The History Of Harley Davidson Motorcycles


The History Of Harley Davidson Motorcycles – The Beginning

The History of Harley Davidson Motorcycles

A Look Back In Time – Harley Davidson History Time Line – The Beginning

As a companion piece to our “Best Harley Davidson Books” article, we bring you a full History of Harley Davidson.

William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson had a dream of manufacturing a motorized bicycle. This dream would be realized with the addition of Walter and William Davidson. Although not the first motorcycle to appear, their efforts would be the beginning of a motorcycle legacy.

By 1900, a dozen U.S. companies were building motorized bicycles. Two hobby designers – William S. Harley (age 21, an apprentice draftsman) and Arthur Davidson (age 20, a pattern maker) – began tinkering with an idea for a motor-driven bicycle in their basement workshop. They progressed as far as they could with limited finances and tools but soon realized they could go no further without the help of a skilled mechanic.

Enter Arthur Davidson’s brother Walter, a railroad machinist working in Kansas. Arthur wrote a letter to Walter offering him a ride on their new motorcycle. Walter realized when he arrived that Arthur had failed to mention that their “new motorcycle” had yet to progress beyond blueprints. But Walter’s disappointment soon turned to enthusiasm for the project, and he stayed to help. Soon the third Davidson brother, William (grandfather of current Vice President of Styling, Willie G. Davidson) lent his tool making skills to the joint endeavor.

Why Harley-Davidson for the Company Name?

The Harley-Davidson Motor Company got its name from founders William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. In time, Davidson’s brothers, William and Walter, joined the company.

According to the Harley-Davidson Archives, Harley’s name comes first because “it was his drafting, designing and testing that made the first motorcycles ever produced by the young company a possibility”. The men included the hyphen in the name so that it would be clear that the company had two founding fathers, not just one.

The Harley-Davidson Number One was a single cylinder, 410cc engine which could develop 3 horsepower. In 1903, the company developed only three (3) units of the motorcycle while two years later, the number was increased to eight (8).

For more information visit the Harley Davidson museum.

The company considers 1903 to be its year of founding, though the Harley-Davidson enterprise could be considered to have started in 1901 when William S. Harley, age 21, drew up plans for a small engine that displaced 7.07 cubic inches (116 cc) and had four-inch flywheels. The engine was designed for use in a regular pedal-bicycle frame.

Over the next two years Harley and his boyhood friend Arthur Davidson labored on their motor-bicycle using the northside machine shop of their friend Henry Melk. It was finished in 1903 with the help of Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson. Upon completion the boys found their power-cycle unable to conquer Milwaukee’s modest hills without pedal assistance. Will Harley and the Davidsons quickly wrote off their first motor-bicycle as a valuable learning experiment.

Work was immediately begun on a new and improved machine. This first “real” Harley-Davidson motorcycle had a bigger engine of 24.74 cubic inches (405 cc) with 9-3/4 inch flywheels weighing 28 pounds. The machine’s advanced loop-frame was similar to the 1903 Milwaukee Merkel motorcycle. They also got help with their new engine from outboard motor pioneer Ole Evinrude. Elder brother William A. Davidson also lent a hand.

Carl Herman Lang, a Chicago Businessman and owner of the patents to Harley-Davidsons two-speed hub gears, was the first Harley-Davidson Dealer. In 1905 the production was probably five bikes and Charles Lang took three, thereby becoming the first Harley-Davidson Dealership.

The prototype of the new improved loop-frame model was assembled in a 10 by 15-foot (3 by 5 meter) shed in the Davidson family backyard. The machine was functional by 8 September 1904 when it was entered in a Milwaukee motorcycle race, the first known appearance of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

In January 1905 small advertisements were placed in the “Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal” that offered bare Harley-Davidson engines to the do-it-yourself trade. By April, complete motorcycles were in production on a very limited basis. In 1905 no more than a dozen machines were built in the backyard shed. Some years later the original shed was taken to the Juneau Avenue factory where it would stand for many decades as a tribute to the Motor Company’s humble origins. Unfortunately, the first shed was accidentally destroyed by contractors in the early 1970s during a clean-up of the factory yard.

