The Story of Harley Davidson

Midas Swellendam - Motorcycles

The Harley Davidson story began back in the early 1900’s, in a small shed in the town of Milwaukee. 

William S. Harley, Arthur Davidson and Walter Davidson worked together, drawing up plans for a small engine designed to fit on a regular bike frame, building and finishing the first “motor-bicycle” model in 1903.

While the first test model was mostly successful, the “motor-bicycle was unable to adequately climb hills without the rider providing pedalling assistance.

Harley History

But Harley and the Davidson brothers did not give up. They immediately began working on a new and improved machine. They created a bigger engine and loop-frame design. 

After completing the prototype in 1904, they entered the bike into a local motorcycle race at the State Fair Park, where it took fourth place.

With a successful prototype, bare Harley-Davidson engines were listed in the January 1905 Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal, and four months later the motorcycles were in production.

By 1906, Harley and the Davidson brothers moved into their first factory, which was located at the current site of Harley-Davidson headquarters. 

They produced 50 motorcycles during their first year in the factory – ten times more than the year before. In 1907 they produced 150 motorcycles and began selling them to police departments.

In World War 1 Harley-Davidson produced over 20,000 motorcycles for the US military and is one of only two American motorcycle companies to survive the Great Depression.

Now let’s take a trip through history and explore the Harley Davidson Milestones.

Harley-Davidson Motorcycle History

Harley-Davidson, Inc. is the parent company of Harley-Davidson Motor Company, Buell Motorcycle Company and Harley-Davidson Financial Services. Harley-Davidson Motor Company produces heavyweight motorcycles and offers a complete line of motorcycle parts, accessories, apparel, and general merchandise. Buell Motorcycle Company produces a line of sport motorcycles.

1870: Birth of William A. Davidson, Milwaukee, WI.

1876: Birth of Walter Davidson, Milwaukee, WI.

1880: Birth of William S. Harley, Milwaukee, WI. As he was born just after Christmas, his parents gave him the middle name “Sylvester.”

1881: Birth of Arthur Davidson, Milwaukee, WI.

1901: William S. Harley, aged 21, completes a blueprint for an engine designed to fit into a bicycle.

1903: Harley and Arthur Davidson build the first production Harley-Davidson in 1903. It features a 3-1/8-inch bore and a 3-1/2-inch stroke yielding 7.07 cubic inches (116cc). They make a more powerful motor with the assistance of Ole Evinrude – better known as the inventor of the outboard motor. It is designed for use on the wooden velodromes where popular bicycle races are held.

Harley and Davidson work in a 10 x 15-foot shed on Chestnut Street (later renamed Juneau Avenue) which is still the address of Harley-Davidson’s head office.

1904: The first Harley-Davidson dealer, C.H. Lang of Chicago, opens for business.

1906: A new 28 by 80-foot factory is built on Chestnut Street. The company has grown to have six employees. It produces its first catalogue and coins the nickname “Silent Gray Fellows.” 

It’s a reference to the fact that the bikes were painted dove grey, and that they were quietly reliable. (Evidently, the company’s founders were unaware that loud pipes save lives.)

1907: William A. Davidson joins the firm. Harley-Davidson Motor Company is incorporated, with stock shared by the Harley and the three Davidson brothers.

1908: Walter Davidson scores a perfect 1,000 points at the 7th Annual Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability Contest. Three days after the contest, Walter sets the FAM economy record at 188.234 miles per gallon.

Perhaps impressed with that reliability, Detroit becomes the first city to buy a H-D motorcycle for police use.

1909: “The Motor Company” makes its first V-Twin. It has a displacement of 49.5 cubic inches and produces seven horsepower.

1910: The ‘Bar & Shield’ logo is used for the first time in 1910 and was trademarked one year later.

1911: The ‘F-head’ single-cylinder engine is introduced and will remain in use until 1929. (This is not a reference to “Hey, f-head!” it’s a reference to the shape of the valve ports.) It is an inlet-over-exhaust design, with an overhead intake valve (in the head like a modern motor) but a “side” exhaust valve which is in the cylinder.

