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Elvis Presley's motorcycles - the king of rock ’n’ roll loved motorcycles and purchased a Harley-Davidson after signing his first record deal

It was a Harley-Davidson Model 165 ST Elvis Presley decided to buy with the money from his first ever record deal, such was his love for all things two-wheeled. 

Elvis Presley's motorcycles

Not a big thumping American cruiser we associate with the brand today, instead a small 165cc single-cylinder two-stroke, based on the pre-WWII German DKW RT 125.

Elvis bought his in 1955, the year he used his uncle’s 1940 Buick to get his car driver’s license. Because he lived in Tennessee, the licence meant he could also legally ride a motorcycle as well. The Harley was a perfect beginner’s bike but he soon wanted something bigger so in January the following year when he signed a new record deal, he was at Memphis Harley-Davidson trading the Model 165 for a KH 883cc side-valve Harley.

Big twins

Four days earlier, he was recording Heartbreak Hotel which eventually sold more than a million singles. The new KH cost $US1134 at the time, which Elvis traded his Model 165 two-stroke in for the amount of $US436.70.

Between the Deluxe version he opted for, the touring screen and the optional seat he chose, it cost him an extra $US903.19. In May 1956 Elvis and his KH made the cover of Harley’s magazine The Enthusiast, and today, Elvis’ KH can be admired in Harley-Davidson’s factory museum.

Elvis Presley motorcycles

In November 1956 Elvis spotted the all-new FLH Hydra Glide at his Memphis dealer, and was so taken by what he saw he purchased it on the spot. He rode it home and took American actress Natalie Wood for a three-hour ride through the countryside, chaperoned by police officer Nick Adams riding a FLH Police model.

elvis presley

Elvis bought it with the King of the Highway accessory package, which included a windscreen, crash guards and fibreglass panniers. He also opted for a foot-operated gearchange with hand clutch. This had been an option since 1952, as an alternative to the hand-operated gearchange with the lever next to the fuel tank and a foot-operated clutch. 

Elvis Presley motorcycles

On the Electra Glide in 1965

The FLH of that era was the predecessor of the Electra Glide, which was introduced in 1965, the first electric-start model. Elvis loved the big twin Harleys because of their low seating position, and he preferred them “fully dressed”, often fitted with all the accessories available in H-D’s comprehensive catalogue.

The FLH was the King’s favourite Harley model at the time, and when he bought the now-famous Graceland estate, the Hydra Glide was one of the first things to be moved.

Elvis Presley motorcycles

The Duo Glide with the Panhead engine

Duo Shovel

Two years later, Elvis upgraded to the newest version of the FLH, the Duo Glide, which was the first big twin H-D with a rear swingarm and dedicated rear suspension. The frame was now sprung both front and rear, hence the Duo name. 

Bubble car: in the Messerschmitt KR200

During the recording of the movie Kid Galahad, a 1962 remake of the original Humphrey Bogart and Bette Davis movie from 1937, Elvis often rode the FLH police bikes that were present on the set. The movie was shot on location in the small town of Idyllwild, California, and he often rode in camouflage, dressed as a police officer, and he most times was accompanied by a more authentic sworn-in officer of the law riding the same model… 

Elvis Presley's motorcycles

The H-D Duo Glide Police model

The Duo Glide surpassed the KH as Elvis’ favourite Harley, but that changed when the electric-start Electra Glide was introduced in 1965. Now the heavy V-twin engine could easily be started with just a push of a button… and Elvis loved it. 

Elvis Presley's motorcycles

Elvis purchased his first KH Harley-Davidson for just over 1000 bucks

Towards the end of 1964 Elvis bought his first Electra Glide. It was a 1965-model bike, which was the only year the Electra used the Panhead engine. He bought his second MY66 Electra with a shovelhead engine in October 1965. Elvis paid $US1941.25 for his new ‘Shovel’, choosing the blue and white two-tone livery. Both Electra Glides came fully dressed with a swag of additional touring accessories.

Elvis Presley's motorcycles

Another one to add to the collection; Elvis was a prolific H-D customer

Elvis purchased several Electras in the years that followed, initially in Memphis, but later on also in Bel Air, California, where he also had an estate after his movie career took off in the early 1960s. The custom craze didn’t pass him by, either, and in the 60s and 70s he also had some of his FLHs converted into moderate choppers.

Music royalty: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

Memphis Mafia

As well as for himself, Elvis often bought motorcycles for his friends. In April 1965 he bought no less than nine Triumphs for his ‘Memphis Mafia’ mates so he could go riding with them. In 1976 he did the same, but with Harley-Davidsons instead of Triumphs. In the 1960s Elvis rode a Triumph a few times in movies, but on the big screen it was mostly a Honda he was seen with. In that period, he bought two 305cc Honda CA77 Dream twins, a black one for himself and a white one for his wife Priscilla. The idea was to go riding together, but in reality this rarely took place.

Elvis Presley's motorcycles

In the summer of 1975 Elvis discovered the trike. A rather light and shaky constructed Rupp Centaur was his first, powered by a 340cc two-stroke engine. Elvis liked it, but it was way too light and underpowered for him. He visited his Memphis dealer to see what could be done about it. The Centaur was conceived as a single seater, but Elvis mostly rode two-up and, since he had gained a considerable amount of weight by now, he was told the Centaur was not the right trike for him… The dealer principal showed Elvis a few Super Cycle trikes, which were powered by a Volkswagen boxer engine. Elvis returned a few days later and came back for a test ride. He must have liked it, as he bought a Super Cycle Stinger, and later on, a Super Cycle Stallion.

Elvis discovered the joys of trikes in 1975

Liberty Edition

Back to his Harleys, in 1976 Elvis bought three Electra Glides, all lightly modified with special paintwork. One of these machines is worth particular mention as on 25 March 1976, Elvis bought a FLH 1200 Liberty Edition, the bike introduced to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the United States of America. Interestingly, Elvis ordered his with the optional ‘Liberator’ fairing designed by Craig Vetter. 

Elvis Presley's motorcycles

On location shooting the film Roustabout

Vetter started building fairings in 1966 and since 1973 he had been busy developing a fairing for the FLH Electra Glide. Willie G. Davidson was quite charmed with Vetter’s fairing design and decided to add it to H-D’s official accessory catalogue.

The 1956 KH, still in pristine condition today

Of course, just over one year later Elvis was dead, passing away on 16 August 1977, aged just 42. Two weeks before he died, he visited Super Cycles in Memphis, and in fact this store still exists. If you are in the neighborhood, call in and talk to owner Ron Elliott. He knew both Elvis and all his Harleys very well. 

Elvis Presley's motorcycles

On his Electra Glide in the 70s – he bought three models alone in 1976

Every now and then one of Elvis’ old Harleys is discovered. Somebody might find an old Harley in a barn or one might pop up at a garage sale. “To Elvis, love Priscilla” might be written under the seat or on a mudguard, after which the machine will sell for millions to the Harley museum in Milwaukee, or to comedian Jay Leno, or another fortunate collector. But some of these stories are classic urban legends, so if you want to be sure you’re seeing a genuine H-D once owned by Elvis, go to the Graceland museum in Memphis, Tennessee. Four FLHs, as well as one Honda, that once belonged to the rock and roll icon are on display there.  

   Interview Ivar de Gier

   Photography A.Herl Archive