In 1906 Harley and the Davidsons built their first factory on Chestnut Street (later Juneau Avenue). This location remains the Motor Company’s corporate headquarters today. The first Juneau Avenue plant was a modest 40 by 60-foot single-story wooden structure. That year around 50 motorcycles were produced.

In 1907 William S. Harley graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in mechanical engineering. That year additional factory expansion came with a second floor and later with facings and additions of Milwaukee pale yellow (”cream”) brick. With the new facilities production increased to 150 motorcycles in 1907. That September a milestone was reached when the fledgling company was officially incorporated. They also began selling their motorcycles to police departments around this time, a tradition that continues today.

Production in 1905 and 1906 were all single-cylinder models with 26.84 cubic inch (440 cc) engines but as early as February of 1907 a prototype model with a 45-degree V-Twin engine was displayed at the Chicago Automobile Show. Although shown and advertised, very few dual cylinder V-Twin models were built between 1907 and 1910. These first V-Twins displaced 53.68 cubic inches (880 cc) and produced about 7 horsepower (5 kW). This gave about double the hill-climbing power of the first singles. Top speed was about 60 mph (97 km/h). Production jumped from 450 motorcycles in 1908 to 1,149 machines in 1909.

The success of Harley-Davidson (along with Indian’s success) had attracted many imitators. By 1911 some 150 makes of motorcycles had already been built in the United States — although just a handful would survive the 1910s.

In 1911 an improved V-Twin model with mechanically operated intake valves was introduced. (Earlier V-Twins had used “automatic” intake valves that opened by engine vacuum). Displacing 49.48 cubic inches (810 cc), the 1911 V-Twin was actually smaller than earlier twins, but gave better performance. After 1913 the majority of bikes produced by Harley-Davidson would be V-Twin models.

By 1913 the yellow brick factory had been demolished and on the site a new 5-story structure of reinforced concrete and red brick had been built. Begun in 1910, the red brick factory with its many additions would take up two blocks along Juneau Avenue and around the corner on 38th Street. Despite the competition, Harley-Davidson was already pulling ahead of Indian and would dominate motorcycle racing after 1914. Production that year swelled to 16,284 machines.

In 1917, the United States entered World War I and the military demanded motorcycles for the war effort. Harleys had already been used by the military in the Pancho Villa Expedition but World War I was the first time the motorcycle had been adopted for combat service.

During World War I, H-D Bikes were called into service and by the end of the war; the US Military had used around 20,000 of them. Major achievements in design ensued, and a Harley Davidson Bike was the first motor vehicle to win a race with an average speed of over 100 miles per hour.

By 1920, Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. Their motorcycles were sold by dealers in 67 countries. Production was 28,189 machines.

In 1921, a Harley-Davidson, ridden by Otto Walker, was the first motorcycle ever to win a race at an average speed of over 100 mph (160 km/h).

During the 1920s, several improvements were put in place, such as a new 74 cubic inch (1200cc) V-Twin, introduced in 1922, and the “Teardrop” style gas tank that is still used today was introduced in 1925. A front brake was added in 1928.

In the late summer of 1929, Harley-Davidson introduced its 45 cubic inch flathead V-Twin to compete with the Indian 101 Scout and the Excelsior Super X. This was the “D” model, produced from 1929 to 1931. Riders of Indian motorcycles derisively referred to this model as the “three cylinder Harley” because the generator was upright and parallel to the front cylinder. The 2.745 in (69.7 mm) bore and 3.8125 in (96.8 mm) stroke would continue in most versions of the 750 engine; exceptions include the XA and the XR750.

The Great Depression

The Great Depression began a few months after the introduction of their 45 cubic inch model. Harley-Davidson’s sales plummeted from 21,000 in 1929 to less than 4,000 in 1933. In order to survive, the company manufactured industrial powerplants based on their motorcycle engines. They also designed and built a three-wheeled delivery vehicle called the Servi-Car, which remained in production until 1973.

In the mid-’30s, Alfred Rich Child opened a production line in Japan with the 74ci VL. The Japanese license-holder severed its business relations with Harley-Davidson in 1936 and continued manufacturing the VL under the Rikuo name.
An 80 cubic inch flathead engine was added to the line in 1935, by which time the single-cylinder motorcycles had been discontinued.

