Hand color tinted photo of the original Harley Davidson Factory in 1903
Harley-Davidson Inc (NYSE: HOG, formerly HDI), often abbreviated H-D or Harley, is an American motorcycle manufacturer. Founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, during the first decade of the 20th century, it was one of two major American motorcycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression. Harley-Davidson also survived a period of poor quality control and competition from Japanese manufacturers.
Since 1977, the only motorcycles sold to the public under the Harley-Davidson brand have been heavyweight motorcycles, with engine displacements greater than 700 cc, designed for cruising on highways. Harley-Davidson motorcycles, or “Harleys”, are noted for the tradition of heavy customization that gave rise to the chopper style of motorcycle. Except for the modern VRSC model family, current Harley-Davidson motorcycles reflect the styles of classic Harley designs. Harley-Davidson’s attempts to establish itself in the light motorcycle market have met little success and have largely been abandoned since the 1978 sale of its Italian Aermacchi subsidiary.
Harley-Davidson sustains a large brand community which keeps active through clubs, events, and a museum. Licensing of the Harley-Davidson brand and logo accounted for $40 million (0.8%) of the company’s net revenue in 2010.
In 1901, William S. Harley, age 20, drew up plans for a small engine with a displacement of 7.07 cubic inches (116 cc) and four-inch (102 mm) flywheels. The engine was designed for use in a regular pedal-bicycle frame. Over the next two years, Harley and his childhood friend Arthur Davidson worked on their motor-bicycle using the northside Milwaukee machine shop at the home of their friend, Henry Melk. It was finished in 1903 with the help of Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson. Upon testing their power-cycle, Harley and the Davidson brothers found it unable to climb the hills around Milwaukee without pedal assistance. They quickly wrote off their first motor-bicycle as a valuable learning experiment.
Work immediately began on a new and improved second-generation machine. This first “real” Harley-Davidson motorcycle had a bigger engine of 24.74 cubic inches (405 cc) with 9.75 inches (25 cm) flywheels weighing 28 lb (13 kg). The machine’s advanced loop-frame pattern was similar to the 1903 Milwaukee Merkel motorcycle (designed by Joseph Merkel, later of Flying Merkel fame). The bigger engine and loop-frame design took it out of the motorized bicycle category and marked the path to future motorcycle designs. The boys also received help with their bigger engine from outboard motor pioneer Ole Evinrude, who was then building gas engines of his own design for automotive use on Milwaukee’s Lake Street.
The prototype of the new loop-frame Harley-Davidson was assembled in a 10 ft × 15 ft (3.0 m × 4.6 m) shed in the Davidson family backyard. Most of the major parts, however, were made elsewhere, including some probably fabricated at the West Milwaukee railshops where oldest brother William A. Davidson was then toolroom foreman. This prototype machine was functional by September 8, 1904, when it competed in a Milwaukee motorcycle race held at State Fair Park. It was ridden by Edward Hildebrand and placed fourth. This is the first documented appearance of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the historical record.
In January 1905, small advertisements were placed in the Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal that offered bare Harley-Davidson engines to the do-it-yourself trade. By April, complete motorcycles were in production on a very limited basis. That year, the first Harley-Davidson dealer, Carl H. Lang of Chicago, sold three bikes from the dozen or so built in the Davidson backyard shed. (Some years later the original shed was taken to the Juneau Avenue factory where it would stand for many decades as a tribute to the Motor Company’s humble origins. Unfortunately, the first shed was accidentally destroyed by contractors in the early 1970s during a clean-up of the factory yard.)
In 1906, Harley and the Davidson brothers built their first factory on Chestnut Street (later Juneau Avenue). This location remains Harley-Davidson’s corporate headquarters today. The first Juneau Avenue plant was a 40 ft × 60 ft (12 m × 18 m) single-story wooden structure. The company produced about 50 motorcycles that year.
In 1907, William S. Harley graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a degree in mechanical engineering. That year additional factory expansion came with a second floor and later with facings and additions of Milwaukee pale yellow (“cream”) brick. With the new facilities production increased to 150 motorcycles in 1907. The company was officially incorporated that September. They also began selling their motorcycles to police departments around this time, a market that has been important to them ever since.
Production in 1905 and 1906 were all single-cylinder models with 26.84 cubic inches (440 cc) engines. In February 1907 a prototype model with a 45-degree V-Twin engine was displayed at the Chicago Automobile Show. Although shown and advertised, very few V-Twin models were built between 1907 and 1910. These first V-Twins displaced 53.68 cubic inches (880 cc) and produced about 7 horsepower (5.2 kW). This gave about double the power of the first singles. Top speed was about 60 mph (100 km/h). Production jumped from 450 motorcycles in 1908 to 1,149 machines in 1909.
By 1911, some 150 makes of motorcycles had already been built in the United States – although just a handful would survive the 1910s.
