How Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Got Started

How Harley-Davidson Motorcycles Got Started

Harley-Davidson Motorcycles

The story of the start of the epic Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company is the story of some guys messing around in a garage to come up with a cool new toy. How can it get much more American than that? The result is, of course, the favorite ride for millions of enthusiasts around the world. And it all started in a backyard shed in 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Harley Davidson Motorcycle Prototype

Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Prototype

The Idea

According to How Stuff Works, there may have been as many as 300 other companies founded in the early years of the 20th Century to produce motorcycles, but it was Harley-Davidson that roared away from the competition and crossed the finish line.

By 1901, William S. Harley started playing around with ways to attach an internal combustion engine to a bicycle. He was just 21 years old, and working at a bicycle factory. His goal was “taking the work out of bicycling.”

There were other motorcycles already being designed and produced. Harley and his friend Arthur Davidson had seen E.J. Pennington’s model on the streets of Milwaukee as early as 1896, and the Indian Motorcycle Company was founded in Massachusetts in 1901. But there was still plenty of room for other companies in this new industry.

The Shed

Original Harley Davidson Factory 1903It took a couple of years for that original blueprint to become the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The official Harley-Davidson timeline tells us that in 1903, Harley and his friend Arthur Davidson set up shop in a 10×15 foot shed in the Davidson’s backyard, writing “Harley Davidson Motor Co.” on the door. They were 23 and 22 at the time.

They needed help, though. So they appealed to Arthur’s big brother Walter, already a fan of motorbikes, telling him that they had one ready for him to ride. He arrived to find nothing but a pile of parts, but stuck around to help them build their first bike.

The first bike wasn’t much of a success. While it could go pretty well on a flat surface, it didn’t have enough engine power to go uphill. But they kept working at it, and made 3 bikes that first year, selling the first one to their friend Henry Meyer, who lived just down the street from them.

By 1904 they found someone willing to sell their bikes, when C.H. Lang of Chicago opened a dealership. In 1905, a Harley-Davidson bike won a race in Chicago, gaining important publicity for the fledgling business, and back in Milwaukee they hired their first full-time employee.

The Factory

Harley Davidson Juneau Ave Factory

Harley-Davidson Juneau Ave Factory 1906

In 1906 they moved out of the shed and into a new 18×36 foot factory, where they produced 50 bikes with 6 employees. In 1907, another big brother of Arthur’s joined the company. William Davidson saw that his brothers were on to a good thing, and quit his job as tool foreman for the railroad.

Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated on September 17, 1907, with William Harley and the 3 Davidson brothers as equal partners. They had 18 employees and doubled the size of their factory, producing 150 bikes. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company was off to a roaring start!

While Harley-Davidson dealerships started to be established, especially in New England, a big step forward for the company was when police departments started to buy their bikes. In 1908 the first bike was sold to the Detroit Police Department.

William A Davidson Walter Davidson Sr Arthur Davidson William S Harley

William A Davidson, Walter Davidson Sr, Arthur Davidson, William S Harley

Going International

By 1912, less than 10 years after William Harley and Arthur Davidson set up shop in the backyard shed, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was building a huge 6-storey factory. The company also started exporting motorcycles, with its first overseas sales to Japan. By 1913 they were building more than 16,000 bikes a year.

During World War I, Harley-Davidson sold close to 20,000 motorcycles to the U.S. Army. When the first American soldier entered Germany the day after the signing of the Armistice, on November 12, 1918, he was riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

In 1920, Harley-Davidson was the biggest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world, with more than 28,000 being produced annually, and dealerships in 67 countries around the world.

And why are Harley-Davidsons called hogs? Riding Vintage tells us that starting in 1920, The Harley-Davidson racing team had a pig for its mascot, and whenever the Harley-Davidson team won a race – which was often – they carried their pig around the track for a victory lap.

In less than 20 years, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle had gone from a blueprint drawn by a 20 year old kid to a multi-million dollar international company, and was well on its way to becoming an American icon.

The Discovery series Harley and the Davidsons may have changed a few of the facts of the company’s early days. But, what can’t be changed is the excitement that these kids from Milwaukee had for this new way of getting around that they were able to share with everyone who rode one of their bikes.

Harley-Davidson Early Photos


Photo Sources: Library of Congress, Harley-Davidson.com, Wikipedia


January 6, 2017 / 1 Comment / by / in
  • Dedicated servers says:

    One possible reason for the delayed availability in the United States was the fact that Harley-Davidson had to obtain the “XR1200” naming rights from Storz Performance, a Harley customizing shop in Ventura, Calif.

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