In 1936, the 61E and 61EL models with the “Knucklehead” OHV engines was introduced. Valve train problems in early Knucklehead engines required a redesign halfway through its first year of production and retrofitting of the new valve train on earlier engines.

By 1937, all Harley-Davidson’s flathead engines were equipped with dry-sump oil recirculation systems similar to the one introduced in the “Knucklehead” OHV engine. The revised 74 cubic inch V and VL models were renamed U and UL, the 80 cubic inch VH and VLH to be renamed UH and ULH, and the 45 cubic inch R to be renamed W.

The Great Depression devastated the motorcycle industry. Only Harley Davidson and Indian motorcycles survived the 1930’s largely due to use by police departments.

In 1941, the 74 cubic inch “Knucklehead” was introduced as the F and the FL. The 80 cubic inch flathead UH and ULH models were discontinued after 1941, while the 74″ U & UL flathead models were produced up to 1948.

One of only two American cycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson again produced large numbers of motorcycles for the US Army in World War II and resumed civilian production afterwards, producing a range of large V-twin motorcycles that were successful both on racetracks and for private buyers.

Harley-Davidson, on the eve of World War II, was already supplying the Army with a military-specific version of its 45″ WL line, called the WLA. (The A in this case stood for “Army”.) Upon the outbreak of war, the company, along with most other manufacturing enterprises, shifted to war work. Over 90,000 military motorcycles, mostly WLAs and WLCs (the Canadian version) would be produced, many to be provided to allies. Harley-Davidson received two Army-Navy ‘E’ Awards, one in 1943 and the other in 1945, which were awarded for Excellence in Production.

Shipments to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program numbered at least 30,000. The WLAs produced during all four years of war production generally have 1942 serial numbers. Production of the WLA stopped at the end of World War II, but was resumed from 1950 to 1952 for use in the Korean War.

The U.S. Army also asked Harley-Davidson to produce a new motorcycle with many of the features of BMW’s side-valve and shaft-driven R71. Harley largely copied the BMW engine and drive train and produced the shaft-driven 750 cc 1942 Harley-Davidson XA. This shared no dimensions, no parts and no design concepts (except side valves) with any prior Harley-Davidson engine. Due to the superior cooling of an opposed twin, Harley’s XA cylinder heads ran 100 °F (55 °C) cooler than its V-twins. The XA never entered full production: the motorcycle by that time had been eclipsed by the Jeep as the Army’s general purpose vehicle, and the WLA—already in production—was sufficient for its limited police, escort, and courier roles. Only 1,000 were made and the XA never went into full production. It remains the only shaft-driven Harley-Davidson motorcycle ever made.

After the war, the company expanded while the original founders died and a new management team took over.

Small Harleys – Hummers and Aermacchis

As part of war reparations, Harley-Davidson acquired the design of a small German motorcycle, the DKW RT125 which they adapted, manufactured, and sold from 1947 to 1966. Various models were made, including the Hummer from 1955 to 1959, but they are all colloquially referred to as “Hummers” at present. BSA in the United Kingdom took the same design as the foundation of their BSA Bantam.

In 1960, Harley-Davidson consolidated the Model 165 and Hummer lines into the Super-10, introduced the Topper scooter, and bought fifty percent of Aeronautica Macchi’s motorcycle division. Importation of Aermacchi’s 250 cc horizontal single began the following year. The bike bore Harley-Davidson badges and was marketed as the Harley-Davidson Sprint. The engine of the Sprint was increased to 350 cc in 1969 and would remain that size until 1974, when the four-stroke Sprint was discontinued.

After the Pacer and Scat models were discontinued at the end of 1965, the Bobcat became the last of Harley-Davidson’s American-made two-stroke motorcycles. The Bobcat was manufactured only in the 1966 model year.

Harley-Davidson replaced their American-made lightweight two-stroke motorcycles with the Aermacchi-built two-stroke powered M-65, M-65S, and Rapido. The M-65 had a semi-step-through frame and tank. The M-65S was a M-65 with a larger tank that eliminated the step-through feature. The Rapido was a larger bike with a 125 cc engine. The Aermacchi-built Harley-Davidsons became entirely two-stroke powered when the 250 cc two-stroke SS-250 replaced the four-stroke 350 cc Sprint in 1974.

