The History Of The Harley Davidson Motor Co

Harley-Davidson clubs often caravan on weekends.

The Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company began in 1903 with a one-cylinder motorcycle built in a barn. The fledgling company grew to about 20 employees in its first seven years of existence, and as of 2011 Harley-Davidson possessed 62 percent of the market share of motorcycles with engines 850 cc and larger. While other big motorcycle makers like Indian failed, Harley expanded its reach over the century, albeit with some bumps in the road along the way.

Early Years

Arthur Davidson and Bill Harley built their first motorcycle with a single cylinder featuring a 3.125-inch bore and 3.5-inch stroke. A short while later, Arthur’s brother, William, joined the new company. Harley-Davidson produced 11 motorcycles in 1905, and then 154 in 1908. A 1000 cc V-Twin model arrived in 1909, and the V-twin engine became the motorcycle manufacturer’s most recognizable feature. The company got a boost when it won a contract with the U.S. military in 1917 to supply 20,000 bikes to soldiers in Europe during World War I. The company had almost 2,000 dealerships around the world.


Following World War I, Harley focused on the racetrack to test new bikes and to set performance records that would translate into increased sales. In 1921, Harley averaged 100 mph on a board-covered racetrack in Fresno, California. Harley engines increased to 1340 cc in the mid-1930s. A Harley also set a speed record of 136 mph at Daytona Beach in 1937. One development was the creation of the three-wheel Servi-cars for commercial use and law enforcement traffic control. The Harley eagle logo in an Art Deco style began appearing on fuel tanks as the company attempted to stylize its bikes to boost sales during the Depression. With the outbreak of World War II in 1941, Harley ceased most of its civilian manufacturing. Through 1945, it manufactured 88,000 Model WLA Harleys for the U.S. military and about 20,000 bikes for the Canadian military.

Early Postwar Era

At the end of World War II, returning U.S. servicemen purchased surplus military Harleys, since civilian motorcycles had yet to gear up for production. Riders began customizing bikes for racing or just for appearance. They often removed fenders to drop weight or extended the front forks — a popular customization that evolved into the chopper. But GIs also brought foreign bikes from Europe, including British-made Nortons and Triumphs. In 1959, Japan’s Honda introduced its motorcycles to the U.S. market. During this period, big motorcycles suffered an image problem due to negative publicity surrounding outlaw biker gangs. Foreign imports got a foothold in the market, and forced Harley-Davidson to reconsider its position to become more competitive with the imports.

Later Years

Harley thought it found the answer in 1969 with the American Machine and Foundry, which purchased the Harley-Davidson. Under AMF, Harley produced the XLCR 1000 Cafe Racer and the FX 1200 Super Glide. Neither bike looked remotely like a Harley, but pale imitations of the Japanese bikes. They had the big engines, but build quality was poor. Harley enthusiasts howled over their diluted appearance. Harley-Davidson bought back the company from AMF in 1981. It refocused is attention on producing retro-styled Harleys by emphasizing its old-school look. By 2009, Harley tapped into the India motorcycle market.