American Icons: Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

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1933 Harley Davidson Big Twin Sign“The Legend Rolls On”

The Harley-Davidson® motorcycle has a following and a mystique about it that no other motorcycle in the world has. It is part of the American tradition and has become an American icon. The concepts that accompany the name “Harley-Davidson®” are those of freedom and tradition, and riders share a distinct sense of solidarity with other riders. The motorcycle itself has always had a unique styling and sound.

The origins is this brand are rather humble. The Harley-Davidson® Motor Company got its start back in 1901 when 21-year-old William S. Harley of Milwaukee, Wisconsin created a drawing of an engine that he designed to fit onto a bicycle. Harley and his boyhood friend, Arthur Davidson, and his brother, Walter, worked over the next two years building the engine in a friend’s machine shop. They installed it on a bicycle, only to find it wasn’t powerful enough to take the bike up hills without the rider also peddling. This sent the young men back into the shop to make design modifications.

Ralph Hepburn on a Harley, 1922

American racing pioneer Ralph Hepburn on his Harley in 1922. (Source: Wikipedia)

After the redesign, the larger, one-cylinder engine proved to be a success. With minor modifications to the bicycle, they were able to mount the engine. What Harley and Davidson had created was a motorized bicycle, or motorcycle, intended for racing.

In 1903 Harley and Davidson built, and were able to offer to the public, the first Harley-Davidson® motorcycles. They formed the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, and the first dealer opened in 1904 in Chicago, Illinois. In 1906 William Harley and the Davidson brothers built their first factory on what is still the location of the corporate headquarters today. The original factory was only a 28 x 80 foot 1-story wooden building and in their first year they built 50 motorcycles there. They also produced their first motorcycle catalog.

1907 saw the factory and staff double in size and Harley-Davidson® began recruiting dealers in the New England area. In 1908 Walter Davidson had two triumphs that helped establish Harley-Davidson’s® reputation as a machine with outstanding performance and endurance. He achieved a perfect score at the 7th Annual Federation of American Motorcyclists (FAM) Endurance and Reliability Contest and also set the FAM economy record of 188.234 miles one gallon of gasoline.

In 1908 the first motorcycle was delivered to the Detroit, Michigan Police Department. This became a very important market for Harley-Davidson® and they still supply motorcycle fleets to police departments around the country today. In 1910 the famous “Bar & Shield” Harley-Davidson® logo was first used.

Harley-Davidson ® Bar and Shield Tin Sign

Licensed Harley-Davidson ® Bar and Shield Tin Sign (Retro Planet)

Motorcycles were used for the first time in combat service in WWI. The US Government purchased 20,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles for the armed forces. Government issued bikes amounted to nearly half of all Harley-Davidson® motorcycles produced during the war. Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle maker in the world by 1920, with dealers selling their motorcycles in 67 countries.

Harley-Davidson ® Competition Metal SignThe Harley-Davidson® Motor Company continued to grow and to thrive but the motorcycle’s reputation became tarnished through the ’50s and ’70s due to the portrayal in Hollywood movies as the bike of gang members and outlaws. The Harley-Davidson® motorcycles on the racetrack were a different story, though. They continued to make new modifications and design changes that resulted in a very successful racing bike. Customizing became incredibly popular on street bikes and Harley-Davidson® capitalized on this, making accessories to accommodate this craze.

Production was revved up in 1972 when a 400,000 sq. ft. assembly plant was built in York, Pennsylvania. In 1983, Harley-Davidson® formed the Harley Owner’s Group, or H.O.G., their factory-sponsored motorcycle club. It rapidly became the largest club of its kind in the world. By the year 2000, it boasted over half a million members. In 2008 they opened the Harley-Davidson® Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Today there are Harley-Davidson® riding clubs all over the world.

In 1987, Harley-Davidson® did a study that revealed that half of all riders were under the age of 35. In 2005, the median age of Harley-Davidson® customers was 46.7 years of age and that only 15% of all riders were under 35.

The Harley-Davidson® tradition is part of the American culture and it appears that “Harley mania” will always be with us.

Do you ride a Harley or appreciate this retro brand? Chime in below…

Last updated: Apr 29, 2009
Filed under: American Icons Tagged with: Harley-Davidson, Motorcycles, retro brands