Harley-Davidson purchased full control of Aermacchi’s motorcycle production in 1974 and continued making two-stroke motorcycles there until 1978, when they sold the facility to Cagiva.

Tarnished Reputation

In 1952, following their application to the US Tariff Commission for a 40% tax on imported motorcycles, Harley-Davidson was charged with restrictive practices. Hollywood also damaged Harley’s image with many outlaw biker gang films produced from the 1950s through the 1970s, following the 1947 Hollister, CA biker riot on July 4. “Harley-Davidson” for a long time was synonymous with the Hells Angels and other outlaw motorcyclists.

Indian Motorcycles closed in 1953 and left Harley Davidson the sole US manufacturer of American made motorcycles. The 50’s also saw the rise of the American “motorcycle culture”, with black leather jackets making a statement and signifying a lifestyle.

In 1965 the company made its first public offering on the stock market, and in 1969 merged with AMF. At the time the company was producing 14000 cycles per year. The merger bolstered Harley’s growth with financial strength of AMF. The company then moved its assembly operation to York, PA, leaving only the engine production and World headquarters in Wisconsin. Also housed in York is the Harley-Davidson Antique Motorcycle Museum. It houses a collection of more than 40 military and police bikes depicting the evolution of the motorcycle and Harley history from 1903 to the present day.

In 1969, American Machinery and Foundry (AMF) bought the company, streamlined production, and slashed the workforce. This tactic resulted in a labor strike and a lower quality of bikes. The bikes were expensive and inferior in performance, handling, and quality to Japanese motorcycles.

Sales declined, quality plummeted, and the company almost went bankrupt. The “Harley-Davidson” name was mocked as “Hardly Ableson”, “Hardly Driveable,” and “Hogly Ferguson”, and the nickname “Hog” became pejorative.

The 70’s saw a decline in the market. A flood of imports from Japan and quality problems created major problems for the company.

Restructuring and Revival

In 1981, 13 members of H-D management led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson purchased the company from AMF for $80 million and brought a return to quality and implemented new management and manufacturing techniques. It accomplished this turnaround by being one of the first US companies to use the “Just in Time” inventory policies which strictly controlled inventory levels, statistical processes and employee involvement programs.

In the early eighties, Harley-Davidson claimed that Japanese manufacturers were importing motorcycles into the US in such volume as to harm or threaten to harm domestic producers. In 1982, the company convinced the International Trade Commission (ITC) that the glut of imported Japanese bikes were a threat of injury. After an investigation by the US International Trade Commission, President Reagan imposed in 1983 a 45% tariff on imported bikes and bikes over 700 cc engine capacity. Harley Davidson subsequently rejected offers of assistance from Japanese motorcycle makers. Additional Tariffs were imposed on the imports for five years. This gave the company a chance to revitalize its place in the market. It did this in just three years by retooling and streamlining its operations.

Rather than trying to match the Japanese, the new management deliberately exploited the “retro” appeal of the machines, building motorcycles that deliberately adopted the look and feel of their earlier machines and the subsequent customizations of owners of that era. Many components such as brakes, forks, shocks, carburetors, electrics and wheels were outsourced from foreign manufacturers and quality increased, technical improvements were made, and buyers slowly returned. To remain profitable Harley continues to increase the amount of overseas-made parts it uses, while being careful not to harm its valuable “American Made” image.

The “Sturgis” model, boasting a dual belt-drive, was introduced. By 1990, with the introduction of the “Fat Boy”, Harley once again became the sales leader in the heavyweight (over 750 cc) market. At the time of the Fat Boy model introduction a story rapidly spread that its silver paint job and other features were inspired by the World War II American B-29 bomber; and that the Fat Boy name was a combination of the names of the atom bombs (“Fat Man” and “Little Boy”) that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima respectively. However, the Urban Legend Reference Pages lists this story as an urban legend.

1994 saw the replacement of the FXR frame with the Dyna, though it was revived briefly in 1999 and 2000 for special limited editions.

