An American Icon
In 1903, the same year Henry
Ford incorporated the Ford
Motor Company and the Wright
brothers first flew, William Harley and his friends Arthur
and Walter Davidson launched the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
They gave their bike a quality engine, so it could prove itself
in races, but planned to manufacture it as a transport vehicle.
That same year the merchant,
C. H. Lange, sold the first officially distributed Harley-Davidson
a city given to "motoracing"
and auto-touring. Another of the Davidson brothers, William,
joined the company, which soon burst the seams of its first
manufacturing center and, by 1906, had to move to larger
quarters in Milwaukee,
From the beginning the Harley-Davidson
motorcycle began to set records. In 1908, for example, the
Harley achieved a record 188.234 miles per gallon. It captured
seven first place finishes in 1910 motorcycle racing, and,
by 1912 claimed 200 U.S. distributors. A sturdy Harley-Davidson
Sidecar won the first annual Pike's
Peak race in 1916, and another bike claimed first in the
to Melbourne South Australia race.
By the 1960s "the hog,"
as it affectionately came to be called, scored seven consecutive
victories at the Daytona
200. During the next decade the Harley took four consecutive
wins at the AMA Grand National Championships and broke the
world motorcycle record for land speed.
The Harley-Davidson came to
be America's most recognized motorcycle, but it was not the
first. Howard Roper developed a coal powered steam-engine
motorcycle in 1867 and Gottlieb Daimler, a German, developed
a gas-powered motorcycle in 1885, which he attached to a wooden
bike. That marked the moment in history when the dual development
of a viable gas-powered engine and the modern bicycle collided.
Turn of the nineteenth century
inventors who worked with both the engine and the bicycle
chose to follow one of three paths. Daimler, for example,
went on to develop automobiles, the Wright brothers left their
bike shop to fly airplanes, and men like Harley and the
Davidsons developed motorcycles. Their business competitors
were other new start-up companies such as Excelsior, Indian,
Schickel and Thor.
From the beginning a unique
and characteristic sound endeared the Harley-Davidson to its
The Harley's pistons connected to its crankshaft in a way
that caused the motor to give two "pops" then a quiet pause
as it hummed along the road. Yet around that constant sound,
other things evolved and changed: a 45 degree V-twin motor
was introduced in 1909, the "Bar and Shield" logo in 1910,
and the teardrop-shaped gas tank in the 1920s. In the 1930's
an "eagle" design was placed on those tanks and the famous
"Knucklehead" engine was introduced. At a time the Harley
became widely used as both a police
and a commercial
vehicle, the company even manufactured sidecars and sported
motorbikes built for two.
War I Harley-Davidson manufactured nearly 20,000 motorcycles
for the U.S. government. And during World
War II virtually all of the Harleys
produced went towards the war
effort. As nations such as England were forced to give
up motorcycle production to favor production of tanks and
planes, Harley's motorcycles were also shipped overseas
to U.S. allies.
Following WWII the Harley's
market share, as well as its myth, continued to grow. Its
main U.S. competitor, Indian
Motorcycle, ceased production in the 1950s. And veteran
owners, new bikers, and even movies such as Easy Rider
raised the Harley Davidson to the status of American icon.
Glamorous stars pictured with Harleys, from the early Mack
Sennett Studio, to Jayne
Mansfield, Elvis Presley, and Peter Fonda, certainly enhanced
the company's image.
For the most part, however,
Harley-Davidsons, like all motorcycles, are enjoyed by individuals
and groups who find biking a wonderful way to get where they
are going. Who in on-the-road-America has not seen bikers
tooling along the highway whether on a
Fall outing, in a parade, making
a statement, or raising
money for charity? Indeed, the Harley-Davidson company
prides itself on the money it has raised for charity during
the last quarter century, with the help of its customers and