The first decades of any new technology are always strange and interesting to look back on. Seeing what worked, what didn’t, and how and why vehicles evolved the way they did is often fascinating. Thus, this 1941 Kurogane Model 1 Fire Trike, which was used to fight fires in both Japan and Malaysia. What is it, and how did it come to be? Here’s what we know. 

This extremely rare survivor was found in a sad state in Malaysia, and is now part of the Motorworld by V. Sheyanov motorcycle museum collection in Petra Dubrava, Russia. The Museum has been busy restoring this bike, and is currently working on an engine overhaul as of August, 2021. It has posted some details on their Facebook and its website, and have also said that it plans to post more in the future. 

At the beginning of the 20th century, Japan mostly imported its motorcycles. British, Italian, and American marques all had their places in this ecosystem. However, on September 1, 1923, Japan was rocked by what would come to be known as the Great Kanto Earthquake. That was immediately followed by a 40-foot tsunami, which washed away thousands of people.

To complete the hat-trick of unimaginable horror, waves of fires subsequently swept through both Yokohama and Tokyo—and all the houses at that time were made out of wood. According to Smithsonian Magazine, these disasters combined resulted in around 140,000 people dead. 

1941 Kurogane Model 1 Fire Trike - Left Side
1941 Kurogane Model 1 Fire Trike - Engine Switch Closeup

In the aftermath of these disasters, the two cities needed the right kind of vehicles to help them rebuild. That’s where trikes entered the picture. At the same time, Japan’s national government became concerned about the state of the country’s own motorcycle industry. So, it began imposing heavy duties on the imported vehicles that had previously been so common. Japanese companies, meanwhile, still made use of whatever parts they could find to create their machines.  

Just as early British and Italian makes made use of other company’s engines to give their new machines their hearts, so too did early Japanese makes cobble their own models together. Some Kurogane (or “black metal”) machines became military vehicles during World War II, while being powered by repurposed Harley-Davidson V-twins.  

Prior to all that, though, came this Kurogane Fire Trike. It’s powered by an 1100cc V-twin of unknown provenance, which we hope that Motorworld will share more details about once it’s done with its restoration. It’s unclear how many were ever made, nor how many still remain in 2021. 

Gallery: 1941 Kurogane Model 1 Fire Trike

One of the reasons that Kurogane vehicles are so rare is that many were destroyed in the 1945 bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, according to Pipeburn. Although Motorworld’s history says that this particular trike fought fires both in Japan and Malaysia, there’s no timeline available for exactly when it left the country.  

One question I’m hoping the museum will answer regards the labeling on instruments throughout this trike, as depicted in Motorworld’s photos. You’ll notice that it’s all in English. While Japanese students started learning English in schools in the mid-1800s, public sentiment shifted dramatically in the mid-1920s. That’s because over in the U.S., the Immigration Act of 1924 (also called the Johnson-Reid Act) effectively ended Japanese immigration to the U.S.  

As a direct result, plenty of Japanese citizens put pressure on their government to cease teaching English altogether in the ensuing years prior to WWII. Now, we do also know that this Fire Trike spent some time in Malaysia, although we don’t know precisely when it got there. Malaysia was colonized by the British until 1957, and the English language was (and is) commonly spoken as a result—so that seems like a strong possible explanation. 

In any case, it’s definitely worth heading over to Motorworld’s site to check out even more photos of this unique piece of Japanese motorcycling history. 

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