Mert Lawwill's 1969 Harley-Davidson KR750
Mert Lawwill's racer
On paper, Harley-Davidson’s KR750 wasn’t the most technologically advanced bike you’d see on a racetrack in 1969.
In fact, the KR was hardly revolutionary when it was introduced in 1952. While the new machine did offer a foot shift and a hand clutch—a significant update from the tank-shift WR it replaced—it was still powered by a side-valve engine that would have looked more at home in the early ’30s than the late ’60s.
But looks can be deceiving. For 12 of the first 13 years of the AMA’s Grand National Championship series, which began in 1954, Harley KRs held off technically superior bikes from Triumph, BSA, Matchless and Norton to claim the series title.
Sure, that string of championships was aided by the rules of the time, which allowed 750cc side-valve Harleys to run head-to-head against 500cc overhead-valve British machines. But even with that displacement edge, the 744cc, 48-horsepower KR didn’t exactly crush the more advanced competition in horsepower. In the hands of riders like Joe Leonard, Brad Andres, Carroll Resweber, Bart Markel and Roger Reiman, though, KRs held their own.
By the late ’60s, it was clear that the KR was nearing the end of its lifespan. And when Gary Nixon won the series championship in 1967 and ’68 on a Triumph, Harley started looking ahead to the future.
For 1970, the rules would change, and all Grand National machines would be allowed 750cc of displacement. But first, this KR, in the hands of Mert Lawwill, would get one last shot at the 500cc Brit-bikes.
Lawwill recalls the KR fondly.
“That was one of my all-time favorite bikes,” he says. “It had a soft kind of power. You could really control it on the dirt.”
That control wasn’t hurt by the years of development that had gone into the KR’s handling. The machine was designed with a rigid rear end, but by ’69, Lawwill was using a custom frame featuring dual rear shocks and a steeper steering-head angle to make the 377-pound bike turn more quickly.
The combination was good for four race victories during the course of the ’69 racing season, allowing Lawwill to add one last championship to the KR string. And to cap it off, Lawwill even won the final race of the year—and the final Grand National race of the long KR era.
This historic racing machine, owned by Al Bergstrom of Foster City, California, is now on display at the Motorcycle Hall of Fame Museum at AMA headquarters in Pickerington, Ohio.