How Did Harley-Davidson Get Its Name: Know The Story Behind The Harley-Davidson Brand


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How Did Harleydavidson Get Its Name

Do you ever wonder who came up with the now-iconic Harley-Davidson name? The story and the history behind this brand and its name are truly fascinating.

Harley-Davidson got its name when it was started in 1901 by William Harley, Walter Davidson, Arthur Davidson, and William Davidson. While the Davidson’s outnumbered the lone Harley, the latter got to have the first name in the brand as the motorcycle was his idea and vision.

The story of how did Harley-Davidson get its name and how the first bike came about is incredibly interesting. Continue reading to know more.

How did Harley-Davidson get its name?

When people think of the question that how did Harley-Davidson get its name, there is a common first answer. People guess that Harley-Davidson was a brand started by two guys with the last name Harley and Davidson. These people are right, but only partly. It was a company started by one guy with the name Harley and three guys with the name “Davidson. All four of them worked to create a company that would end up revolutionizing transportation in America and worldwide.

Harley-Davidson was a motorcycle brand founding in 1901 in Milwaukee and officially started in 1907. Walter Davidson was made the first president. Meanwhile, Arthur Davidson was the first general sales manager, while William Davidson became the first works manager. William Harley got made the treasurer and chief engineer. The original idea for the motorcycle came thanks to William Harley. This is why the company came to be known as “Harley-Davidson” and not “Davidson-Harley”, despite the Davidson’s having a 3:1 numerical advantage over Harley.

The fascinating story behind the start of Harley-Davidson

Whether you’re a Harley-Davidson enthusiast or not, there is no denying that not many brands have achieved the success that Harley-Davidson has had in over a century of existence. But how did the company come about? How did the visionaries of Harley-Davidson come up with the first bike?

The beginning of the journey

The company can trace its roots all the way back to the late 1800s in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. William Harley was just a year older than Arthur Davidson was. The two of them had grown up a couple of houses apart from each other in Milwaukee, WI. This was the beginning of their lifelong friendship. Like most boys in that era, both of them were enamored with bicycles. Williams was so obsessed with bicycles that he took a job at a bicycle factory in Milwaukee at the age of 15. Little did he know that taking that job would eventually set him on the road to starting a motorcycle company.

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He rose from the rank of a cycle fitter to a drafter. This helped him get the opportunity to work as a draftsman at the Barth Manufacturing Company. It was here that he designed an internal combustion engine for the first time. The design was based on the French de Dion-Bouton engine. It would go on to be used by a number of early motorcycle manufacturers. Arthur, who became a draftsman from Barth, and William, whose father owned a lathe, and his cohorts had a plan. All of them then spent the subsequent years working on a proto bike in their spare time. 

Failure of the first prototype and important lessons learned

While the prototype fizzed out, it gave them an invaluable discovery. William and Arthur discovered that they needed to have a competent machinist. They came up with a plan to take the help of Walter Davidson, the older brother of Arthur. Walter was an extremely experienced machinist who used to work at the Milwaukee Railroad.

However, he was residing in Parsons, Kansas at the time. The two of them sent a letter to Walter. They claimed that they had already built a motorcycle and wanted Walter to have the first ride. Walter ended up taking the bait and came to Milwaukee. He arrived expecting a working motorcycle, but arrived to a mess. He found that it wasn’t even a partially assembled bike, merely a pile of parts. However, the idea of a 2-wheeler self-propelled machine appealed to Walter. He ended up staying in Milwaukee to help William and Arthur with their dream of building a motorcycle.

Completing the dream team and starting the construction

The same year, William enrolled in the School of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin. It was around this time that William Davidson, the eldest Davidson brother caught wind of what they were up to. He decided to come and join the team. Williams was a seasoned mechanic and tool room foreman in the West Milwaukee shops, which was a railroad company. His skill set turned out to be an asset in building the first motorcycle. With the dream team together, the construction of the first Harley-Davidson bike started in a small wooden shed in the backyard of the Davidson family home.

Most of the bikes during the early 1900s were motorized bicycles. Even the soon-to-be-rival, Indian Motorcycles made use of a bicycle-style frame with a miniature, under-powered motor mounted in it. William Davidson took note of that and studied the loop frame design used by Merkel, a Milwaukee-based motorcycle manufacturer. Basing his designs on Merkel frames, the team’s first prototype used a 440cc single-cylinder motor and a loop frame. 

