About Harley-Davidson®

About Harley-Davidson®

The History of Harley-Davidson

In 1903, the same year Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company and the Wright brothers first flew, William Harley and his friends Arthur and Walter Davidson launched the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. They gave their bike a quality engine, so it could prove itself in races, but planned to manufacture it as a transport vehicle.

That same year the merchant, C. H. Lange, sold the first officially distributed Harley-Davidson in Chicago, a city given to "motoracing" and auto-touring. Another of the Davidson brothers, William, joined the company, which soon burst the seams of its first manufacturing center and, by 1906, had to move to larger quarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

From the beginning the Harley-Davidson motorcycle began to set records. In 1908, for example, the Harley achieved a record 188.234 miles per gallon. It captured seven first place finishes in 1910 motorcycle racing, and, by 1912 claimed 200 U.S. distributors. A sturdy Harley-Davidson Sidecar won the first annual Pike's Peak race in 1916, and another bike claimed first in the 1922 Adelaide to Melbourne South Australia race. By the 1960s "the hog" as it affectionately came to be called, scored seven consecutive victories at the Daytona 200. During the next decade the Harley took four consecutive wins at the AMA Grand National Championships and broke the world motorcycle record for land speed.


The Harley-Davidson came to be America's most recognized motorcycle, but it was not the first. Howard Roper developed a coal powered steam-engine motorcycle in 1867 and Gottlieb Daimler, a German, developed a gas-powered motorcycle in 1885, which he attached to a wooden bike. That marked the moment in history when the dual development of a viable gas-powered engine and the modern bicycle collided.

Turn of the nineteenth century inventors who worked with both the engine and the bicycle chose to follow one of three paths. Daimler, for example, went on to develop automobiles, the Wright brothers left their bike shop to fly airplanes, and men like Harley and the Davidsons developed motorcycles. Their business competitors were other new start-up companies such as Excelsior, Indian, Pierce, Merkel, Schickel and Thor.

From the beginning a unique and characteristic sound endeared the Harley-Davidson to its owners. The Harley's pistons connected to its crankshaft in a way that caused the motor to give two "pops" then a quiet pause as it hummed along the road. Yet around that constant sound, other things evolved and changed: a 45 degree V-twin motor was introduced in 1909, the "Bar and Shield" logo in 1910, and the teardrop-shaped gas tank in the 1920s.


In the 1930's an "eagle" design was placed on those tanks and the famous "Knucklehead" engine was introduced. At a time the Harley became widely used as both a police and a commercial vehicle, the company even manufactured sidecars and sported motorbikes built for two.

During World War I Harley-Davidson® manufactured nearly 20,000 motorcycles for the U.S. government. And during World War II virtually all of the Harleys produced went towards the war effort. As nations such as England were forced to give up motorcycle production to favor production of tanks and planes, Harley's motorcycles were also shipped overseas to U.S. allies.


Following WWII the Harley's market share, as well as its myth, continued to grow. Its main U.S. competitor, Indian Motorcycle, ceased production in the 1950s. And veteran owners, new bikers, and even movies such as Easy Rider raised the Harley Davidson to the status of American icon. Glamorous stars pictured with Harleys, from the early Mack Sennett Studio, to Jayne Mansfield, Elvis Presley, and Peter Fonda, certainly enhanced the company's image.

For the most part, however, Harley-Davidsons, like all motorcycles, are enjoyed by individuals and groups who find biking a wonderful way to get where they are going. The Harley-Davidson company prides itself on the money it has raised for charity during the last quarter century, with the help of its customers and dealers.