History: Harley-Davidson

The Early Years

1901 William S. Harley, 21, and Arthur Davidson, 20, began experiments on “taking the work out of bicycling.” They were soon joined by Arthur’s brothers, Walter and William in Milwaukee.

WilliamSHarley WalterDavidsonSr WilliamaDavidson ArthurDavidsonSr
William S. Harley Walter Davidson Sr. William A. Davidson Arthur Davidson Sr.

1903 The company Harley-Davidson was founded. Harley and the Davidson brothers create their first motorcycle. Many changes were made to the engine design before its builders were satisfied. After the new looped frame was finalized, they were ready to begin production. The first Harley Davidsons were built: a 25 cubic inch (410cc) atmospheric-inlet-valve single-cylinder.This single cylinder, 3hp, belt drive machine was followed by 2 more that first year, all bought and paid for before completion. The first one was purchased by a fellow named Meyer

1904 Production began in a shed behind the Davidson family home. The machine was a 30 cubic inch (494cc) single Production again totals 3 machines. The machines’ conservative colour and quiet muffler earn them the nickname “Silent Gray Fellow”.

1906 A Davidson uncle, James McLay, finances construction of a new plant on the site that becomes Harley-Davidson®’s permanent location. The Juneau Avenue (then called Chestnut Street) factory adds 5 employees and increases production to 50 motorcycles.

1907 The company becomes a corporation. A prototype V-twin motorcycle was built. Total production rises to 150 machines sold specifically for police duty.

1908 A prototype of the 61ci V-twin wins a hillclimb in Algonquin, Illinois. More factory space is added and overall production climbs to 410.

1911 After a false start in 1909, the 7hp, 49.5ci, 45-degree V-twin is reintroduced with mechanical valves, a new frame and a top speed of 60mph. Belt drive remains standard. Production increases 8 fold form 1907 to 1,149 motorcycles.

1912 V-twin gets chain drive and a rear wheel clutch. Bill Harley designs the Full-Floating seat featuring center post suspension.

1913 A new 5hp, 35 cu. in. single is offered with chain or belt drive.The original 28′ x 80′ factory had grown to 297,110 square feet. Harley-Davidson began to dominate racing events. 1913 production: 12,904 motorcycles.

1914 Harley introduces kickstarter and internal expanding rear brake. 9 departmets of the feral government are using Harleys, 1,400 for postal deliveries.

1915 Three-speed transmissions were placed on production motorcycles for the first time.

1916 After Harley-Davidson motorcycles had proven their military value in border skirmishes with Pancho Villa,The War Department requests a dozen motor cycles, They arrived in 2 days. A second order came 11 days later and it arrives in 33 hours, all fully equipt for war. Some 20,000 cycles would see duty before the war’s end.
The Twenties

1920 Harley-Davidson becomes the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, boasting dealers in 67 countries around the world.. Harley-Davidson motorcycle development was evolutionary rather than revolutionary with side-valve machines replacing inlet-over-exhaust designs in the late 1920s. 1920 production: 28,189 motorcycles. Mass production of cars depresses motorcycle sales.

1921 In February 1921, on a Fresno, Calif., board track, a Harley-Davidson becomes the first motorcycle ever to win a race with an average speed over 100 mph. Production now drops to 10,000 machines.

1922 The first 74ci motor comes out developing 18 horsepower. Advertized as the Superpowered Twin, it was designed for sidecar or tandem riding..

1925 The debut of the teardrop gas tank.

1928 Front wheel brakes were introduced dramatically improving the safety and handling of Harley-Davidson’s cycles.Production increases to over 22;000 motorcycles.

1929 The second generation of Davidsons, and a Harley, join the firm. After the stock market crash of October 1929, Harley-Davidson sales suffered with everyone else’s in the industry. This year saw the introduction of the first 45 ci (750cc) side-valve V-twin WL and the twin cam 1200cc twin “D” series. These used the same frame as the singles, which was made possible by mounting the generator perpendicular to the engine. Early Forty-fives lacked the power of their competition, the Indian Scout.

