We’ve all heard of Harley-Davidson. The name has become so iconic that even people that know nothing of motorcycles associate it with top-of-the-line bikes. Over the years, the myth behind this brand of motorcycles has grown to supernatural proportions. So who is Harley-Davidson?
The Early Years
To be honest, a better question would be, “Who are Harley-Davidson?” Despite what some may think, “Harley Davidson” is not the name of a person, but rather two people. You see, in the early 1900s William S. Harley and his childhood friend Arthur Davidson began putting engines on bicycles in a backyard shed. As the years went by, Harley and Davidson’s designs got more complex and evolved into motorcycles, which they began to sell in limited numbers. In 1906, they opened their first factory and moved production out of the backyard shed.
Harley-Davidson had already been producing motorcycles for police departments, so it came as no surprise that during World War I the military came calling. The military ordered 15,000 combat-ready motorcycles for the battlefield and Harley-Davidson was only too happy to oblige.
By 1920, Harley-Davidson had gone from producing 50 motorcycles in a backyard shed to the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. When the Great Depression struck a few years later, however, their sales plummeted. They sold 21,000 motorcycles in 1929, and only 3,703 motorcycles in 1933. To compensate, Harley-Davidson began making industrial powerplants based on the design of their engines and also made the three-wheeled Servi-Car towing vehicle.
After surviving the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson began producing great numbers of motorcycles for the military during World War II. They also resumed production of civilian motorcycles soon after. Just like most other companies during the war, Harley-Davidson focused production on the war effort, producing over 90,000 motorcycles for the military. Though most of these were used by the American military, many of them were shipped overseas to American allies.
After the war, Harley-Davidson began incorporating some foreign design features into their motorcycles, some of which were gained via war reparations. In 1952, however, they were hit with two things that impacted their reputation negatively.
First, they were charged with restrictive practices by the government.
Second, the outlaw biker gang movies debuted and created the association with Harley-Davidson that continues to this day.
This was a dark period for Harley-Davidson. They were bought out in 1969 by American Machinery and Foundry, who completely mishandled the company and quality and sales suffered. Thankfully, in 1981 a group of investors led by Willie G. Davidson reacquired the company and brought it back from the brink. Though they were by now competing with a plethora of Japanese motorcycles, Harley-Davidson managed to gain ground by embracing the look and feel of earlier models along with the customization aesthetic that had long been apart of Harley-Davidosn’s customer base.
This was a period of Renaissance for Harley-Davidson. Sales climbed on a yearly basis and still do to this day. These days, Harley gear is more popular than ever and its sales make up a good portion of Harley-Davidson’s total sales base. Though they’ve had their ups and downs, Harley-Davidson is a company that to this day embodies American ingenuity and attitude.
About The Author: Mick Ellero lives in Peterborough, UK with his beautiful wife Val and their son Matthew. His favorite hobby is restoring old motorcycles, which is what got him started on his website. Mick’s goal is to highlight what things to watch for, particularly with respect to safety, when purchasing motorcycle leathers, heated motorcycle clothes, and motorcycle luggage. You will also find advice on choosing between leather and textile motorcycle clothing, and how to keep your leathers in tip-top condition.