Harley-Davidson: A Rolling Retrospective

© Harley-DavidsonAn American Dream
Harley-Davidson has been building motorcycles in America for more than 100 years — no small feat. Since the company was founded in 1903, more than 150 American motorcycle companies 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 company 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.

© Harley-DavidsonThe Beginning
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 Company.”

© Harley-DavidsonFirst Motorcycle
The motorcycle that Harley and Davidson built in that shed in 1903 was designed for racing. Three were built in that first year. One was sold by the first Harley-Davidson dealer — C.H. Lang of Chicago, Illinois.

© Harley-DavidsonRapid Growth
By 1906 the company had six full-time employees and had clearly outgrown the shed, so a larger factory was built. By this time Arthur Davidson’s brothers — Walter and William — had joined the company. One year later the staff has grown to 18 employees and the factory size has been doubled as well. On September 17, 1907, Harley-Davidson was incorporated. The company began to recruit dealers to sell its product.

© Harley-DavidsonA 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 with 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.

© Harley-DavidsonCreating an Icon
Harley-Davidson’s first V-twin motorcycle was created 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. One year later the logo was trademarked with the U.S. patent office.

© Harley-DavidsonExpansion
In the early years of the 20th century, Harley-Davidson was growing at an impressive pace. Just nine years after that first motorcycle was produced, the company had a network of more than 200 dealers across America. The year 1912 also marked the first Harley-Davidson sales outside the U.S. — the company began exports to Japan.

© Harley-DavidsonGoing Racing
Harley-Davidson officially entered motorcycle racing in 1914, and it took only a few years before H-D team riders were dominating the sport. In fact, the team was known as the “wrecking crew” because of their impressive success.

© Harley-DavidsonWar Effort
Harley-Davidson played a big part in World War I — by 1918 nearly half the motorcycles the company produced were sold to the military. 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.

Harley-Davidson History35_1
Largest in the World
By 1920 Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle company in the world. The company’s motorcycles were being sold by more than 2,000 dealers in 67 countries worldwide. The company was just as successful at the track — riders on Harley-Davidson motorcycles swept all eight national championship races in 1921.

© Harley-DavidsonThe Hog
If you’ve ever wondered where the Hog nickname came from, according to Harley-Davidson archives the racing team’s mascot was a pig in the early 1920s. It was carried on a victory lap after each race won by the team.

© Harley-DavidsonAnd 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.

© Harley-DavidsonWorld War II
As the country went to war once again, Harley-Davidson stepped up to support the U.S. military. In 1941 almost every motorcycle produced by Harley-Davidson was for the military. By the end of WWII in 1945, almost 90,000 WLA model motorcycles were produced. The company also created the unique XA 750 with horizontally-opposed cylinders and a drive shaft that was designed for use in the desert. Only 1,011 of the rare XA 750s were ever built.

© Harley-DavidsonHappy Anniversary
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. The logo was placed on the fender of every 1954 model Harley-Davidson.

© Harley-DavidsonAnd Then There Was One
In 1953 Hendee Manufacturing — the company building the Indian motorcycle — went out of business, leaving Harley-Davidson as the only American motorcycle company. The company would go it alone in the motorcycle business for more than 30 years.

© Harley-DavidsonSuperbike
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.”

© Harley-DavidsonElectric Starter
In the mid-1960s, Harley-Davidson introduced the electric starter — its first use was on the three-wheeled Servi-Car. Soon after, the electric starter became available on the new Electra-Glide and Sportster lines.

© Harley-DavidsonSpeed Records
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. Just 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-DavidsonLow Rider
The FXS Low Rider was unveiled in 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, is released.

© Harley-DavidsonSturgis Edition
The annual motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota, is a big draw for Harley-Davidson owners and had 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.

© Harley-DavidsonH.O.G.
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.

© Harley-DavidsonV2 Evolution
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.

Harley-Davidson History27Trading Publicly
In 1969 Harley-Davidson merged with the American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) 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 was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

© Harley-DavidsonBuell Motorcycles
In 1992 Harley-Davidson purchased a minority interested in Buell Motorcycles. The company was created by Erik Buell — an ex-Harley-Davidson engineer — 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 the Buell products were discontinued so the company could focus on the Harley-Davidson brand.

Harley-Davidson History34Happy 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.

© Harley-DavidsonAround 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.

Harley-Davidson History32Today
The little company that William Harley and Arthur Davidson started in a small shed in Wisconsin has come a long way. In 2014 Harley-Davidson sold almost 270,000 motorcycles worldwide with a lineup of eight different models and a total of 36 unique variants available. The company also sells a complete range of motorcycle parts, accessories, riding gear and apparel.

© Harley-DavidsonTomorrow —Project Livewire
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.” But the motorcycle is not yet for sale — it was designed for the purpose of collecting consumer feedback on what an electric Harley-Davidson motorcycle should be. The Project Livewire Experience Tour has provided an opportunity to receive insight from current and future Harley-Davidson owners around the world. “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.

Sources: Harley-Davidson Museum, Harley-Davidson Media, Wikipedia

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  1. Jay Ewing

    Great stories, love the photos, always fun to read about the history of “The Hog” Thanks Jay


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