In 1995 the company expanded its international operations in Windsor, England to manage the European market. Europe is the largest heavyweight motorcycle market in the world, fully 18 percent larger than the market in the United States.

H-D shipped 132,285 motorcycles in 1997 and shipped 147,000 in 1998. The long-term goal: 200,000 motorcycles annually by 2003.

In 1999, Ford Motor Company added a Harley-Davidson edition to the Ford F-Series F-150 line, complete with the Harley-Davidson logo. This truck was a Super Cab for model year 1999. In 2000, Ford changed the truck to a crew cab and in 2002 added a super-charged engine (5.4 L) which continued until 2003. In 2004, the Ford/Harley was changed to a Super-Duty, which continues through 2006. Ford again produced a Harley-Davidson Edition F-150 for their 2006 model-year, as well.

Building started on a $75 million 130,000 square-foot (12,000 m2) Harley-Davidson Museum in the Menomonee River Valley on June 1, 2006. It opened in 2008 and houses the company’s vast collection of historic motorcycles and corporate archives, along with a restaurant, café and meeting space.

As the company enters the 21st century, it continues to improve operations, by its expansion into Europe, Japan, Australia China and Latin America.

Buell Motorcycle Company

Harley-Davidson’s association with sportbike manufacturer Buell Motorcycle Company began in 1987 when they supplied Buell with fifty surplus XR1000 engines. Buell continued to buy engines from Harley-Davidson until 1993, when Harley-Davidson bought forty-nine percent of the Buell Motorcycle Company. Harley-Davidson increased its share in Buell to ninety-eight percent in 1998 and to complete ownership in 2003.

In an attempt to attract newcomers to motorcycling in general and to Harley-Davidson in particular, Buell developed a low-cost, low-maintenance motorcycle. The resulting motorcycle, the single-cylinder Buell Blast, was introduced in 2000.

Claims of Stock Price Manipulation

During its period of peak demand, during the late 1990s and early 2000s, Harley-Davidson embarked on a program of expanding the number of dealerships throughout the country. At the same time, its current dealers typically had waiting lists that extended up to a year for some of the most popular models. Harley-Davidson, like the auto manufacturers, records a sale not when a consumer buys their product, but rather when it is delivered to a dealer. Therefore, it is possible for the manufacturer to inflate sales numbers by requiring dealers to accept more inventory than desired in a practice called channel stuffing. When demand softened following the unique 2003 model year, this news lead to a dramatic decline in the stock price.

In April 2004 alone, the price of HOG shares dropped from over $60 to under $40. Immediately prior to this decline, retiring CEO Jeffrey Bleustein profited $42 million on the exercise of employee stock options. Harley-Davidson was named as a defendant in numerous class action suits filed by investors who claimed they were intentionally defrauded by Harley-Davidson’s management and directors.

By January 2007, the price of Harley-Davidson shares reached $70.

2007 Workers’ Strike

On February 2, 2007, upon the expiration of their union contract, about 2,700 employees at Harley-Davidson Inc.’s largest manufacturing plant in York, PA went on strike after failing to agree on wages and health benefits. During the pendency of the strike, the company refused to pay for any portion of the striking employees’ health care.

The day before the strike, after the union voted against the proposed contract and to authorize the strike, the company shut down all production at the plant. The York facility employs more than 3,200 workers, both union and non-union.

Harley-Davidson announced on February 16, 2007, that it had reached a labor agreement with union workers at its largest manufacturing plant, a breakthrough in the two-week-old strike. The strike disrupted Harley-Davidson’s national production and had ripple effects as far away as Wisconsin, where 440 employees were laid off, and many Harley suppliers also laid off workers because of the strike.

In a landmark agreement reached during discussions between the U.S. Trade Representative, Susan Schwab, and the Minister for Commerce and Industry of India, Kamal Nath, on April 12, 2007 at New Delhi, Harley-Davidson motorcycles will be allowed access to the Indian market in exchange for the export of Indian mangoes. India had not specified emission standards for motorcycles over 500 cc displacement, effectively prohibiting the import of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, along with most models of other manufacturers, such as Yamaha Motor Company Ltd. and Suzuki Motor Corporation. The company placed a hold on plans to export their motorcycles to India, due to import duties of 60% and taxes of 30%, which effectively doubled the cost of the motorcycles for the Indian consumer.

