William Harley was 21 when he drew up plans for an 116cc engine, which was built and fitted to a pedal cycle. That was in 1901. He was joined by his friend Arthur Davidson, and together they worked on what was really a motor-bicycle. With the help of Arthur's brother, Walter, they completed the project in 1903, however the boys were so dissatisfied with their first attempt, they scrapped the bike, but not without gaining valuable experience along the way.
The second machine, with a 405cc engine is classed by many as the first real Harley. The bigger engine and frame design meant this machine was something other than a motor-bicycle, and was a forerunner of the modern motorcycle. The prototype was built in a ten by fifteen feet shed belonging to the Davidson family, although the engine parts were said to be built at the West Milwaukee Railshops, where older brother William Davidson worked as a foreman. By 1905 this motorcycle was been offered to the public on a very limited basis. Three were sold that year.
The shed was eventually moved to the Juneau Avenue factory to serve as a reminder of the company's humble beginnings, but sadly was accidentally demolished by contractors during the 1970's.
By 1907 production had reached 150 motorcycles, and in that year they began selling their machines to police departments. Also in that same year, a prototype 880cc, V-twin engine was developed and displayed at the Chicago Automobile show, although very few V-twin motorcycles were sold before 1910. By 1909 well over 1,000 motorcycles were being produced, a tribute not only to the boys' engineering skills, but also to their entrepreneurial attributes.
In 1917, when the USA entered the arena of World War 1, new demands were placed on the company, as the military needed a robust, reliable machine. Harley-Davidson rose to the challenge and produced 20,000 motorcycles for the war machine. This no doubt helped the company take their place as the World's largest motorcycle manufacturer, and by 1920 they were producing over 28,000 units which were sold in 67 countries.
The depression of the Thirties hit the company hard and production fell to less than 4,000 in 1933. Through necessity, they produced a three-wheeled delivery vehicle which was named the 'Servi-car', a design that stood the test of time and only ceased production in 1973.
As war came again, Harley-Davidson copied the design of the BMWR71, and produced the XA model, as once again the company answered the demands of the United States Army and produced large numbers of motorcycles. They also built the WLC for the Canadian military, and sent more than 30,000 units to the Soviet Union.
After the war, the company flourished and the 'Super 10' and 'Topper' scooter were produced. In 1960 they bought fifty percent of Aeronautica Macchi's motorcycle division and the importation of the 250cc horizontal single began. This bike wore the Harley-Davidson badge and was marketed as the 'Harley-Davidson Sprint'. The company became sole owners of Aermacchi in 1974.
Hollywood too has played a part in the development of Harley-Davidson, sadly tarnishing the company's image and leading the brand to be associated with groups such as 'Hell's Angels'. In 1969 AMF bought the company, decimated the workforce and began to produce a machine which was much inferior to its Japanese rivals. Sales slumped and the company was on the edge of the abyss. The company's reputation became almost irredeemable.
Under pressure from Harley-Davidson, the US government introduced a 45% tariff on imported motorcycles over 700cc, but instead of going head to head with the Japanese, they concentrated on the 'Retro' style of bike. Many of the components for these machines were built overseas, and the quality of the finished article took a turn for the better.
In 2008, a Harley-Davidson Museum opened in Milwaukee. The three building complex contains a large collection of motorcycles and other Harley-Davidson memorabilia. This represents a huge leap from the shed in the Davidson's backyard and the austere years of the Great Depression. Proof enough that Harley-Davidson is more than a motorcycle, more than a company; it has become a way of life for motorcyclists all over the world. William and Arthur would be delighted.
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