For over 100 years, Harley Davidson has been the industry and cultural standard for high-quality motorcycles. A Harley oozes cool, and those who know motorcycles can appreciate the standard of production that goes into the machines.
Harley Davidson didn’t just happen upon the way that it is today. There is a long and detailed history behind the high-tech bikes today. The history of Harley Davidson has a lot to do with the bikes that other companies are making these days as well.
Harley is one of few motorcycle manufacturers from the early 20th century that are still running strong. Not only running strong but valuing billions of dollars and remaining extremely sought after.
We’ll cover the history of Harley Davidson and give you a better look at why they are the industry standard.
The History of Harley Davidson
Based out of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, the company had its start in 1903. Walter and Arther Davidson joined with William Harley on that year to create their first motorcycle.
Arthur worked for a mining factory, designing models for the equipment they would use. William had worked at a bike factory but was working elsewhere at the time as a draftsman.
After an inspiring bike display show, the two designed a single-cylinder motor and a frame that would be sturdy enough to house it while driving down the roads of Milwaukee. They experienced some luck, but couldn’t get the design down until they contacted Walter, Arthur’s brother, who was a natural with machines and electricity.
Their growth from that point was slow but steady. A year from their first bike, they hired a full-time employee, and a year after that they moved from their shed to a single-level building. Their first year in the building they produced 50 motorcycles. The year after, they manufactured 150.
In 1907, the company experienced a number of improvements. They hired on a long-term floor manager, and William Harley had just graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. His time there led to the ingenuity that would produce 67 patents.
Arthur Davidson used his social ability to travel the country to advertise and sell his bikes around the country. The team was in fine form and worked together to lay solid foundations for their organization.
The Beginnings of Greatness
In an effort to enjoy himself and promote the quality of his bikes, Walter developed Harley Davidson’s reputation by competing with the bikes in races. This was a bold move because racing was seen as an act of defiance at the time.
Prior to this step, motorcycles weren’t necessarily the freewheeling symbols that they are today. They might have been more for leisure and relaxation, as opposed to freedom and speed. That changed when Walter raced his bike an impressive 175 miles, beating the company’s major competition at the time.
The longevity of the bikes really came to the public eye after that race. That signified a high-quality machine, one that demanded respect. For that reason, the company started to sell its bikes to law enforcement in 1908.
Around the same time, the company, largely due to William’s ingenuity, had developed a few ground-breaking improvements to the motorcycle. They introduced a clutch, a multi-speed transmission, and the ever-memorable step-starter. What is more iconic than a person hopping onto a bike, kicking their foot down to ignite a roaring engine, and rolling away in the breeze?
Expansion of Production at Home and Abroad
A few years after Harley Davidson started to pick up steam in popular culture, they began to move to larger production centers, employ more employees, and spread their business overseas. The company began distributing in Japan in 1913 after they expanded to a giant manufacturing building.
It was right around this time that World War I began, proving a terrifying but essential event for the company. The company was employed to produce 15,000 motorcycles during wartime, bolstering their American identity.
The company developed an impressive reputation after that, becoming the largest motorcycle company in the world. They had distribution in nearly 70 countries, making almost 30,000 bikes per year.
This growth was slightly stunted, however, after wartime when production was it its high. The 1920s was a period of growth and cheap goods. Motor vehicles were becoming cheaper in general, making it more reasonable to buy cars than motorcycles.
While sales weren’t great, they weren’t terribly low either. That is, until the market crashed in ’29, signaling the coming of the Great Depression. In just around ten years, sales had dropped from 28,000 to just under 4,000 bikes produced per year.
Another War, Another Boom
The suffering of the Great Depression didn’t halt the company’s innovation. In the late 30’s, Harley Davidson came out with two new engines– the Flathead and the Knucklehead. They were still at the top of the industry, with only Indian as its primary competitor.
World War II came and brought the need for massive production of motorcycles. Harley had a military bike which was produced 90,000 strong to support the war effort.
After the war, another period of growth proved to be more beneficial to the company than the 20s were. Harley Davidson remained strong, even in the face of the deaths of the three men who started it all.
The connection between Harley and racing continued to grow, and the company gained a reputation for speed. Harley Davidson legend, Cal Rayborn, was using the bikes to win Daytona 200s after the war. His real achievement though was breaking the world speed record on a motorcycle, clocking in at nearly 267 miles per hour.
Harley Davidson was bought out in 1969 buy the American Machine Foundry. They brought innovation but did so in a way that may not have aligned with the founders’ values. They increased production, streamlining the companies methods. Unfortunately, though, they did so by making huge cuts to the labor force.
The company’s employees had to resort to a strike which did a lot of damage to production and sales. The decline continued into the early 80’s when the company was face-to-face with bankruptcy.
A collection of high-ups in the country bought out the American Machine Foundry for just over 80 million dollars. To give you some perspective on the growth leading up to 2018, the company now brings in 6 billion in revenue, netting almost 700 million.
Harley Davidson in American Culture
While the company’s individual growth is remarkable, what’s really impressive is that the brand has managed to entwine with American culture. The efforts of Harley Davidson have become symbolic of many of the ideas that our country was founded on.
The motorcycle is a symbol of freedom, adventure, and individuality. Those qualities may not have developed if Walter Davidson hadn’t entered his bike into racing. If he hadn’t done that, the motorcycle might not be as loud, adventurous, and symbolic as it is today.
Even the most classic term for a motorcycle, the “hog,” refers to Harley Davidson. Harley’s original racing team had a group that called themselves the “Harley Owners Group.” The team boasted a pig as their team’s mascot, and the acronym H.O.G. lent itself to the name.
Millions of people bank on the fact that Harley Davidson will come through with a quality motorcycle. In fact, it is often a person’s dream to save enough money to buy a Harley when they retire.
Through the dedicated effort to produce a great bike, tacked on to the fact that Harley has performed and produced to aid the United States greatly in two wars, the company has earned its good name. While you may not enjoy the sound of a bike roaring through your neighborhood when you’re trying to relax, you can’t deny that you envy the person sitting on it, feeling the freedom.
What Would We be Missing Without Harley Davidson?
The world of motorcycles has exploded into a fast-paced, competitive, extremely high-tech environment. We are doing things now that the company’s founders could never imagine.
Think of the race on the Isle of Mann. This race seems through public roads, cuts razor sharp corners and draws massive crowds. While the speeds of a bike were pretty high back in the day, these riders remain at an average speed of just over 130 miles per hour.
We’ve developed technology to an unbelievable point. The land-speed for a motorcycle has upped its game this century. The current record is around 375 miles per hour. Racing through the Salt Flats of Utah, a motorcycle soared, riding on the history that Harley Davidson helped to create.
Get Involved With Bike-Culture
There are a million reasons to get involved with the history and culture of motorcycles. Whether you’re proud to know the history of Harley Davidson, Indian, or something else, there’s no reason not to be a super-fan.
Become active in online forums that discuss the ins and outs of motorcycles. Read blogs from popular companies that will keep you updated. Also, try to reach out to other bikers within your community and see what inside knowledge they have.
If you’re looking for a way to get engaged with bikers and bike culture, there are ways to improve your understanding of motorcycles and bike culture.