1912: Harley-Davidson begins exporting motorcycles to Japan. Construction begins on a six-storey headquarters. The Parts and Accessories Dept. is formed. The company has more than 200 dealers across America.

1913: The Racing Department is formed, under the control of Bill Harley.

1914: Sidecars are made available. Some models are briefly available with a two-speed transmission in the rear hub. Also, belts go out of fashion – for the moment. 

Harley-Davidson is one of the last motorcycle manufacturers to switch from leather drive belts to chains. The leather belts slipped, stretched and rotted, so chains are a big improvement.

1915: H-D motorcycles become available with three-speed sliding-gear transmissions with final and primary drive on the same side.

1916: The Enthusiast magazine is published for the first time.

1917: About a third of the company’s production is purchased by the Army. To train Army mechanics, the company starts the Quartermasters School. After the war, it will be retained as the Service School, providing factory-trained mechanics for dealers.

1918: Almost half of all H-D motorcycles produced are sold for use by the U.S. military in World War I. After Armistice is signed, Corporal Roy Holtz becomes the first American soldier to enter Germany. He does so on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

1919: The 37-cubic-inch Sport model is introduced. It’s a horizontally opposed, fore-and-aft V-Twin.

1920: Now the largest motorcycle manufacturer, H-D boasts over 2,000 dealers in 67 countries.
The factory racing team, already known as “The Wrecking Crew” because it’s become so dominant in American racing, has a small pig as a mascot. The bikes are nicknamed “hogs” as a result.

1925: The company adopts teardrop-shaped gas tanks (previously they were flat-topped) that give its machines a very distinct look. Joe Petrali becomes one of the first salaried “factory racers.”

1926: Single-cylinder motorcycles are sold first time since 1918. Models A, AA, B and BA are available in side-valve and overhead-valve engine configurations.

1928: The first two-cam engine is made available on the JD series motorcycles. The bike can reach a top speed between 85 and 100 mph. Luckily, this year all H-D models are also available with a brake on the front wheel. Surprisingly few Harley-Davidson riders use them, even to this day.

1929: The D model is introduced with a rugged, 45-cubic-inch flathead V-Twin engine. The “Flathead” motor will be sold in various guises for over 40 years.

The stock-market crash heralds the Great Depression. In 1929, the company sells 21,000 motorcycles. It’s the strongest of the dozens – if not hundreds – of motorcycle brands that were launched in the first three decades of the century; only a handful will survive into the fourth.

1932: The three-wheeled Servi-car begins its 41-year run. (Sure, they were used to deliver great corned-beef sandwiches, but they were also used by the guys who wrote 410,000,000 parking tickets, too.)

In racing, Joe Petrali begins a string of five consecutive national championships in dirt track, as well as four consecutive hill-climb titles. (In those years, the championship was decided in a single race.)

1933: The company sells only 4,000 motorcycles this year. To reduce costs for competitors, the AMA creates a new racing class, Class C, based on production equipment and allowing for limited modifications. Although the original, prototype-based Class A persists, the AMA emphasizes the new class. Purists resent the change.

1935: Alfred Child, the company’s agent in Asia, realizes that currency exchange rates are killing sales in Japan. He convinces the company to license production of its motorcycles in Japan. The Sankyo Seiyakyo Corporation purchases tooling and begins producing Harley “clones”. They are sold under the name Rikuo, which means “King of the Road.”

1936: Introduction of the EL, an overhead valve, 61-cubic-inch-powered bike, which earns the nickname of ‘Knucklehead’ because of the shape of its rocker-boxes. The company also introduces an 80-cubic-inch side-valve engine.

1937: Petrali sets a land-speed record of over 136 mph with a streamlined Knucklehead. The first WL models are produced.

William A. Davidson dies, two days after signing an agreement that makes the company a union shop.

1938: Ben Campanale wins the Daytona 200 on a 45 cubic-inch WLDR. The race was run on the 3.2-mile beach course.

The Jackpine Gypsies hold the first Black Hills rally in Sturgis.

1941: United States enters World War II. The production of civilian motorcycles is almost entirely stopped.

