Conceiving the Motorcycle
Someone once said, “Each one of us in our life-time comes through a multi-billion idea, the only difference between rich and poor is their approach to the idea.” While some people allow that idea to propel them toward success, others throw their hands up at the seeming impossibility of it all.
Fortunately for every biker out there, a young man named William S. Harley took the first approach.
Harley came up with the idea to fit a 116cc engine onto a common bicycle frame, making an ultra-light racing bike. He shared his idea with a childhood friend, Arthur Davidson, who was equally excited at the prospect. By 1903, they’d created the first prototype.
They carried it outside, one of them jumped on, and away he went – until he tried to go up an incline. That’s when they discovered that the bike wouldn’t climb much of a hill without being pedaled. If it needed foot power, it wasn’t much better than a normal bike.
So, they considered it a learning experience and went back to the drawing board.
Birth of Harley Davidson
Their next project, finished in 1904, was a bike that featured a high-performance 405-cc engine and 24.8 cm flywheels. When it was finished, it weighed 13 kg. Its heavier engine moved it out of the motorized-bicycle category and into an entirely new category: the motorcycle. This time, when these young inventors took their bike on a test drive, it passed with flying colors.
Their experiment was a success.
It wasn’t long before they were mass producing the world’s first Harley-Davidson bikes ins Davidon’s backyard. Shortly after this, the bike was used in a race at State Fair Park where it won fourth place. Though that wasn’t particularly impressive, the crowds loved it anyway.
William Harley and Arthur Davidson had created a phenom.
In 1905, Harley-Davidson began offering their bikes for commercial sale. When the company placed an advertisement in the Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal, they received an overwhelming response. It was almost too much for the backyard operation to handle. They continued production from their home until the end of 1905. In 1906, Harley-Davidson built their first plant at the location of their current headquarters in downtown Milwaukee. It was only a single-story wooden building, but they produced over fifty motorbikes that year, only outsourcing the parts they had to.
Gaining Fame: Harley-Davidson
In 1907, Willian S. Harley expanded the factory, adding an extra floor and increasing production to 150 bikes per year. Then, later that year, they revealed their 45-degree V-Twin Engine Bike at the Chicago Motor show where it caught the attention of the press and public alike. This V-Twin Engine bike had a capacity of 880cc (twice as much as their original model) and 5.2 kw of power, giving it a maximum speed of 100 km/h. Their bike’s popularity was soaring. They produced 450 Harley Davidson models in 1908 and 1152 in 1909.
In 1911, the company introduced an improved V-Twin Engine bike that only had a capacity of 811cc but offered a better performing engine. By 1913, the majority of Harley-Davidson’s models were V-Twin Engine Bikes. In 1913 the old factory was demolished, and a new five-story factory was built. This led to the production of 16,286 bikes in 1914.
One of the major reasons for this growing success was their spring-suspension seats which could adjust according to the height of the rider, reducing tension and shocks. This created a more comfortable, smooth ride that people loved. In fact, Harley-Davidson continued using essentially the same seats until 1958.
In 1917, the United States entered World War I. During the war, Harley-Davidson supplied over 20,000 motorcycles to the US military. By 1920, they had become one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, with 28,200 machines being produced that year and sold by dealers in 67 countries.
During the 1920s, Harley-Davidson went through a great transformation, with the introduction of tear-drop fuel tank and front brakes, as well as a significant change in design. This era saw the introduction of Harley-Davidson models such as the A, AA, B, BA, and JD. All of this innovation led to a golden period in sales until 1929.
That’s the year that everything came crashing down.
Great Economic Depression
From 1929 to 1933, sales fell off a cliff – from 20,876 to 3,705. The Great Depression nearly destroyed Harley-Davidson. They wouldn’t go down without a fight. In 1931, they released the 1200cc SV. Then, in 1933, the classic Harley-Davidson UL came on the scene. These bikes, along with the earlier Harley-Davidson models, kept their sales alive long enough to survive the Great Depression.
By the time the US economy was coming back to life, Harley-Davidson was ready to ride.
Developments Leading to 21st Century Harley-Davidson
World War II saw Harley-Davidson’s fortunes rise. They produced nearly 100,000 bikes for the US and Canadian militaries. Another 35,000 went to the USSR. This prepared the motorcycle company to conquer the rest of the century. They’d go on to do so with a wide variety of Harley-Davidson models, including the Hummer, Turismo Veloce, and dozens of others. By the 1980s, Harley-Davidson was practically synonymous for ‘motorcycle’ for millions of people around the world.
They’ve continued that dominance into the twenty-first century with Harley-Davidson models like the AMF H-D Electra Glide. Only time will tell if they continue their reign as king of the road for their second 100 years.