Harley-Davidson had its humble beginnings when William Harley and Arthur Davidson produced the first production motorcycle in 1903. The motorcycle was to be a racing motorcycle and was built in a small wooden shed with the words Harley-Davidson Motor Company written on the front door. A year later, Harley-Davidson had released 3 production motorcycles for the public.
In 1905, Harley-Davidson won its first race and hired its first employee. Three years later, in 1908, Harley-Davidson sold the first motorcycle for use in law enforcement to the Detroit Police Department. In 1912, HD began building their 6-story factory and exporting their first bikes to Japan, the first time sales were extended outside of the United States.
1914 marks the year HD officially entered the national racing circuit and quickly became known as “The Wrecking Crew” for its dominance in the racing industry. By 1917, a third of all motorcycles produced would be sold to the military, and it was also the start of the Service School for Harley-Davidson Mechanics, for military and civilian motorcycles.
By 1918, half of all motorcycles produced were sent to the military for service in World War I, and Corporal Roy Holtz would be the first soldier to ride a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in Germany. 1920 marks the year that the motorcycle company is the world’s largest in the motorcycle industry with more than 2,000 dealers in 67 countries around the world.
1931 was the year that nearly all of Harley’s competitors left with the exception of the Indian Motorcycle Company. Harley-Davidson and Indian were the only two motorcycle companies in America, until 1953. As the world entered World War II, Harley returned to producing military motorcycles, and the service school was converted into a school. Motorcycle Service School, also known as Quartermaster School for Military Mechanics. Meanwhile, the public could barely get their hands on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
In 1945 wartime production slowed down and civilian production resumed, and in 1947 HD began selling what is today the classic black leather motorcycle jacket. All the while, Harley consistently wins street and gravel races and still dominates the racing circuit.
1952 was the year the Harley Sportster debuted, but as a “K” series. It was not until 1957 that he was not so named. In 1953, Harley-Davidson would become the sole manufacturer of motorcycles in the United States when Hendee Manufacturing, the Indian motorcycle company, closed its doors.
Elvis Presley poses for a cover photo of Enthusiast, the magazine for motorcycle enthusiasts, in 1956. The 1960s showed Harley winning race after race and merging with the American Machine and Foundry Company, or AMF.
The 1970s ushered in a customization craze among enthusiasts, and Harley-Davidson underwent a company and plant-wide renovation and restructuring. All production machines undergo major modernization and a new, larger production facility in Milwaukee.
Harley is known to always leak oil and vibrate massively, a sort of attraction for Harley aficionados. The ’80s came with a huge turnaround with the motorcycle company, dampening vibrations, suppressing oil leaks and making them oil-tight. This coupled with a new belt drive instead of a chain drive and the new “Softail” frame with hidden rear shocks, Harley has become a very smooth and comfortable ride. 1981 was also the year Harley-Davidson bought out the AMC merger and regained control of the company.
The Motorcycle Company is listed on the American Stock Exchange for the first time since 1969, when the AMF merged with HD. 1987 was the year HD went public on the New York Stock Exchange, and went public, and the company’s confidence in itself as a leader in the motorcycle industry is evident in this move, as well that in the launch of the “Buyback Program” in which owners of older Harleys can trade in their old models and get the full trade-in price on a new “HOG”.
Harley celebrates her 90th birthday and has a family reunion in Milwaukee, also taking a financial interest in Buell Motorcycles started by Erik Buell to make American sport motorcycles using Harley-Davidson engines and in 1994 enters the racing industry superbike with its first liquid-cooled bike called the VR1000. Harley celebrated her 95th birthday in 1998 and 140,000 bikers came to Milwaukee to join in the party and celebration. Harley purchases an additional 49% of Buell motorcycles, making it the majority owner of the company and making founder Erik Buell president of operations.
In 2003, more than 250,000 motorcyclists converged on Milwaukee for the last stop of the “Open Road Tour” and to celebrate the 100th anniversary and birthday of Harley-Davidson. Harley-Davidson and the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA) mark 25 years together as partners in the fight against muscular dystrophy. In 2006, Harley announced plans to open a museum for the motorcycle company and planned to open in 2008.
During this time, HD won races and helped charities and people improve lives. This brief history of how the company was built is only part of the Harley-Davidson heritage. Most people associate HD with outlaw bikers and black leather jackets, but a lot of people don’t know the other side of things with Harley-Davidson. Working with charities and racing through all the growth of the business are things many people don’t realize about this small family business, which is now the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the Americas.