Harley History

1942: When U.S. soldiers capture their first “Wehrmacht”-issue motorcycles in North Africa, they find that the BMWs and Zundapps are better suited to tough military duty. Harley-Davidson and Indian each develop about 1,000 machines for evaluation, with shaft drives and Flat-Twin motors copied from the Germans. They are never widely issued, though the machines cost Uncle Sam a whopping $35,000 each.

Walter Davidson dies.

1943: William S. Harley dies.

1945: The war finally ends. Between 1941-45 the company produced almost 90,000 WLA models for military use.

1946: The 45 cubic-inch, flathead, WR production racer is made. It conforms to stricter Class C AMA rules, which are intended to reduce costs for competitors. It’s a flathead, because in Class C, flatheads are allowed to displace 750cc, while OHV motors are limited to 500cc.

1948: The company’s 61 and 74 c.i. OHV engines are updated with aluminium heads and hydraulic valve lifters. Also new are the one-piece rocker covers, which resemble cake pans, earning the motor the nickname ‘Panhead.’

As part of Germany’s war reparations, the Allies loot German patents. The fine, small two-stroke motors built by DKW (seen in that
company’s popular RT125) are copied by BSA (the Bantam) and Harley-Davidson, which produces the model S that will come to be known as the Hummer.

1949: Hydraulic front forks make their first appearance on the new Hydra-Glide models.

1950: Arthur Davidson dies.

1952: Returning servicemen seem to favour the lighter British Twins they saw “over there.” In response, Harley-Davidson creates the 45 c.i. side-valve K model. It’s a unit-construction motor – the crankcases and gearbox are one set of castings.

1953: Indian goes into its long, painful death throes. H-D, which celebrates its 50th anniversary this year will be only real motorcycle manufacturer in the U.S. for the rest of the century.

The aging WR and WRTT production racers are no match for the British 500s now invading the dirt tracks (and few road courses) of America. The H-D racing department counters with a new racer, the KR. Like the WR, it is a 750cc flat-head.

1955: The new KR begins a run of seven consecutive Daytona 200 victories, which will include the last race run on the old beach course and first one run at the new Daytona International Speedway.

1957: The Sportster is introduced. It is basically a larger-displacement version of the K motor, fitted with an OHV head. At 55 c.i., it offers performance to rival anything coming out of England (at least, anything coming out of England without a “Vincent” tank badge.) has a 55 cubic-inch overhead-valve engine.1958Hydraulic rear suspensions appear on the Duo-Glide.

1960: Harley-Davidson acknowledges the market potential of smaller machines. The company makes its first and only scooter, the Topper. It also purchases a half-interest in the Italian company Aermacchi, which produces fast and stylish single-cylinder machines of up to 350cc.

Brad Andres wins the last Daytona 200 run on the sand. 2nd through 13th (no, not 3rd, 13th) places all go to riders on KRs.

1961: The first Aermacchi design to reach America is the Harley-Davidson Sprint. Short-track racers are quick to realize that its good power and low center of gravity make it a winner.

1962: Harley-Davidson acquires the Tomahawk boat company and starts to learn about the uses of fiberglass.

1964: The humble Servi-Car is the first of the company’s machines to be fitted with an electric starter.

1965: The Duo-Glide and is fitted with an electric starter, and thus becomes the Electra-Glide.

1966: Riders clamouring for more power cause the company to update the old Panhead motor. The new engine has rocker boxes that resemble coal shovels. Hence, the new mill gets the nickname “Shovelhead.” This basic motor will remain in production for 20 years.

1968: After years of increasingly vociferous lobbying, the import manufacturers convince the AMA rules committee that the 250cc displacement advantage given to flathead motors is unfair. The AMA declares that, in the future, bikes with overhead valves (all the British and Japanese models) can also displace up to 750cc. Harley-Davidson lobbies to delay the implementation of the new rule for one more season.

