When I say Harley Davidson, what do you think of? The best motorcycle wheels, the best motorcycle battery, the best motorcycle travel kit? No, what comes to mind is motorcycles, period! Harley Davidson has become the most well-known motorcycle brand in the world. Ask anyone to tell you about what comes to their mind when you say ‘motorcycle’ and, guess what? The answer will be Harley Davidson.
Even though Harley Davidson is a century-old brand, most of us never took the time to find out about its history and, let me tell you, it’s not a boring one. We hear stories about successful brands and successful people on TV and all over the internet, but we never take the time to know their stories.
From 1903 and until now, Harley Davidson has never failed to amaze us with its power to keep on track with the market needs and with fulfilling its customers’ most hidden wishes. This is a story about how they did it.
The Four Men Who Started Everything
You might think that the name ‘Harley Davidson’ comes from two guys who got together and decided to start building motorcycles, one named Harley and the other named Davidson. Pretty much so, except for the fact that they were four: William Harley and Arthur Davidson, William Davidson, and Walter Davidson. The three Davidsons were brothers.
In the late 1800s, William Harley and Arthur Davidson became friends and were both interested in bicycles, the most common form of transportation in those days. They were neighbors on Ninth Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. William Harley was so fond of bicycles that he started working at a local bicycle factory even if he was only 15 years old.
Just as all famous brand founders through time, he couldn’t even imagine that he will become the founder of the most well-known motor company in the whole world.
The years passed and William became a draftsman for the Barth Manufacturing Company. Here he started to sketch an internal combustion engine, his first one, inspired by a widely used one, the French de Dion-Bouton, an engine that inspired many motorcycle manufacturers. It is so that he started to envision and design his first prototype machine, spending his spare time working on it.
Even though this first prototype never made it as an actual machine, William Harley didn’t give up and, together with his friend Arthur Davidson, who was a draftsman at Barth as well, started working on a new prototype in 1903, with the help of Arthur’s brother, Walter, who was a machinist who had worked at the Railroad Company.
Eventually, William started studying engineering and William Davidson, Arthur’s older brother, a mechanic also working in Milwaukee, became interested in the idea and joined them in a journey that, little did they know, was going to change the way the world thinks about two-wheel transportation.
The Years That Made a Difference in Harley Davidson History
In 1904, in Chicago, the birth of the first Harley Davidson dealership took place. From then on, everything started to grow very fast. They built an 80-foot factory and they started having more employees. They introduced the nickname ‘Silent Grey Fellows’, referring to the bikes’ color – they were painted dove gray.
Due to their reliability, in 1907, a thing that made the Harley-Davidson an icon in the United States happened: the Detroit police department was the first one that bought their motorcycles for police use. From then on, it started having hundreds of dealers all across North America and exporting products to Japan.
As a marketing strategy at that time, the motor company started a line of bicycles that were meant to influence children and adults to be interested in two-wheel transportation and later to purchase a motorcycle, but the sales weren’t what they expected so, in 1923, gave up the idea and ended production.
World War I
1917 became a very important year in the history of the United States, and also for the Harley Davidson company: the US entered World War I. After being used by the Detroit Police as police vehicles, Harley Davidson motorcycles began being used as military gear as well.
Over 20,000 motorcycles were sold to the US military during World War I and in 1918, the first American soldier to enter Germany, Corporal Roy Holtz, did it on a Harley-Davidson.
The Great Depression
By 1920 the company had over 2000 dealers in 63 countries, and at its peak when it comes to popularity and sales. It was a very prosperous brand, but in 1930 when the Great Depression started, the company began to be affected by it, as well as every other company in the United States.
The Great Depression was a period of severe economic depression and was the longest and hardest depression that humanity has had to face. Personal income dropped at a rapid pace, and so did the prices and profits. People were hardly paying for their food, so personal transportation vehicles became a luxury.
Harley Davidson sales dropped from 21,000 to 3,703 by 1934. The company was declining, but, despite the hard times, it managed not to hit rock bottom by manufacturing industrial power plant parts that were inspired by the engines of the motorcycles it was making. The designers also sketched three-wheeled vehicles made for delivery which were produced until 1973. They were called Servi-Cars.
It was a difficult period for people in the United States, but Harley Davidson was able to keep its incomes and overcome The Great Depression, as very few other companies did.
World War II
If you thought The Great Depression was a rough time for the company, World War II came and so did the ceasing of civilian motorcycle production. In 1942 Walter Davidson died and in 1943 William Harley died too. But by 1945, when WW2 ended, the company had sold over 90,000 WLA models to the United States military.
The Years After the Most Important Events in World History
During WW2, Harley-Davidson started manufacturing various small models, including the Hummer. After Arthur Davidson’s death in 1950, in 1953 the company celebrated the 50th anniversary. Indian, its competitor, ended its activity and Harley-Davidson would remain the only US motorcycle company for at least another 5 decades.
In 1960 it started producing its first scooter, called the Topper and in 1962 started to understand the power of fiberglass. Over the next years, it employed the electric starter on its designs. In 1974 it gained full control of the production of the Italian Aermacchi motorcycle and, for years, continued to produce two-stroke motorcycles.
In 1981, Harley Davidson entered a customer crisis losing loyalty, losing profits and everything seemed to be falling apart. The company was sold to a 13-investor group for 80 million dollars.
In 1987 it began a partnership with Buell Motorcycle Company, a sport-bike company, selling them many XR1000 engines. Harley Davidson gained complete ownership of Buell in 2003. To raise sales, it designed a low-cost motorcycle that became very popular over time.
In 2003 Harley-Davidson had become so popular worldwide, that over 250,000 people attended the 100th Harley-Davidson anniversary in Milwaukee. In 2008, the Harley-Davidson Museum was opened to the public. Today it is an impressive museum that gathers more than 450 motorcycle models spread among 12,000 square meters and has more than 300,000 visitors a year.
Over time, Harley-Davidson produced a lot of engine models, and now we can gather them in 6 main families: Softail, Dyna, Sportster, VRSC, Street, and Touring. Every family has special characteristics like the type of frame and engine. Even though the company entered the sports motorcycle area, people almost always think of choppers when they say Harley-Davidson.
Even if you are a motorcycle rider or just a motorcycle enthusiast, you have a lot in common with the four founders of this brand: you all love motorcycles. Maybe the most important factor that led them to their success was their passion for motorcycles and the power to envision better products and better use for their products over time.
The four brothers never gave up on their dream and never left the Harley-Davidson Motor company. They all died while they were still working there and they never gave up on their dream, to build the best motorcycle that ever existed. There is no doubt that they created history and their legacy will continue to live among us for several decades from now on.