Elvis Presley wasn’t renowned for his good taste, and the motorcycles displayed at Graceland do nothing to refute this reputation. “Tacky” best describes the small collection of flaked-out choppers, garbage-wagon Harley dressers and fiberglass-bodied, VW-powered trikes that look like taxicabs from Planet Barbiturate, where The King resided for most of the ’70s. This wasn’t always the case, however. Six-hundred miles north of Memphis, at Milwaukee’s Harley-Davidson Museum, there’s an ex-Elvis motorcycle that’s as simple and timeless as the stripped-down R&B; music that made Presley a rock-‘n’-roll pioneer.
The Pepper Red 1956 Harley-Davidson KH was not Elvis’s first motorcycle, as many believe. That was a Harley Model 165, a larger-displacement successor to the 125cc Hummer, purchased in ’55 with the proceeds from Presley’s first Sun Records contract. In early ’56, with both his riding skills and bank balance improving, he upgraded to the full-sized KH. That year’s model, powered by the 883cc Flathead engine, was the last K-bike built, as it was superseded by the OHV Ironhead Sportster in ’57.
Presley, just 21 at the time, was still a relatively unknown regional artist when he purchased this motorcycle on January 14, 1956, from Tommy Taylor at Memphis Harley-Davidson. He paid $903 after trading his Model 165, and financed the amount with a monthly payment of $47. This purchase marked another career milestone: the move from Sam Phillips’ Sun Records to major label RCA Victor. Just four days earlier Elvis had recorded his first RCA Victor song, “Heartbreak Hotel,” which went on to become the best-selling single and the basis for the first million-selling, number-one pop record, the eponymous Elvis Presley. Certainly, he had reason to celebrate!
Presley selected the two-tone “Deluxe” KH, with the optional windshield and “buddy” seat so he could give pretty girls rides. It’s the bike Presley posed with on the cover of the May ’56 issue of Harley-Davidson’s The Enthusiast magazine, for a feature story titled “Who Is Elvis Presley?” It’s also the motorcycle depicted on the cover of Presley’s Return of the Rocker compilation album.
Elvis rode the KH until November of ’56, when he moved up to a ’57 Harley-Davidson FLH. He then sold the KH to his riding buddy Fleming Horne, who eventually sold the bike—along with complete documentation including the bill of sale, registration paperwork and insurance documents, all signed by Presley—to Harley-Davidson in ’95. It has been the centerpiece of the Harley-Davidson Museum’s Pop Culture exhibit since that facility opened in ’08.