The Thirties

1931 The 3-wheeled Servi-Car appears.

1933 Depression deepens; Milwaukee cuts back to two-day work week to avoid lay-offs. Production drops to 3,700 vehicles.

1935 Harley racer Joe Petrali wins every national dirt track race of the year.

1936 Harley-Davidson wasted no time building momentum out of the depression, they introduce its EL model, featuring the 61 ci (1000cc) overhead valve engine, also known as the “Knucklehead.” This engine, termed the “61 OHV” in factory literature and called the Sixty-one in every day circles was a mid-season 1936 model. This, in the opinion of many, is the motorcycle that saved Harley-Davidson. At that time, for the first time, a major American motorcycle company was building a big motorcycle with overhead valves (this coming shortly after the major engineering difficulties of the 1929 Forty-five and the 1930 Seventy-four.
Also introduced this year was the 80ci side valve twin engine.
Despite the depression Harley-Davidson produced almost 10000 motorcycles in 1936.

1937 William A. Davidson passes away. Joe Petrali rides Knucklehead to new speed record of 136 mph at Daytona.

The Forties

1940 The 750cc, 74ci and 80ci engines get aluminum heads. The 74ci OHV FL model is readied for release.

1941 Civilian production ceases at year end as U.S. enters WWII. Almost immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Harley-Davidson’s entire motorcycle output was produced for Allied use. By the end of World War II, 90,000 WLA army-version motorcycles had been built and shipped. A shaft-drive, opposed twin, model XA, was developed for desert warfare, only 1000 made.

1942 Walter Davidson dies at age 65

1943 William Harley dies at age 66

1947 Full civilian production resumes with updated ’41 models. The 74ci Overhead Valve big twin engine was introduced. First appearance of zippered black leather jacket.

1948 The 125cc two-stroke Hummer is introduced. The big twins get hydraulic lifters, and the Knucklehead is replaced by the new 1200cc Panhead.

1949 The Hydra-Glide arrives; an FL with telescopic front forks.

The Fifties

1950 Arthur Davidson dies at age 69, He and his wife are killed in a tragic automobile accident, leaving the motor company to be controled by the second generation.

1952 The K model, a 750cc side-valve V-twin, replaces the venerable WL. Unit construction gears, hand clutch and foot shift making the racing KR an instant success.

1953 As Harley-Davidson celebrated its 50th anniversary, its oldest and closest competitor, Indian, went out of business, leaving Harley-Davidson as the sole survivor in a once overcrowded American motorcycle marketplace. Harley-Davidson expanded its line to include two-stroke engines and even a scooter. 1953 production: 14,050 motorcycles. The 125cc grows to 165cc.

1954 The K model becomes the 55ci KH; forerunner to the Sportster.

1956 Elvis Presley buys a red and white KH model.

1957 The KH gets overhead valves and becomes the XL Sportster.

1958 The Duo Glide, based on the earlier Hydra-Glide model, was introduced, featuring a hydraulic rear shock suspension to go with the hydraulically dampened front fork. Carroll Resweber wins the first of four consecutive AMA Grand National Championships.

The Sixties

1960 Harley-Davidson buys the Italian Aermacchi company. Italian-built lightweights are sold in America under the Harley-Davidson name. Some Italian model included the Shortster and Sprint models.
The “Topper”, a now famous motorscooter, was introduced. The Topper featured a pull-cord starting mechanism not unlike that of a lawn-mower.

1963 When it became apparent that fiberglass was becoming a versatile material for golf cars and motorcycles, Harley-Davidson purchased and converted a fiberglass boat company in Tomahawk, Wis. William “Willie G” Davidson, joins the Motor Company as director of styling.

1965 George Roeder set a world land speed record of 177.225 mph for 250CC motorcycles on a modified Harley-Davidson Sprint. Bart Markel, aboard a Harley, won the second of his three AMA Grand National Championships.
With the addition of an electric starter, the Duo Glide became the Electra Glide in 1965, which was also the last year of the “Panhead” engine.
Harley-Davidson became a publicly-held company when it issued stock in 1965.

1966 Panhead gives way to Shovelhead. The Sportster gets new cams and carburetor. Production: 36,310 motorcycles.

1967 The Sportster gets an electric start.

1968 Cal Rayborn rides KR to victory in Daytona; is the first to average over 100mph.

1969 Rayborn repeats at Daytona. Harley-Davidson® sold to conglomerate American Machine and Foundry (AMF). Rodney Gott, AMF’s chairman, had been a Harley fan since before World War II.

