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The History of Harley Davidson

Mar 25, 2021 | Motopedia

The History of Harley Davidson

Welcome to Torq Curve, and today we’re going to talk about the history of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.


What is Harley-Davidson?

Harley-Davidson is an American motorcycle manufacturer founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903. One of the American motorcycle companies survives the Great Depression and many numerous subsidiary arrangements to become the World’s fifth-largest motorcycle manufacturer and the iconic brand known for its loyalty.

So let’s get down to it.


The History Of Harley-Davidson

The History Of Harley-Davidson

The company took its origin in 1901. William Harley and Arthur Davidson decided to build their first 116 cc pedal-assisted motor bicycle. In two years, the machine was finished and turned out to be nothing more, but a valuable learning experience as the machine couldn’t climb up the hills around Milwaukee without pedal assistance.

The three began to work on a new and improved the machine with an engine of 405 cc. The bigger engine and loop-frame design made its way out of the motorized bicycle category to future motorcycle designs.


The 1900s: Harley-Davidson First Factory

The 1900s: Harley-Davidson First Factory

After completing the new loop-frame prototype motorcycle in 1904, which was functional by September 8, 1904, it competed in the Milwaukee motorcycle race held at State Fair Park. Edward Hildebrand rode and got 4th place. Then Harley-Davidson motorcycle started heading to local showrooms in 1905 though in minimal quantities.

In 1906 Harley and Davidson Brothers built their first factory on Chestnut Street, later known as Juneau Avenue, where the current Harley-Davidson’s corporate headquarters are established. The new Juneau Avenue plant was a 40 feet by 60 feet or 12 metres by 18 meters single-story wooden structure.

The company manufactured about 50 motorcycles that year. A year later, the company increased its production to 150 motorcycles per year.


The 1910s: King of Motorcycles in World War I  

By 1907, the company was officially incorporated in September. They also started selling their motorcycles to police departments around this time, a major market that has been crucial to them ever since from 1907 to the beginning of World War I.

In 1914 Harley-Davidson increased production from 450 to 16,284 motorcycles, making Harley-Davidson the king of motorcycle production during the First World War.


The 1920s: Harley-Davidson “The Hogs.”

The US military purchased over 15,000 motorcycles from Harley-Davidson during the 1920s. Harley-Davidson made several improvements in places, such as the new 74 cubic inch v-twin launched in the year 1922 and the teardrop gas tank in 1925. A firm brake was added in 1928, although notably only on the J and JD models.

Now the largest motorcycle manufacturer Harley Davidson boasts over 2,000 dealers in 67 countries. The Factory Racing team became so dominant in American Racing that they were already known as the wrecking crew and had small Pig as a mascot. The bikes were nicknamed “The Hogs”.


The 1930s: The Great Depression and World War II

Harley-Davidson WLA

During the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson sales fell from 21,000 in 1929 to 3,700 in 1933. despite this, Harley-Davidson unveils a new lineup for 1934, including a flathead engine and Art Deco styling.

In 1937, Joe Petrali set a land speed record of over 136 miles per hour with a streamlined knucklehead. William A Davidson passed away two days after signing an agreement that makes a company a union shop during World War II.

Harley-Davidson was one of only two American cycle manufacturers to pull through the Great Depression. Harley-Davidson again manufactured large numbers of motorcycles for the US Army in World War II. The company built almost 90,000 WLA models for military use. However, returning service members seemed to favour the lighter British twins.


The 1940s: Harley-Davidson acquires DKW RT 125

Harley-Davidson k model

Dissolve there in response. Harley created the 45 cubic inch side valve, k model. The crankcases and gearbox were one set of castings.

As part of war reparations, Harley-Davidson acquired a small German motorcycle, DKW RT 125, which they adapted, produced, and sold from 1948 to 1966. It was the same German two-stroke motorcycle that Yamaha used to design.


The 1950s: The Victorious Harley-Davidson KR

Harley-Davidson KR model

In the 50s, Indian motorcycle came to an end, leaving Harley-Davidson the only genuine motorcycle manufacturer. The ageing WR and WR TT production racers were no match for the British 500s.

Now invading the dirt tracks and few rough horses of America, the new Harley-Davidson KR began to run off seven consecutive Daytona victories. The last race runs on the old Beach course, and the first one run at the new die tone International Speedway in 1957.


The 1960s: The AMF Era

Sportster was introduced in the 60s. Harley-Davidson updated the old Panhead motor to the new motor known under the name of shovelhead. This basic engine remained in production for the next 20 years.