MV Agusta Group Acquisition

On July 11, 2008 Harley-Davidson announced they had signed a definitive agreement to acquire the MV Agusta Group for $109M USD (€70M). MV Agusta Group contains two lines of motorcycles: the high-performance MV Agusta brand and the lightweight Cagiva brand. The acquisition was completed on August 8.

In 1903, William Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson pooled their resources to produce the first practical Harley-Davidson motorcycle. With part-time assistance from William A. Davidson, who fully joined the venture a few years later, the fledgling Motor Company turned out eight machines in 1905, which necessitated the hiring of its first employee.

By 1920, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, both in volume and in the size of its facilities. Through periods of both war and economic depression, Harley-Davidson has endured because its founders both used and believed in its products and relied on the dedication of its employees to produce quality motorcycles.

Today, with over 9000 employees worldwide, Harley-Davidson builds well over 300,000 of the most well-known and popular motorcycles in the world.

Harley-Davidson has held the largest share of the U.S. heavyweight motorcycle market since 1986. Besides its bikes, Harley-Davidson sells a licensed line of clothing and accessories with the company name.

Also, gaining attention are the Harley-Davidson Cafes, located in various cities including New York City and Las Vegas. These successful restaurants provide Harley enthusiasts with great food, souvenir merchandise and a chance to see rare biker memorabilia. This makes Harley-Davidson one of the most recognizable symbols in America today.

Demand for Harley-Davidson motorcycles continues to rise. Other motorcycle manufacturers have tried to compete with Harley-Davidson in the heavyweight V-Twin cruiser segment; none have been able to match Harley-Davidson in terms of customer loyalty and sales. The dedication to its existing customers has created a loyalty that is enviable by many other companies.

Harley-Davidson Mission Statement:

We fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycling, by providing to motorcyclists and to the general public an expanding line of motorcycles and branded products and services in selected market segments.


Q. How did Harley-Davidson handle competition from other motorcycle manufacturers, especially during times of economic hardship like the Great Depression?

A. Harley-Davidson navigated competition from other motorcycle manufacturers, particularly during economic downturns like the Great Depression, by diversifying its product offerings and adapting to market demands. During the Depression, when sales plummeted, Harley-Davidson shifted its focus to manufacturing industrial powerplants and introduced the Servi-Car, a three-wheeled delivery vehicle. This diversification helped sustain the company through difficult times. Additionally, Harley-Davidson capitalized on its strong brand loyalty and reputation for quality to maintain its customer base despite competition from other manufacturers.

Q. What were the key factors that led to Harley-Davidson’s resurgence in the market during the 1980s after facing significant challenges in the 1970s?

A. The resurgence of Harley-Davidson in the market during the 1980s can be attributed to several key factors. Firstly, the management team, led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson, undertook significant efforts to improve the quality of Harley-Davidson motorcycles and implemented new manufacturing techniques. They also adopted “Just in Time” inventory policies, which helped streamline operations and control costs. Additionally, Harley-Davidson capitalized on the retro appeal of its motorcycles, deliberately evoking the look and feel of their earlier machines to appeal to nostalgic customers. Outsourcing certain components from foreign manufacturers helped improve quality, while technical advancements attracted buyers. These efforts, combined with strategic marketing initiatives, helped Harley-Davidson regain its position as a market leader.

Q. Could you provide more information about Harley-Davidson’s expansion into international markets, particularly in regions like Europe, Japan, Australia, China, and Latin America?

A. Harley-Davidson’s expansion into international markets was a strategic move to capitalize on growing demand for heavyweight motorcycles outside of the United States. The company established operations in regions like Europe, Japan, Australia, China, and Latin America to tap into new customer bases. In Europe, Harley-Davidson set up a facility in Windsor, England, to manage the European market, recognizing its significance as the largest heavyweight motorcycle market globally. By expanding its presence internationally, Harley-Davidson aimed to increase its global market share and establish itself as a prominent player in the motorcycle industry beyond its traditional U.S. market stronghold.

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