The Seventies

1970 Rayborn sets world record of 265 mph at Bonneville in Sportster-powered streamliner. KR replaced by XR750.

1971 Joe Smith, riding a drag bike powered by a single Harley-Davidson motor, was the first to break the nine-second barrier in motorcycle drag racing. Introduction of the FX 1200 SuperGlide, designed by Willie G.,considered the first true factory custom. AMF logo added to gas tanks Evel Knievel jumps to fame.

1972 The 1000 cc XLH/XLCH Sportster models were introduced. First disc brakes on a production Harley-Davidson cycle (ElectraGlide).

1973 Assembly operations move from Milwaukee to AMF plant in York, Pennsylvania.

1974 To help meet the demand of the motorcycle industry, Harley-Davidson begins to move chassis manufacturing and final assembly operations to a plant in York, Pa. Engine and transmission operations remained in Milwaukee, along with the corporate headquarters.

1975 Production: 75,403

1977 Willie G. presents XLCR Cafe Racer & FXS Low Rider, a version of SuperGlide.

1978 Continuing the Harley-Davidson tradition of racing dominance, Jay “Springer” Springsteen won the AMA Grand National Championship in 1976, 1977 and 1978. Harley-Davidson sells the Italian operation (the old Aermacchi company) and the sales of Italian motorcycles with the Harley-Davidson name was halted. ElectraGlide grows to 1340cc. H-D celebrates 75th anniversary.

The Eighties

1980 New models FLT TourGlide, with five-speed transmission, oil bath enclosed rear chain and a rubber-mounted engine (the predecessor to today’s Harley-Davidson touring motorcycles) and FXWG WideGlide (another factory custom) along with the belt drive FXB Sturgis.

1981 H-D managers, led by AMF executive, Vaughan Beals, purchase Harley-Davidson® from AMF for $75 million in a leveraged buy-out and developed new models and a new image. With improved manufacturing and quality process, many of the old flaws of the HD design were resolved.

1982 FXR Super Glide II gets a rubber mounted engine and 5-speed transmission.

1983 President Reagan imposed additional tariffs on the import of Japanese motorcycles, improving Harley-Davidson’s ability to compete against high-quality foreign manufacturers. Harley Owners Group® (HOG) inaugurated. The XR1000 Sportster rolls out.

1984 Introduction of 1340cc Evolution engine, Air Assisted Anti-Dive and the head-turning FX Softail.

1986 By offering stock, Harley-Davidson once again becomes publicly owned and traded. Sportster 883cc Evolution debuts along with FL Heritage Softail. The latter sparks industry-wide retro-look styling for a decade. Company goes public with 2 million shares of common stock. H-D acquires Holiday Rambler, a luxury motorhome manufacturer.

1987 30th Anniversary 1100cc Sportster. Electra Glide Sport, Heritage Softail Classic and Low Rider Custom are unveiled. H-D listed on New York Stock Exchange.

1988 Sportster grows again to 1200cc. H-D’s 85th Anniversary celebration raises $600,000 for Muscular Dystrophy Association and the Motor Company springs a new model on us – the FXST Springer Softail.

The Nineties

1990 The FLSTF Fat Boy is another Willie G. instant success story. The new Dyna Glide series is launched with a Sturgis model to commemorate the 50th Anniversary of the Black Hills Classic in Sturgis, South Dakota. Attendance at this wildly popular rally exceeds 250,000.

1991 Sportsters get 5-speed transmissions. HOG Chapters reach 650 worldwide. Daytona Bike Week turns 50.

1992 Belt drives become universal on all models.

1993 To celebrate their 90th Anniversary, Harley pulls out the stops on Limited Edition models; Sportster, Low Rider, Wide-, Electra-, and Tour-Glides. Milwaukee hosts a huge birthday bash and 100,000 plus loyal Harley riders converge on the city for a weekend.

1995 Harley introduces a new fuel injection system that’s an instant hit.

1996 Harley-Davidson® sells Holiday Rambler and begins construction of a new distribution facility in Milwaukee for Parts and Accessories. Ridden by Chris Carr, the VR1000 finishes a very respectable 10th place at the Daytona 200.

1998 Harley-Davidson® unveils plans for the new twin cam 88ci V-twin

1999 Harley-Davidson® Offers the Twin Cam 88″ in all the rubber mounted frame styles

2000 Softails get the new updated TC88 with a vibration supressor. Sportsters get new updates to the engine cases. Disc brakes change to dual piston calipers.

The Legend Continues….. More history on Harley-Davidson