable belt transmission—was twist-and-go simple, making the Topper even easier to operate than a Vespa. And the fiberglass bodywork, which looks a little chunky today, certainly was more integrated than the bodywork on most Cushmans of the era, which often (but not always) had exposed engines.

The motor, descended from the 125cc engine Harley received from German DKW as war reparations, wasn’t exactly perfect for a fully enclosed scooter. The two-stroke mill was billed as 10 cubic inches (165cc) and rated at 9 ponies, but it was cooled only by whatever air could reach it under the seat—there was no fan.

Harley officials seemed concerned about how their new machine would be received. In magazines, they stressed H-D’s motorcycling history—and its business acumen—as much as the machine itself. Still, there was no shortage of hyperbole. William H. Davidson even predicted: “As our sales campaign gathers momentum, we confidently expect Harley-Davidson to become as prominent in the scooter field as it is in motorcycles.”

Alas, that was not to be. Sales lagged, and Toppers, like this 1960 model owned by Don Lewis of Ashland, Ohio, and now on display in the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum, lasted just five years in the Harley line. It’s estimated that fewer than 3,000 were sold.

© 2008, Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum

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Two-stroke single with reed-valve induction

10 cubic inches

Points; 6-volt coils

Clutchless variable-belt “Scootaway Drive” primary drive; chain final drive


Don Lewis

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