In 1969, the American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought the company, streamline production and slashed the workforce. This tactic resulted in a labour strike and mediocre bikes.

The bikes were expensive and inferior to Japanese motorcycles in terms of performance handling and quality. The sales and rate declined, and Harley-Davidson almost went bankrupt. The name was mocked as “Hardly Ableson”, “Hardly Driveable”, and “Hogly Ferguson”, and the nickname “Hog” became pejorative.


The 1970s: The New XR 750

Harley-Davidson XR 750

In the 1970s, the racing department created a new production racer, the XR 750. Yet none of the factory entries reached the finish line in the 1977 Daytona 200.

Although most Harley-Davidson fans would rather forget the years in which AMF owned the company. One AMF era bike was highly sought after by collectors, the 1977 XL CR, where CR stands for “Cafe Racer”; this bike was the only second major project for Willie Davidson, one of the founders’ grandson.

While Harley customers rejected the model in 1977, the model was dropped a year later with the sale of around 3100. Although dealers still had unsold access cluttering their showroom floors.


The 1980s: Introduction to FXS Lowriders Model

While into the 80s, Harley- Davidson introduced the FXS lowriders model.

In 1981 after years of AMF mismanagement, a group of company investors led by Vaughn Beals came to rescue Harley-Davidson, which had almost lost customer loyalty and profits. He offered to buy the motor vision for 75 million dollars, and AMF quickly agreed.

Beals lead a fantastic corporate turnaround. He implemented world-class quality control and funded new product developments.

What would have happened to the Harley-Davidson brand if Beals had not raised enough to save it? But no one else could undoubtedly have done a better job at rehabilitating the motor king in 1987 than Vaughn Beals. In the same year, Harley-Davidson made its initial public offering on the New York Stock Exchange with a ticker symbol of “Hogg”.


The 1990s: AMA Superbike Championship with VR 1000

Harley-Davidson VR 1000

In 1992 Harley-Davidson was the first company to equip all its models, except for a handful of racing models from chain to belt drive. Modern drive belts provided a smoother ride than chains and lasted longer.

In 1994 the company entered the AMA Superbike Championship, fielding the liquid-cooled VR 1000. AMA rules specified that the company also had to build and sell 2,000 machines for Road use; this process is called homologation.

So you may wonder, if 2000 models were sold, then why have you never seen a VR 1000? Because the model was homologated in Poland. Harley-Davidson avoided US liability by selling it and pulled loose laws that allowed the barely modified race bike to get legally licensed.


The 2000s: Harley-Davidson Legacy 

In 2000 despite spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees in the mid-90s and having initial success in its efforts trademark, Harley Motors company’s potato-potato sound dropped his pattern office application.

Harley-Davidson’s vice-president of marketing Joanne Bischmann tells reporters, “I’ve personally spoken with Harley-Davidson owners from around the World, and they’ve told me repeatedly that there is nothing like the sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. If our customers know the sound cannot be imitated. That’s good enough for Harley Davidson and me.”

In 2008 the Motor Company opened its brand new museum in time for Harley Davidsons 105th anniversary. Also, Harley-Davidson bought MV Agusta for $109 million back in 2008 in an attempt to take advantage of Bambi’s European distribution channel.

Later the same year, it introduced the XR 1200 inspired by the XR 750. Flat Trek machine used to win countless championships, the XR 1200 represented the first time Harley-Davidson design and marketed a motorcycle exclusively for the European market. Later after demanding from this side of the pond, the XR 1200 was then sold worldwide.

Due to the economic recession in 2009, Harley-Davidson abandoned the Buell sports line and put up MV Agusta for sale to direct the core business’s attention, which leads to a drop of 84-per cent profits. After this scenario, Harley-Davidson announced its plans for the arrival in the fast-growing Indian market.

The company initiated a subsidiary, Harley-Davidson India, in Gurgaon, near Delhi, in 2011 and created an Indian dealer network. On September 24, 2020, Harley-Davidson announced that it would discontinue its sales and manufacturing operations in India due to weak demand and sales. The move involved $75 million in restructuring costs, 70 layoffs, and its Bawal plant’s closure in northern India.



In the journey from dreams to vision, Harley-Davidson has come a long way. It is now an iconic brand known around the World for motorbikes. It has sustained itself from the turmoil such as the buyouts, strikes and the Great Depression and continues to be fortunate enough, over a century on from its small beginnings.


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