Harleydavidson Bike History

Harley-Davidson Bike History

Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been manufactured by the Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Company since 1903 and remain today the premier motorcycle. Its classic design and outlaw image is an American pop culture icon. Harley-Davidson builds heavyweight bikes for highway cruising and is a favorite for customization. It has met with little success in building lightweight bikes and the company has virtually ignored the off-road market.


The company was founded in 1903 by William Harley and Arthur Davidson. The first bike was Harley’s 1901 project of placing a small 116cc engine on a pedal bicycle frame. The bike did well on flat land and small hills, but a bigger engine was needed to make it more versatile. The partners came up with a 405cc engine that helped define the modern motorcycle.


The years leading up to World War I were prosperous for Harley-Davidson as the company advertised in small journals offering engines for do-it-yourself bike projects. Competition grew stiff as motorcycle makers proliferated throughout the U.S. But Harley-Davidson led in technological advancements, including its 1911 810cc V-Twin model. By 1917, more than 16,000 motorcycles were manufactured by the company annually.

World War I

Harley-Davidson had success in security military contracts with the 1916 Pancho Villa Expedition and won an important agreement when the U.S. entered World War I by providing 15,000 motorcycles. These contracts helped push Harley-Davidson to become the largest motorcycle builder in the world, producing nearly 30,000 a year.

Between the Wars

During the 1920s and 1930s, Harley-Davidson perfected the V-Twin engine, boosting engine displacement to 1200cc. Front brakes were added and the trademark “Teardrop” gas tank made its debut in 1925. Sales dropped after the Stock Market Crash of 1929, but engine sales for industrial use and the creation of the three-wheeled Servi-Car for deliveries helped save the company from extinction.

World War II

The famed 1000cc “Knucklehead” engine, named for its unusually shaped rocker boxes, appeared in 1936, with displacement boosted to 1200cc in 1941 on the FL series motorcycles. Its reliability and power led to another series of military contracts for the war effort. It produced the WLA series motorcycles strictly for military purposes. More than 90,000 bikes were delivered during the war, earning Harley-Davidson Army-Navy “E” awards for production excellence in 1943 and 1945.

Postwar Era

The company also used the wartime DKW RT125 German motorcycle as a template for a similar bike that was produced from 1947 through 1966. One version, the Hummer, was produced from 1955 to 1959. The German bike also later served design for popular BSA Bantam motorcycles. From1966 to 1985, 1200 cc Shovelhead made its debut and had its displacement increased to 1345 cc in 1978.


The 1960s brought image problems to Harley-Davidson with negative press accounts of motorcycle gangs and the outlaw nature of customized “chopper” motorcycles depicted in such films as “Easy Rider” and other films. A disastrous sale to American Machinery and Foundry resulted in bikes built on the cheap and creating quality control problems. The company eventually overcame those issues and also responded to the influx of Japanese imports by emphasizing Harley’s traditional look to distinguish itself from the street and off-road bikes.