Harley-Davidson has been building motorcycles in America for more than 100 years — no small feat. Since the company’s start in 1903, more than 150 American motorcycle makers have come and gone, with Harley-Davidson outlasting them all. What began as a drawing of an engine designed to power a bicycle has turned into a megabrand well known and respected for building world-class motorcycles sold around the globe. Here’s a look at the journey started by William Harley and Arthur Davidson back in 1901.
In 1901 at the young age of 21, William S. Harley created a blueprint drawing for an engine of his design that would fit into a bicycle frame. Just two years later, Harley and Arthur Davidson had built their first Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Production took place in their first “factory” — a 10-by-15-foot wooden shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, identified by a hand-lettered name on the door that read “Harley-Davidson Motor Co.”
First H-D Motorcycle
In 1903 Harley and Davidson built their first motorcycle, which was designed for racing. Three were built that first year. C.H. Lang of Chicago, Illinois — the first Harley-Davidson dealer — sold one of the three.
By 1906 the company had six full-time employees and had clearly outgrown the shed, so Harley-Davidson built a larger factory. By this time Arthur Davidson’s brothers — Walter and William — had joined the company. One year later the company had 18 employees and the factory size doubled as well. On September 17, 1907, Harley-Davidson incorporated. The company began recruiting dealers to sell its product.
A Solid Reputation
In 1908 Walter Davidson scored a perfect 1,000 points at the Seventh-Annual Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability Contest. Davidson also set a fuel-economy record achieving 188.234 miles per gallon. By this time, the company’s motorcycles were entering races and having great success. One year earlier Harley-Davidson motorcycles had won the Speed Test Milwaukee Hillclimb; Motorcycle Flying Start, Milwaukee; Five Mile Handicap, Janesville, Wisconsin; and Special Handicap Derby Day Races, Milwaukee.
Creating an Icon
Harley-Davidson created the first V-twin motorcycle in 1909. The two cylinders placed at a 45-degree angle created a V and quickly became associated with the brand. Also tied to this legendary name is the famous Bar & Shield that was first used in 1910. In 1911 Harley-Davidson trademarked the logo with the U.S. patent office.
In the early years of the 20th century, Harley-Davidson grew at an impressive pace. Nine years after production of that first motorcycle, the company had a network of more than 200 dealers across America. In 1912 Harley-Davidson began sales outside the U.S. — the company began exports to Japan.
Harley-Davidson officially entered motorcycle racing in 1914, and it took only a few years before H-D team riders dominated the sport. In fact, the team became known as the “wrecking crew” because of their impressive success.
Harley-Davidson played a big part in World War I — by 1918 the U.S. government purchased nearly half of all motorcycles built by the company. The U.S. Army used an estimated 20,000 motorcycles during WWI, most of which were Harley-Davidsons. Corporal Roy Holtz of Chippewa Falls, Wisconsin, was the first American to enter Germany after the signing of the armistice — riding a Harley-Davison.
Largest in the World
By 1920 Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle company in the world, and more than 2,000 dealers in 67 countries sold the company’s product. The company continued its success at the track — riders on Harley-Davidson motorcycles swept all eight national championship races in 1921.
According to Harley-Davidson archives, in the early 1920s the racing team’s mascot was a pig — which race winners would carry during their victory lap after each race won.
And Then There Were Two
Although there had been more than 100 different companies building motorcycles in America since the early 1900s, by 1931 Harley-Davidson’s only competition in the U.S. was Indian. The U.S. motorcycle landscape would not change again until 1953.
World War II
As the country went to war once again, Harley-Davidson stepped up to support the U.S. In 1941 almost every motorcycle Harley-Davidson produced went to the military. By the end of WWII in 1945, Harley-Davidson had produced almost 90,000 WLA models. The company also created the unique XA 750 with its horizontally opposed cylinders and driveshaft designed for desert use. Only 1,011 of the rare XA 750s were built.
Celebrating its 50th anniversary in 1953, the company created this unique logo showcasing a V — honoring the engine that had been so important to the company’s success. Harley-Davidson attached the logo to the fender of every 1954 model.
And Then There Was One
In 1953 Hendee Manufacturing — the company building the Indian motorcycle — went out of business, leaving Harley-Davidson as the lone American motorcycle company. The company would go it alone in the motorcycle business for more than 30 years.
An all-new motorcycle from Harley-Davidson launched in 1957 — the Sportster. With a 55-cubic-inch overhead-valve engine, the Sportster offered impressive performance, later becoming known as the first of the “superbikes.”
In the mid-1960s, Harley-Davidson introduced the electric starter — on the three-wheeled Servi-Car. Soon after, the electric starter became available on the new Electra-Glide and Sportster lines.
Harley-Davidson made it into the record books in 1965 when George Roeder broke speed records for Class A and Class C in a custom-built Streamliner, hitting 177 mph. Five years later, Cal Rayborn set the land speed record for a motorcycle, hitting 265 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats in a 16-foot streamliner powered by a single Sportster engine.
Harley-Davidson unveiled the FXS Low Rider at Daytona Beach in 1977. The custom bike featured drag-style handlebars, a unique engine and paint, and — as the name indicates — a lowered seating position. Later in the same year, Willie G. Davidson’s dynamic version of the Sportster, the Cafe Racer, gets released.
The annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, is a big draw for Harley-Davidson owners and has been since the first rally in 1938. To commemorate this historic event, Harley-Davidson released a special-edition FXB Sturgis model in 1980, featuring a belt drive, black chrome appointments and an 80-cubic-inch engine.
There’s no question that Harley owners are a loyal lot, and in 1983 they had a group to call their own. Recognizing the deep roots of the Harley community, the company created the Harley Owners Group, often referred to as H.O.G. The group quickly became one of the largest factory-sponsored motorcycle clubs in the world — currently there are more than 1 million members in 140 countries.
After seven years of development, Harley-Davidson debuted the all-new 1340 cc V2 Evolution engine in 1984. The new motor produced more power while running cooler and cleaner. Five models would use this new engine, including the all-new Softtail.
In 1969 Harley-Davidson merged with the American Machine and Foundry Company and remained that way until 1981 — the year Harley-Davidson purchased back the company’s shares. In 1986 Harley-Davidson was listed on the American Stock Exchange for the first time since the merger in 1969. The following year Harley-Davidson joined the New York Stock Exchange.
In 1992 Harley-Davidson purchased a minority interested in Buell Motorcycles. Ex Harley-Davidson engineer Erik Buell started the eponymously company to build American sport motorcycles powered by Harley-Davidson XL 883 engines. Buell became a wholly owned subsidiary of Harley-Davidson in 2003. In 2009 Harley-Davidson discontinued Buell products so the company could focus on the Harley-Davidson brand.
Happy 100th Anniversary
To celebrate 100 years of motorcycle building, Harley-Davidson put on the Open Road Tour, starting out in Atlanta and ending at the company’s hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. More than 250,000 people came to Milwaukee for the final tour stop, as well as the 100th anniversary celebration and party. Even larger celebrations occurred for the 105th which coincided with the opening of the all-new Harley-Davidson Museum.
Around the World
The first authorized Harley-Davidson dealership in mainland China opened in 2006. Three years later, the company expanded operations to India, rolling out the entire lineup by 2010. By 2014, international sales accounted for more than 36 percent of Harley-Davidson’s overall sales.
New Motor, New Touring Motorcycles
In 2016 Harley-Davidson introduced an all-new Milwaukee-Eight engine — the ninth Big Twin engine design in the company’s history. “The Milwaukee-Eight engine carries the legacy of Harley-Davidson Big Twins into the future,” said chief powertrain engineer Alex Bozmoski. “While respecting the essential Big Twin character, we’ve created an all-new motor. Every aspect of performance, durability and styling has been improved as a direct response to the voice of Harley-Davidson customers around the world,” Bozmoski said. Shortly after the introduction of the new motor, the company debuted its latest Touring motorcycle lineup, powered by the new Milwaukee-Eight motor.
To help celebrate 115 years since the company’s founding, Harley-Davidson introduced a wide range of new motorcycles for the 2018 model year, including eight new Softail models built on a new, more rigid chassis that provides better handling and quicker acceleration. At the same time five new Touring bikes joined the lineup, including custom versions of the Street Glide and Road Glide.
In 2014 Harley-Davidson unveiled its latest creation — an electric motorcycle. Called Project Livewire, this extremely quick bike has what Harley-Davidson calls “an unmistakable new sound.” “Project LiveWire is more like the first electric guitar — not an electric car,” said Mark-Hans Richer, senior vice president and chief marketing officer of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. This year the Livewire has reached production as the brand’s first electric motorcycle. Livewire’s electric motor produces 105 horsepower and 86 lb-ft of torque, powered by a 15.5 kWh high-voltage battery that provides a city range of 146 miles. Acceleration is quick — zero to-60 mph takes 3 seconds. Base price for the Livewire: slightly under $30,000.
Harley-Davidson Edition Pickups
For many years Ford and Harley-Davidson worked together to create special Harley-Davidson Editions of the F-150. For 2020 the company switched things up, creating the first-ever Harley-Davidson Edition GMC Sierra. With more than 65 components specific to this model, the special-edition GMC Sierra gets styling inspired by the Harley-Davidson Fat Boy. Only 250 copies of the Harley-Davidson Edition GMC Sierra will be made. But HD has not left Ford altogether — the company also announced plans for a Harley-Davidson-branded Ford F-250 Super Duty. Both trucks are produced in partnership with specialty truck provider Tuscany Motor Company.
Harley-Davidson has announced plans for two new bikes coming in the next few years. The Pan America will be the company’s first Adventure Touring motorcycle, replete with all the functionality and capability required of such a bike. At the other end of the scale will be another exciting new model — the Harley-Davidson Bronx. The Bronx is an all-new “streetfighter” motorcycle built for speed and performance. Both Pan America and Bronx are expected to arrive this year.
The little company that William Harley and Arthur Davidson started in a small shed in Wisconsin has come a long way. In 2020 Harley-Davidson sold just over 180,000 motorcycles worldwide with a lineup of six different styles and a total of 31 unique variants available. The company also sells a complete range of motorcycle parts, accessories, riding gear and apparel.
Sources: Harley-Davidson Museum, Harley-Davidson Media, Wikipedia