The History of the Harley-Davidson

Great things come from humble beginnings. Nothing embodies this truth more than Harley-Davidson. The brand began as an experiment between four friends in a guy’s garage and went on to become the premier manufacturer of motorcycles the world over.

Motorcycle production was already firmly established throughout Europe in the early 1900s. At that time, though, it was still in its infancy here in the US when William Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson assembled their first motorcycle in 1903. Harley and the Davidson brothers were competing against a number of other domestic manufacturers (almost 300 of them at one point), but most were only backyard operations and would eventually shut down. Fifty years later, Harley-Davidson would be the only one left standing.

Similar to other bikes on the market at the time, that first Harley-Davidson was little more than a bicycle driven by a single-cylinder motor that powered the rear wheel through a leather belt. They retained the pedals and chain so the rider could start the motor and kick in a little extra leg power to climb a steep hill-quite a difference from the powerhouse it would become, yet still treasured and tucked away under motorbike covers by hardcore enthusiasts everywhere.

The quest for speed and power led to rapid advancements in technology with developments that included the introduction of the famous V-twin motor in 1907, one of the industry’s first clutches in 1912, and a chain drive in 1913.

The next big leap forward came with the introduction of Harley-Davidson’s first flathead V-twin in 1931. One of the most successful models ever manufactured, it remained in production until 1973 and was used in a wide variety of applications, including military, racing and, of course, on the street.

Over the three decades that followed, Harley-Davidson experimented with and developed improvements that included overhead-valve mechanisms, a recirculating oil system, the incorporation of hydraulic lifters in the valve train, and the introduction of a hand-clutch/foot-shift. Competing with foreign imports and the domestic manufacturer, Indian Motorcycle (which closed its doors in 1953), Harley-Davidson released a number of smaller bikes throughout this time period with Italian partner Aermacchi. Unfortunately, for a brand intent on producing distinctly American motorcycles, these pared-down offerings were Harley-Davidsons in name only and probably hurt the company’s image without contributing significantly to the bottom line, especially at a time when all of its competitors had folded due to a non-existent market.

But, it was then that the tide turned…permanently. The mid-80s saw more advancements in engineering, including the addition of a belt-drive, isolated engine mounts and five-speed transmissions. With this success, a wide range of supporting products for the Harley enthusiast surfaced, like official motorcycle covers, motorcycle ramps and even a motorcycle license plate frame. Harley-Davidson’s place in American history was secure.

In business for nearly a century, Harley-Davidson has seen its share of ups and downs and has evolved, adapted and thrived, as pioneers often do. Demand for their bikes far outweighs supply with record-setting profits and stock prices to match. Due in large part to the quality of its products, Harley-Davidson has inspired a fan base dedicated to the preservation and promotion of all things Harley, often protecting their American legends with a motorcycle cover, and showcasing older models at events all over the country, safely transferring them to and from with a motorcycle loading ramp.

Not bad for something you used to have to pedal up a steep hill!