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Finishing the second prototype

With William Harley busy at engineering school and others working full-time, things started moving slowly. The second prototype got completed around 1903, and it has survived to this day. It has been displayed at the HD Museum in Milwaukee and named the Harley-Davidson Serial #1.  It also became the first Harley-Davidson bike to be documented as a participant in a motorcycle race. Unfortunately, they lost to another participant on a Mitchell motorcycle.

Setting up the company officially

Harley-Davidson was incorporated in 1907, with Walter Davidson getting selected to be the first president of the company. Arthur was chosen for the position of general sales manager as well as the secretary. William Harley was made the work’s manager. By this time, William Harley had successfully completed engineering school and taken the role of treasurer and chief engineer.  With the four founders at the help, Harley-Davidson ended up tripling its production in 1907, as they produced 150 machines.

After going through the timeline of the Harley-Davidson bike, you’ll probably be wondering why the company is named this way. Despite there being three Davidson brothers and one Harley, why is it not called “Davidson-Harley”? This is the case because the original idea to build a motorcycle came courtesy of William Harley. All of them agreed that his name deserved to be first.

One of the secrets to the success of the company was that all the founders were motorcycle enthusiasts. Whether it was endurance runs or participating in racing or any other reason, thy lived and breathed motorcycles. All four founding members worked for Harley-Davidson until they passed away, with Arthur Davidson living the longest. 

Harley-Davidson: From an unrealistic dream to a name that has defined American transportation

Harley-Davidson, as a brand, has come a long way since it was just a dream in the mind of William Harley. After he drew up plans for a small engine designed for a regular bike frame, he worked with the Davidson’s to build a motor bicycle. They finished the first model by 1903. While the bike wasn’t able to climb hills and needed pedaling assistance, their dream still lived on. They didn’t give up on their dreams and plans and started working on an improved machine. They went for a bigger engine with a loop-frame design. After they completed the prototype in 1904, they entered a local motorcycle race with their new motorcycle. Unfortunately, they only managed to place fourth. 

They finally had a working model. The barer Harley-Davidson engines got listed in the January 1905 Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal. 4 months later, the bikes began production. In the first year, they could only produce five bikes. Three of those bikes got sold by Carl H. Lang of Chicago, who was the first Harley-Davidson dealer.

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By the following year, the founding members moved into their first factory. It was located at the location where the Harley-Davidson headquarters currently sits. In the first year at the factory, they manufactured 50 motorcycles. It was 10x the production they had got in the year prior. Within a year of building their factory, they had already started preparing to expand to a second floor. In September 1907, the company was officially incorporated. That year, they produced 150 motorcycles and started selling the bikes to police departments. 

The brand continued growing and improving its production year after year. New technology, designs, and features kept getting introduced to attract more users. The factory had to be expanded multiple times to improve production and keep up with the growing demands of the Harley-Davidson bikes.

Since its inception, the Harley-Davidson brand has played a pivotal role in the history of not just transportation but the U.S. In fact, they would produce more than 20,000 bikes for the US military during World War I. As one of the two American motorcycle brands to survive the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson played a significant role in WWII. The brand produced more than 90,000 bikes to be used in World War II. The brand also got awarded two Army-Navy E Awards for its Excellence in Production. The brand Harley-Davidson was also honored for its efforts in the war.

Over a century later, the brand has grown from its humble beginnings in Milwaukee and turned into a transportation revolution. Harley-Davidson is an iconic piece of American history. For a large portion of motorcycle enthusiasts, Harley-Davidson bikes have become the go-to choice. Regardless of the things that have changed over the years, there is one thing that has always remained constant – the excellence of Harley-Davidson and its commitment to producing innovative, high-quality bikes.


Thank you for reading. Hopefully, you would have learned a thing or two about how did Harley-Davidson get its name. The brand’s name essentially involves the names of the founders who started the Harley-Davidson company. The brand was started by William Harley and the three Davidson brothers (Arthur, Walter, and William).

It was William Harley who came up with the idea of creating a motorcycle. This is why he got to put his name first, and it became Harley-Davidson and not Davidson-Harley. In its century of existence, the brand has truly revolutionized transportation in not just America but worldwide.

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