One of the most iconic companies in the world, Harley Davidson began humbly with a blueprint of an engine that would fit on a bicycle. Since that drawing, created by William S. Harley in 1901, when he was only 21 years old, the company has grown to one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world, In the second quarter of 2015 alone, more than 145,000 Harley Davidson motorcycles were registered around the globe with almost 100,000 of them registered in North America. It has become one of the most collected lines of motorcycles with celebrities like Bob Parsons, George Clooney and Brad Pitt owning several versions of the popular bikes.
Two years after Harley drew the blueprint for his bicycle engine, he and his partner, Arthur Davidson, introduced the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle to the public. The first bike was built in a 10 x 15 wooden shed behind a door with the words “Harley-Davidson Motor Company” crudely scratched on the door in Milwaukee. The first sale was to Henry Meyer, a schoolyard friend of the two men and the first dealership opened in 1904. C.H. Lang of Chicago sold one of the first three production models. The bikes were meant to be racers with 3-1/8 inch bore and 3-1/2 inch stroke. In 1905, that goal was achieved when, on July 4, one of the motorcycles won a 15 mile race in Chicago. That same year, the first full-time employee was hired.
In 1906, a new 28 x 80 foot factory was built on what was then Chestnut Street, later changed to Juneau Avenue, in Milwaukee and full-time staff increased to six. It was during this year that the first catalog was produced and the “Silent Gray Fellow” nickname was used for the first time. The nickname came from the effectiveness of the bike’s muffler which kept it quieter than other models. William A. Davidson quit his job as a tool foreman to join his brothers, Arthur and Walter, in the company. Harley-Davidson was incorporated in 1907 and the stock was split between the three Davidson brothers and William Harley.
The well-recognized bar and shield logo was used for the first time in 1910. The company had the logo patented in 1911. In 1912, construction began on a new factory on Juneau Avenue and the company exported the first motorcycles to Japan. Although the company had achieved a reputation for winning races, they did not officially enter motorcycle racing until 1914 and, within a few years, earned the nickname “Wrecking Crew” due to their dominance of the sport.
When World War II broke out in 1941, production of civilian motorcycles almost stopped completely in favor of bikes destined for military use. Military mechanics, as they were during World War I, were trained at the Harley-Davidson Quartermasters School. During the war, the company received four awards for excellence in wartime production. It was while overseas that many American servicemen got their first experience with Harley-Davidson. In 1947, Harley-Davidson purchased the A.O. Smith Propeller Plant in Milwaukee, turning it into a machine shop. It was during this year that the company began selling their classic black leather jacket.
The iconic Low Rider was released to the public in Daytona Beach in 1978, followed by the Fat Bob, named for its dual gas tanks and bobbed fenders, in 1979. In 1980, the Harley Owners Group, fondly referred to as H.O.G. began and became the largest factory-sponsored motorcycle group in the world with over 90,000 members in six years.
Today, there is no more recognized motorcycle than the Harley-Davidson and it is a favorite among motorcycle lovers around the world. A company that began in a small shed in Milwaukee today has sales in virtually every country around the globe.