The History of Harley-Davidson

The History of Harley Davidson

Harley-Davidson is one of, if not, the most popular motorcycle manufacturing company of all time. This September the company will be 117 years old!

Harley-Davidson has not only built motorcycles that people love, but they’ve also created a culture that resonates with so many. 

Continue reading below to learn how H-D became the powerhouse brand it is today.

The American Dream 

William Sylvester Harley was born on December 29, 1880. According to the Smithsonian, bicycling was widely popular in the late 19th century. 

Before the start of the 20th-century, gasoline-powered vehicles, such as automobiles and motorcycles, were all the rage. Growing up during this time undoubtedly sparked Harley’s interest in two-wheeled transport.

At the age of 15, Harley had a job at a high-end bicycle factory called Meiselbach Manufacturing. It was located in his hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

According to the American National Biography by Oxford University, Harley worked as a “cycle fitter.” During his time there, he participated in every part of construction. His level of experience with bicycles would prove to be one of the key factors that contributed to his future success. 

Over time, Harley worked his way up to a draftsman position at Meiselbach. A year later, he got a job at Barth Manufacturing as a full-time draftsman. It was there that he met his friend and colleague Arthur Davidson. Arthur was working at Barth as a pattern maker. 

In 1901, Harley drafted a blueprint for a bicycle with a built-in engine. At this time, Harley was 21 years old. Soon later, he and Arthur Davidson began to engineer the bike together. Eventually, they convinced Arthur’s brother, Walter, to help them with their project. 

The three young men worked out of a 10 by 15-foot wooden shed, on which they wrote “Harley-Davidson Motor Co.” Little did they know, this soon to be business would take the world by storm. 

The first bike available for public purchase was dubbed the “Serial Number One.” It had a 3 ⅛ inch bore and 3 ½ inch stroke. 

In 1906, a new factory was built. It was 28 by 80 feet. This was, of course, a significant upgrade from the shed they originally worked in. A year later, Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated on the 17th day of September. 

The company was growing at a rapid pace. The number of staff and needed warehouse space were double the year prior. 

In 1907, Harley also graduated from The School of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His education at UW-Madison gave him the knowledge and expertise that helped propel the Harley-Davidson Motor Company into even further success. 

Harley-Davidson’s first V-twin powered motorcycle was introduced in 1909. It had a 49.5 cubic inch displacement and 7 horsepower. The following year the “Bar & Shield” logo was trademarked and used for the first time. The engine and logo are two of the most iconic things about H-D to this day. 

The founders of Harley-Davidson Motor Company had a passion for innovation and a drive to produce excellence. Their hard work paid off because by 1920 Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world!

Model Transformations

Harley-Davidson takes pride in its commitment to innovation and ingenuity. That passion is still evident today as they have engineered one of the most popular electric motorcycles, the Livewire. 

Many H-D models have gone through a process of metamorphosis over the years. Some models were completely canned, while others continued to receive improvements over time. Many of those upgrades and features were actually requested by the riding community. 

Harley-Davidson’s most successful models are those that have received major improvements with each year’s new release. Most of today’s fan favorites originate from the classic models of the mid to late 1900s. 

Continue reading below to see how your current faves have transformed over time!

The Model K and The Sportster 

The Model K was released in 1952 and was the first of the K Model series. This was the beginning of Harley’s first sportbike lineup. Unfortunately, the series had a rough start. 

The Model K did not have the power or speed that riders anticipated. Especially because during this time hot rodding (illegal street racing) was becoming increasingly popular. And, most of the sportier motorcycles used for racing were being imported from overseas competitors. 

The Model K had a maximum speed of 80 mph, whereas the Hydra-Glide, which was released just a year prior, had a maximum speed of 100 mph. The fact that the recently released touring model was faster than the new sportbike left fans scratching their heads. 

After many improvements in the lab and three models later, the Sportster was born. Previous models in the K series were described as incredibly uncomfortable, especially on long-distance rides. The new Sportster had a rubber-mounted engine which significantly reduced shakiness and unwanted vibrations. 

Today, the Sportster is one of the most popular H-D models. It’s known for its power and nimble handling. Due to its small frame, it has become especially popular amongst beginners and riders who are small in stature. 

The Wide Glide and The Softail 

In 1980, Harley-Davidson released the FXWG Wide Glide. Like most models in the FX series, it was a great success. However, these hardtails lacked the suspension to provide a comfortable long-distance ride.

In the early 1980s, a mechanical engineer by the name of Bill Davis was working on a design for hidden rear shock absorbers on a large framed motorcycle with a V-twin engine. Harley-Davidson bought Davis’ design in 1982 and asked him to help them perfect it. 

The very first Softail was the FXST, and it was released in 1984. This model was a major hit. It had the look of a classic hardtail but was way more comfortable to ride. 

The Harley-Davidson team had designed the Softail with a triangular, pivoting swing arm in the rear hidden underneath the seat. A swingarm holds the rear axle in place and pivots to allow the suspension to absorb bumps in the road. This Softail also had twin shock absorbers which kept the motorcycle stable by maintaining its contact with the ground.

Today, the Softail is still a fan favorite. Its comfortability makes it the perfect choice for riders who enjoy cruising in the city or through the countryside. 

The FL and The Electra Glide 

The first FL model debuted in 1941. This model series was the first to have the 74-cubic inch Big Twin engine. 

The motorcycle community had been requesting bikes with more power. The result was the addition of the FL series. This lineup featured motorcycles with more horsepower and torque. The larger, more powerful engine made FL motorcycles larger and ideal for long-distance travel. 

Previously, during the bicycle craze of the late 1800s, many Americans formed bicycle touring groups. The downside was that many of the roads were not smooth and paved as they are today. 

By the mid-1900s, using automobiles, such as motorcycles and cars, was no longer a luxury. It was the norm. According to the History Channel, car companies, tire manufacturers, gas station owners and suburban developers tried to convince the U.S. government that, although expensive, roads were a “public concern.” 

And, their efforts were effective because the government agreed to spend taxpayer money on improving and building roads. The added infrastructure was definitely the start of the motorcycle touring culture and lifestyle. 

One of the most popular H-D models created during this time was the FLH Electra Glide. The Electra Glide made its debut in 1965. It featured swing arm suspension, telescopic front forks and an electric starter. 

The legacy and love of the Electra Glide continue today as it is one of the top choices for riders everywhere who love to travel and explore new places. 

In Conclusion 

Harley-Davidson has a rich history that has created a culture of its own. Riders all over the globe identify with the company’s sentiment for a rebel heart and a free mind. 

Harley-Davidson isn’t just a brand — it’s a lifestyle. Many riders show their commitment, love and dedication for the lifestyle by wearing H-D gear, flaunting bumper stickers and even tattooing the logo on their body. 

When most think about the history and legacy of Harley-Davidson Motor Company, they think of the American dream. What crosses your mind when you think of H-D? Let us know in the comments below! 

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