In 1911, an improved V-Twin model was introduced. The new engine had mechanically operated intake valves, as opposed to the “automatic” intake valves used on earlier V-Twins that opened by engine vacuum. With a displacement of 49.48 cubic inches (811 cc), the 1911 V-Twin was smaller than earlier twins, but gave better performance. After 1913 the majority of bikes produced by Harley-Davidson would be V-Twin models.
By 1913, the yellow brick factory had been demolished and on the site a new 5-story structure had been built. Begun in 1910, the factory with its many additions would take up two blocks along Juneau Avenue and around the corner on 38th Street. Despite the competition, Harley-Davidson was already pulling ahead of Indian and would dominate motorcycle racing after 1914. Production that year swelled to 16,284 machines.
World War I
In 1917, the United States entered World War I and the military demanded motorcycles for the war effort. Harleys had already been used by the military in the Pancho Villa Expedition but World War I was the first time the motorcycle had been adopted for combat service. Harley-Davidson provided about 15,000 machines to the military forces during World War I.
By 1920, Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, with 28,189 machines produced, and dealers in 67 countries.
In 1921, a Harley-Davidson, ridden by Otto Walker, was the first motorcycle ever to win a race at an average speed greater than 100 mph (160 km/h).
During the 1920s, several improvements were put in place, such as a new 74 cubic inch (1,212.6 cc) V-Twin, introduced in 1922, and the “Teardrop” gas tank in 1925. A front brake was added in 1928 although notably only on the J/JD models.
In the late summer of 1929, Harley-Davidson introduced its 45 cubic inches (737 cc) flathead V-Twin to compete with the Indian 101 Scout and the Excelsior Super X. This was the “D” model, produced from 1929 to 1931. Riders of Indian motorcycles derisively referred to this model as the “three cylinder Harley” because the generator was upright and parallel to the front cylinder. The 2.745 in (69.7 mm) bore and 3.8125 in (96.8 mm) stroke would continue in most versions of the 750 engine; exceptions include the XA and the XR-750.
The Great Depression began a few months after the introduction of their 45 cubic inch model. Harley-Davidson’s sales fell from 21,000 in 1929 to 3,703 in 1933. Despite this, Harley-Davidson unveiled a new lineup for 1934, which included a Flathead with Art Deco styling.
In order to survive the remainder of the Depression, the company manufactured industrial powerplants based on their motorcycle engines. They also designed and built a three-wheeled delivery vehicle called the Servi-Car, which remained in production until 1973.
In the mid-1930s, Alfred Rich Child opened a production line in Japan with the 74 cubic inches (1,210 cc) VL. The Japanese license-holder, Sankyo Seiyako Corporation, severed its business relations with Harley-Davidson in 1936 and continued manufacturing the VL under the Rikuo name.
An 80 cubic inches (1,300 cc) flathead engine was added to the line in 1935, by which time the single-cylinder motorcycles had been discontinued.
In 1936, the 61E and 61EL models with the “Knucklehead” OHV engines was introduced. Valvetrain problems in early Knucklehead engines required a redesign halfway through its first year of production and retrofitting of the new valvetrain on earlier engines.
By 1937, all Harley-Davidson’s flathead engines were equipped with dry-sump oil recirculation systems similar to the one introduced in the “Knucklehead” OHV engine. The revised 74 cubic inches (1,210 cc) V and VL models were renamed U and UL, the 80 cubic inches (1,300 cc) VH and VLH to be renamed UH and ULH, and the 45 cubic inches (740 cc) R to be renamed W.
In 1941, the 74 cubic inches (1,210 cc) “Knucklehead” was introduced as the F and the FL. The 80 cubic inches (1,300 cc) flathead UH and ULH models were discontinued after 1941, while the 74″ U & UL flathead models were produced up to 1948.
World War II
One of only two American cycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson again produced large numbers of motorcycles for the US Army in World War II and resumed civilian production afterwards, producing a range of large V-twin motorcycles that were successful both on racetracks and for private buyers.
Harley-Davidson, on the eve of World War II, was already supplying the Army with a military-specific version of its 45 cubic inches (740 cc) WL line, called the WLA. The A in this case stood for “Army”. Upon the outbreak of war, the company, along with most other manufacturing enterprises, shifted to war work. More than 90,000 military motorcycles, mostly WLAs and WLCs (the Canadian version) were produced, many to be provided to allies. Harley-Davidson received two Army-Navy ‘E’ Awards, one in 1943 and the other in 1945, which were awarded for Excellence in Production.
Shipments to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program numbered at least 30,000. The WLAs produced during all four years of war production generally have 1942 serial numbers. Production of the WLA stopped at the end of World War II, but was resumed from 1950 to 1952 for use in the Korean War.