1969: Although Harley-Davidson stock is publicly traded, it is still a relatively closely held corporation. The shareholders – perhaps sensing that the “Japanese invasion” is about to open a new front in the heavyweight category, with the Honda CB750 Four – sell the company to the American Machine and Foundry Company. AMF has hitherto been known to the American consumer as a maker of bowling balls, but it is in fact a large, diversified manufacturer.

AMF could have risen to the challenge presented by the sophisticated and comparatively affordable Honda. Instead, AMF’s managers roll a real gutter-ball. Harley-Davidson quality plummets. Before long, dealers are forced to rebuild motors under warranty and magazines are brutally critical of test bikes. Used Harleys are described as “pre-AMF” in classified ads.

1970: The racing department creates a new production racer, the XR-750. The motor is basically a destroked Sportster unit. It gets off to an inauspicious start; none of the factory entries reach the finish in the Daytona 200. The first Harley across the line is an ancient KRTT, ridden by Walt Fulton III.

1971: By mating the spare front end of the XL series with the frame and motor of the FL series, the company creates the first cruiser – the FX 1200 Super Glide.

1973: A new assembly plant is opened in York, PA.

1977: Although most Harley fans would rather forget the years in which the company was owned by AMF, there is one AMF-era bike that’s highly sought-after by collectors: the 1977 XLCR. That “CR” stands for Café Racer and the bike was only the second major project for Willie G. Davidson (the grandson of one of the founders.) While the model is prized now, it was rejected by Harley customers in 1977. Only 3,100 were sold and the model was dropped a year later – although dealers still had unsold XLCRs cluttering their showroom floors well into the ’80s.

The FXS Low Rider is also introduced this year.

1979: The FXEF “Fat Bob” is introduced. It’s called fat because of its dual gas tanks, and bob on account of its bobbed fenders.

1980: The FLT is introduced. It has rubber-isolated drivetrain and an engine and five-speed transmission which are hard bolted together.

Belts come back into fashion: a Kevlar belt replaces the chain as the final drive on some models.

The FXB Sturgis, featuring an 80 cubic-inch engine, and FXWB Wide Glide are introduced.

1981: After years of AMF mismanagement, Harley-Davidson has lost almost all customer loyalty and profits are in freefall. When a group of company executives led by Vaughn Beals offers to buy the division for $75 million, AMF quickly agrees.

Beals leads an amazing corporate turnaround. He funds new product development and implements world-class quality control. It’s impossible to know what would have happened to the H-D brand if Beals had not risen up to save it, but it’s certain that no one else could have done a better job at rehabilitating it.

1982: The FXR/FXRS Super Glide II are introduced, featuring a rubber-isolated, five-speed powertrain.

The company adopts a just-in-time inventory system on the manufacturing side, which helps to lower cost and improve quality.

1983: The Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) is formed.

The company petitions the International Trade Commission (a branch of the U.S. federal government) to impose a tariff on Japanese motorcycles of over 700cc. As a result, many Japanese motorcycles that are sold as 750cc models in the rest of the world are sleeved down to 700cc for the U.S. market.

1984: The 1340cc V2 Evolution engine appears on five models. Although it’s been in development since the AMF era, the motor proves the newly independent company has turned the corner in terms of build quality. It is far more reliable and oil tight.

The Softail, which features concealed rear suspension and evokes the rigid-framed hogs of 30 or 40 years ago, meets with commercial success.

1986: Harley-Davidson diversifies with the acquisition of the Holiday Rambler motorhome company.

1987: The company makes its Initial Public Offering. Stock is traded on the NYSE, with the ticker symbol of HOG. The company petitions the ITC to relax the tariff on imported motorcycles, a year before it was scheduled to lapse. The move serves notice that Harley-Davidson is capable of competing on a level playing field, despite the fact that the Japanese companies now all make V-Twin cruisers that compete directly with the American offerings. 

1988: Exploiting customers’ love of traditional styling, the Springer front end returns on the FXSTS Springer Softail.

1990: Introduction of the FLSTF Fat Boy. 

1991: Introduction of the first motorcycle in the Dyna line, the FXDB Dyna Glide Sturgis.

