Innovation has kept Harley-Davidson’s fans excited throughout the company’s history.
Since its founding at the beginning of the 20th century, Harley-Davidson has been designing and building bikes that inspire devotion in their riders. Despite a period in which the company’s reputation was nearly destroyed by bad management, the Harley-Davidson aura has remained intact thanks to consistent innovation and improvements meant to increase the reliability of its products.
Arthur Davidson and William Harley built their first commercial motorcycle in 1903. It featured a 116 cc engine designed to be fit into a bicycle and was meant to ridden on bicycle racing tracks. Five years later, the duo’s company made its first V-twin motorcycle, a bike with the engine configuration that would become the hallmark of Harley-Davidson motorcycles for the next century. By the time the stock market crashed in 1929, Harley-Davidson was selling 21,000 motorcycles a year and, along with Indian, would be one of only two American motorcycle manufacturers to emerge intact from the Great Depression.
The Harley-Davidson mystique hit its stride after World War II. The company introduced its Panhead engine in 1948, and hydraulic front suspension arrived with the Hydra-Glide in 1949. Not content to develop only big comfortable touring bikes, Harley debuted the smaller Sportster in 1957, and a year later the Duo-Glide was equipped with hydraulic rear suspension. Harley also devoted resources to racing, working with Italian designer Aermacchi to make the Sprint, a 350 cc short-track racer.
Fall and Rise
In 1969, Harley-Davidson was purchased by American Machine and Foundry Company, a development that would both alienate customers and undermine Harley’s reputation for quality. Desperate to counter the growing competition from Japanese manufacturers, the AMF-era company sacrificed attention to quality for economic considerations, and poor critical and customer response to its motorcycles nearly drove the company to ruin. Finally, in 1981, a group of company executives acquired the company from AMF and instituted a program of changes that began to restore Harley’s reputation.
Evolution and Revolution
The new Harley-Davidson returned to a focus on innovation, with advancements like belt final drive becoming standard on its bikes in the early 1980s. In 1984 the company introduced its Evolution, the first major redesign of the Harley powerplant in decades. The company also introduced the Softail, a technologically advanced bike that evoked the look of the classic post-war Harleys. Over the next three decades, Harley would develop motorcycles that looked backward to the big touring bikes of the past and others, such as the Nightster and others in the Dark Custom line, that made the most of contemporary styling.