If there’s one motorcycle brand that’s unmistakably American, it’s Harley-Davidson. Despite the Great Depression, economic crises, and numerous restructurings, the iconic company has managed to survive and pump out motorcycles that attract loyal fans the world over. Even in this age of outsourcing, Harley-Davidson is notable for manufacturing its bikes domestically, with only two assembly plants located outside the U.S.
Like most success stories, Harley-Davidson had humble beginnings. In this rundown through the years, we’ll look at how a backyard enterprise of 3 young men became a motorcycle giant.
When William S. Harley was 20 years old, he decided to build a motorbike powerful enough to climb the hills of Milwaukee. With the help of brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson, Harley worked on his bike for two years until it was completed in 1903. After they tested it, however, they found the bike needed more pedal pushing from the rider than they felt necessary, and the model was scrapped.
At the time, Harley and the Davidson brothers were only one of many small motorcycle producers. Among these producers was the Indian Motorcycle Company, which would later become Harley-Davidson’s biggest competitor.
To stay ahead of the curve, Harley and the Davidson brothers constantly refined their bikes. By 1904, the men produced 8 motorcycles, which doubled to 16 in 1905, and jumped up to 50 in 1906. From this, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was born.
In 1907, Harley-Davidson introduced the V-Twin motor, which would eventually become the company’s trademark. The first V-Twin motors essentially doubled the power of Harley-Davidson’s early bikes, though it was later pulled out due to several issues. Four years later, an improved version of the V-Twin was launched. Although it was smaller, it performed better than its predecessor.
Between 1910 and 1930, Harley-Davidson pioneered several innovations to strengthen its lineup, including clutches, chain drives, two-speed rear hubs, and three-speed transmissions. By 1914, the company outstripped Indian in the production of racing units, and within 6 years, Harley-Davidson became the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer.
In 1931, Harley-Davidson launched the Model D, one of the first Harleys to have a flathead V-Twin engine. The engine was so versatile, it stayed in production until the 1970s. Although flatheads were initially less efficient, they were also easier to maintain, and eventually became just as powerful as overhead-valve and F-head configurations.
Unfortunately, Harley-Davidson hit a roadblock during the Great Depression when sales fell from around 20,000 in 1929 to a little over 3,700 in 1933. Competitors went bankrupt one by one, but Harley-Davidson used it as an opportunity to cater to clients looking for new motorcycles. Along with Indian, Harley-Davidson was one of only two motorcycle manufacturers to survive the Depression era.
Realizing they had to do more to stay competitive, Harley-Davidson introduced the 61 OHV motor in 1936. Better known as the “Knucklehead,” the 61 OHV’s valve covers resembled a boxer’s closed fists and lasted for only 12 years on the market. Still, the Knucklehead would become the basis for all the “Big Twins” in the years to come.
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The War Years
Granted, “Big Twins” had been in Harley-Davidson’s production line years before the war. But when the company incorporated an overhead valve into its design, along with a 4-speed transmission and the tank-mounted instrument panel, the designations changed. The Big Twins became the U-series, and the Forty-fives became the W-series.
When World War II broke out, Harley-Davidson produced 88,000 military versions of the Forty-five, known as WLAs. They also created 1,000 units of flathead twins specially designed for desert use, though these never saw action on the battlefield.
As Harley-Davidson continued to update the Knucklehead and Big Twins, it also kept releasing new products into the market. The 1951 Police Special, for example, proved to be a hit with law enforcement agencies. The “Panhead” also debuted in 1948, as did the Hydra-Glides in 1949.
These technological innovations weren’t the biggest news at the time, however. In 1953, Harley’s closest competitor, Indian, finally ceased operations. Several companies would attempt to revive it in the succeeding decades, until Indian was finally bought out by Polaris Industries in 2011.
But Harley’s ride wasn’t smooth-sailing, either. Foreign competitors began to pour into the U.S. market and Harley-Davidson tried to keep up with innovations by introducing models like the S-125 two-stroke single, the 1952 K-series, and the Duo-Glide.
The 1960s – 1970s
As foreign motorcycle companies took up more and more of the U.S. market share, Harley-Davidson offered its stock publicly for the first time in 1965. A year later, the “Shovelhead” was introduced, replacing the “Panhead” and becoming the standard engine for Harleys until the 1980s.
Despite these efforts, Harley-Davidson still hemorrhaged cash. Even though the company eventually merged with sporting goods producer American Machine and Foundry (AMF), sales were still lackluster in the 1970s due to the presence of cheaper, better-quality Japanese motorcycles.
The future wasn’t all bleak for Harley-Davidson, however. The FX Super Glide debuted in 1971, and while it wasn’t a resounding success, it inspired future motorbike models that Harley-Davidson still maintains in its lineup, such as the current FXD series.
The 1980s – 1990s
When Harley-Davidson’s management realized that AMF was more of a liability than an asset, they bought back $75 million worth of shares from the company in 1981. Under the management of Harley executive Vaughn Beals, the company began to rehabilitate itself.
During the 1980s, Harley-Davidson ramped up efforts to fund product development and control quality. Additionally, the launch of the Evolution V2 (more popularly known as the “Evo”) in 1984 and the “Fat Boy” in 1990 proved to be a turning point in Harley-Davidson’s fortunes, as the latter would propel the company to the position of top motorcycle manufacturer in the world.
Harley-Davidson continues to innovate. For example, there’s the Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) motor, which became standard for all Harley motorcycles since the 2007 product line. Harley-Davidson also licenses and markets merchandise like clothes, home decor, accessories, toys, and even video games like Harley Davidson: Road Trip.
Harley-Davidson has come a long way. Although the secret to its mystique is hard to pin down, Harley’s resilience and ability to keep up with change make it the quintessential American brand. The company has survived more than a hundred years of setbacks and challenges, and it’ll likely survive for a hundred more.