1992: Harley-Davidson is the first company to equip all its models (except for a handful of racing motorcycles) with drive belts. Modern drive belts provide a smoother ride than chains, last longer, and free riders from the drudgery of chain lubrication and adjustment. 

1993: H-D buys a minority interest in the Buell Motorcycle Company.

1994: The company enters the AMA Superbike Championship, fielding the water-cooled, DOHC VR1000. AMA rules specified that the company had to also build and sell 2,000 machines for road use, a process is called “homologation.” So, you may wonder, why have you never seen a road going VR1000 if 2000 were sold? Because the model was homologated in Poland. By selling it there, Harley avoided U.S. liability and Poland’s lax laws allowed the barely modified race bike to be legally licensed.

Despite being ably ridden by Miguel Duhamel, Pascal Picotte, Chris Carr and Scott Russell, the VR1000 will never win an AMA race.

1995: Harley-Davidsons are equipped with fuel injection for the first time. 

1996: Sales of parts and accessories are an increasingly important part of the business – a fact reflected in the new, 250,000 sq. ft. facility the company opens in Franklin, WI. 

1997: A new 217,000 sq.-ft. design center opens in Milwaukee. FL engine production moves to a newly purchased plant in Menomonee Falls. A new 330,000 sq. ft. plant in Kansas City takes over the production of Sportsters. 

1998: The company opens its first foreign factory in Manaus, Brazil.

The remaining shares of Buell are also acquired.

1999: The Touring and Dyna lines receive the new Twin Cam 88.

2000: Despite spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees in the mid-’90s – and having initial success in its efforts to trademark the “potato-potato” sound of Harley motors – the company drops its U.S. Patent Office application. Harley-Davidson’s vice president of marketing, Joanne Bischmann, tells reporters, “I’ve personally spoken with Harley-Davidson owners from around the world and they’ve told me repeatedly that there is nothing like the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. If our customers know the sound cannot be imitated, that’s good enough for me and for Harley-Davidson.”

2001: The VRSCA V-Rod is introduced. The motor – which was designed with input from Porsche – is fuel injected, has overhead cams, and liquid cooling.

2003: It is estimated that 250,000 people come to Milwaukee to celebrate The Motor Company’s 100th anniversary.

2006: Fittingly, the ’06 model-year Dyna motorcycles come with six-speed transmissions.

The company announces a major new museum, scheduled to open in Milwaukee in 2008.

2007: Harley upgrades its Big Twin motor, stroking it out to 96 cubic inches and earning the moniker “Twin Cam 96.” The six-speed transmission from the Dyna line is added across the board. 

2008: The Motor Company opens its impressive new museum in time for Harley’s 105th anniversary.

Purchases MV Agusta for $109 million in an attempt to take advantage of MV’s European distribution channels.

Introduces the XR1200, inspired by the XR750 flat track machine used to win countless championships. The XR1200 represents the first time H-D designed and marketed a motorcycle exclusively for the European market. Later, after demand from this side of the pond, the XR1200 is then sold worldwide. 

2009: Keith Wandell becomes the first person since 1981 to become CEO of Harley-Davidson who hadn’t had any previous connections to The Motor Company.

Due to the economic recession, Harley-Davidson discontinues the Buell line and puts up MV Agusta for sale to focus on core business. This after The Motor Company declared profits dropped 84-percent since the previous year.

Announces plan to enter the rapidly expanding Indian market.

2010: In a throwback to the 883 series, AMA Pro Racing, along with title sponsor Vance & Hines, debuts the inaugural XR1200 series. Modifications are limited and place emphasis on rider talent. Danny Eslick wins the championship in its first year.

(Harley Davidson Milestones prepared with historical input by various sources.)

Over 120 years, Harley-Davidson has grown from its humble beginnings to being a worldwide icon, committed to producing high quality and innovative bikes.

At Midas Swellendam we not only pride ourselves on our quality products at the right price, but we also find and source parts and products not on our shelves, for our customers.

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(There are currently there are over 300 franchised outlets across Southern Africa, including Botswana, Lesotho, Mozambique, Namibia, Swaziland, and Zimbabwe.)

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