The U.S. Army also asked Harley-Davidson to produce a new motorcycle with many of the features of BMW’s side-valve and shaft-driven R71. Harley largely copied the BMW engine and drive train and produced the shaft-driven 750 cc 1942 Harley-Davidson XA. This shared no dimensions, no parts and no design concepts (except side valves) with any prior Harley-Davidson engine. Due to the superior cooling of the flat-twin engine with the cylinders across the frame, Harley’s XA cylinder heads ran 100 °F (56 °C) cooler than its V-twins. The XA never entered full production: the motorcycle by that time had been eclipsed by the Jeep as the Army’s general purpose vehicle, and the WLA—already in production—was sufficient for its limited police, escort, and courier roles. Only 1,000 were made and the XA never went into full production. It remains the only shaft-driven Harley-Davidson ever made.
Prior to WWII, Harley-Davidson’s were produced in Japan under license to the company Rikuo (Rikuo Internal Combustion Company) starting in 1929 under the name of Harley-Davidson and using the company’s tooling, and later under the name Rikuo. Production continued until 1958.
In 1952, following their application to the US Tariff Commission for a 40% tax on imported motorcycles, Harley-Davidson was charged with restrictive practices.
In 1969, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought the company, streamlined production, and slashed the workforce. This tactic resulted in a labor strike and a lower quality of bikes. The bikes were expensive and inferior in performance, handling, and quality to Japanese motorcycles. Sales and quality declined, and the company almost went bankrupt. The “Harley-Davidson” name was mocked as “Hardly Ableson”, “Hardly Driveable,” and “Hogly Ferguson”, and the nickname “Hog” became pejorative.
In 1977, following the successful manufacture of the Liberty Edition to commemorate America’s bicentennial in 1976, Harley-Davidson produced what has become one of its most controversial models, the Harley-Davidson Confederate Edition. The bike was essentially a stock Harley with Confederate-specific paint and details.
Restructuring and revival
In 1981, AMF sold the company to a group of thirteen investors led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson for $80 million. Inventory was strictly controlled using the just-in-time system.
In the early eighties, Harley-Davidson claimed that Japanese manufacturers were importing motorcycles into the US in such volume as to harm or threaten to harm domestic producers. After an investigation by the US International Trade Commission, President Reagan imposed in 1983 a 45% tariff on imported bikes with engine capacities greater than 700 cc. Harley-Davidson subsequently rejected offers of assistance from Japanese motorcycle makers. However, the company did offer to drop the request for the tariff in exchange for loan guarantees from the Japanese.
Rather than trying to match the Japanese, the new management deliberately exploited the “retro” appeal of the machines, building motorcycles that deliberately adopted the look and feel of their earlier machines and the subsequent customizations of owners of that era. Many components such as brakes, forks, shocks, carburetors, electrics and wheels were outsourced from foreign manufacturers and quality increased, technical improvements were made, and buyers slowly returned.
Harley-Davidson bought the “Sub Shock” canitlever-swingarm rear suspension design from Missouri engineer Bill Davis and developed it into its Softail series of motorcycles, introduced in 1984 with the FXST Softail.
In response to possible motorcycle market loss due to the aging of baby-boomers, Harley-Davidson bought luxury motorhome manufacturer Holiday Rambler in 1986. In 1996, the company sold Holiday Rambler to the Monaco Coach Corporation.
The “Sturgis” model, boasting a dual belt-drive, was introduced initially in 1980 and was made for three years. this bike was the brought back as a commemorative model in 1991. By 1990, with the introduction of the “Fat Boy”, Harley once again became the sales leader in the heavyweight (over 750 cc) market. At the time of the Fat Boy model introduction, a story rapidly spread its silver paint job and other features were inspired by the B-29; and Fat Boy was a combination of the names of the atomic bombs Fat Man and Little Boy. However, the Urban Legend Reference Pages lists this story as an urban legend.
1993 and 1994 saw the replacement of FXR models with the Dyna (FXD), which became the sole rubber mount FX Big Twin frame in 1995. The FXR was revived briefly from 1999 to 2000 for special limited editions (FXR2, FXR3 & FXR4).
In 2000, Ford Motor Company added a Harley-Davidson trim level to the F-150, which was produced until 2003. In 2004, Ford introduced a Harley-Davidson trim level to the Super Duty, which was produced until the trim was discontinued for the 2011 model year. Production of the F-150 Harley-Davidson resumed in 2006 and continued until 2012, when Ford discontinued the F-150 Harley-Davidson edition for the 2013 model year due to low sales, accounting for only 1-2% of the F-150’s total sales.
Construction started on the $75 million, 130,000 square-foot (12,000 m2) Harley-Davidson Museum in the Menomonee Valley on June 1, 2006. It opened in 2008 and houses the company’s vast collection of historic motorcycles and corporate archives, along with a restaurant, café and meeting space.