Are you a Harley-Davidson bike owner curious to find out exactly when this iconic brand was founded? If yes, then you’re definitely in the right place.
Harley-Davidson founded back in the early 1900s thanks to childhood friends William Harley and Arthur Davidson. The brand has come a long way since the initial days and has been offering premium motor services for more than a century. Harley-Davidson has managed to establish itself as the signature motorcycle brand of America and continues to release powerful bikes that are a joy to ride.
In this article, you’ll get to know all about Harley-Davidson as a brand, when was Harley-Davidson founded, about the early days of the brand, the four owners who started the company, and a lot more. Stick around to get all the answers that you’re looking for.
When was Harley-Davidson founded?
Harley-Davidson was founded back in 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, although it was officially incorporated in 1907, with Walter Davidson being chosen as the first president. Arthur Davidson was made the first general sales manager and the secretary. Meanwhile, Williams Davidson became the first works manager and William Harley was made the chief engineer and treasurer.
Given the ratio of three Davidson brothers to just one Harley, it’s valid to wonder why the company wasn’t referred to as “Davidson-Harley”. As the original idea for the bike came from William Harley, the gang felt that it was only fair to have his name first.
Very few motorcycle brands command the same respect and name recognition as Harley-Davidson. The iconic American brand was established in the early 1900s, and it has developed a major following and remains one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world. Childhood friends Arthur Davidson and William Harley are the ones credited with the creation of the brand. Both friends had an early fascination with bikes and worked on prototypes for motorbikes in their spare time.
It led to the creation of their first bike in 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and it resulted in an upward trajectory. This helped them through a wide range of changes and struggles throughout the years. In 1983, Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (MMI) and Harley-Davidson joined their hands, leading to the creation of many specialized elective programs available to students interested in working with the brand.
Early days of Harley-Davidson
Harley-Davidson founders William Harley and Arthur Davidson worked on the prototype for the brand’s first bike in a 10×15 foot shed. The prototype was completed in 1903, but they immediately started working on a newer, more modern bike.
A new prototype that featured a bigger engine got completed in 1904. This model was used for participating in motorcycle racing at State Fair Park in Milwaukee. The first production bike, the Harley-Davidson Model No. 1 was officially released in 1905, and it was very similar to the first two motorcycles produced.
The brand had started producing complete bikes on a limited basis. The first Harley-Davidson dealer was Carl H. Lang of Chicago, who managed to sell three of the five motorcycles that had been built in the backyard shed. The first Harley-Davidson factory was built in 1906 on the Chestnut Street in Milwaukee, where the brand produced 50 bikes that year. By 1907, Arthur’s two brothers, Walter and William Davidson, had already joined the initiative.
In 1917, around 50% of Harley’s sales would go to the U.S. armed forces to be used in World War I. The first service school started operations in Milwaukee to train army mechanics. Harley-Davidson completed the facility on Juneau Avenue in 1920. The building was seven stories high, and it exists today for use as the corporate office center.
Between 1941 and 1945, Harley-Davidson had started informing dealers that because of commitments with the Army, the dealers would be guaranteed one new bike per model year throughout the duration of World War II. An estimated 88,000 bikes were built for the military during this time, alongside a huge supply of repair parts. The production increased through the years, with the company thriving through a range of historical events. Until now, Harley-Davidson still remains an extremely iconic American motorcycle brand.
Who were the four founding members of Harley-Davidson?
William Harley was just a year older than Arthur Davidson, and the two grew up a few houses apart in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The boys were enamored with bicycles. In fact, William took a job in a Milwaukee-based bicycle factory when he was only 15. He would rise from the rank of a cycle fitter to a drafter, and it led him to work as a draftsman at the Barth Manufacturing Company. It was there that Harley designed his first internal combustion engine. It was based on the French de Dion-Bouton engine, which went on to be used by many early bike manufacturers.
Alongside Arthur, there was another draftsman from Barth and a friend whose dad owned a lathe, William and his friends would spend the next few years working on a proto motorcycle in their spare time. While the prototype fizzled out, it proved to be invaluable as it made William and Arthur realize that their efforts needed a machinist.
The two of them reached out to Arthur’s older brother Walter, who used to live in Parsons, Kansas at the time. When Walter arrived, he was expecting to see a motorcycle, but instead he was only greeted with an unfinished mess. In that mess, Walter saw a dream, and he decided to stay in Milwaukee to make Arthur and William’s dream a reality.
Soon, the trio was joined by another mechanic – William Davidson, who was Arthur’s eldest brother. By 1904, the four of them had completed a second prototype. It became the first Harley-Davidson bike to participate in a motorcycle race. While the bike did not win, the team was off and running to make motorcycle history.
William Harley was the one who came up with the idea of the motorcycle. He was also the first chief engineer and treasurer of Harley-Davidson. Engineering ran in his family as his father William Harley Sr. was a railway engineer. He, alongside his wife Mary Smith, emigrated to the States in 1860 from England. William Harley Jr. was born in 1880. When he wasn’t working on the prototypes of the original motorcycle, Harley was busy pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, which he earned in 1907.
Harley started tinkering with the idea of a motorcycle when working at Barth Manufacturing Company. Throughout the years, he’d build on the successes of his previous models. When the first models got completed in 1903 with a buckle crank, Harley had already started trying to figure out how to create a two-cylinder engine, which he did by 1909.
Harley would remain the chief engineer and treasurer at Harley-Davidson until his unfortunate death. He was also an indispensable facet of the company’s success and key in the development and introduction of new bikes. An avid racer, he even had the pleasure of testing his latest creations.
Arthur Davidson was the youngest Davidson Brother as he was born on February 11th, 1981 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Arthur developed a close friendship with Walter Harley as a child. The two shared a keen interest in biking and would even fish together.
Arthur Davidson was made the first general sales manager and secretary of Harley-Davidson. Davidson successfully got the police departments, USPS, and the military to use Harley-Davidson bikes. He even started a Harley-Davidson service school responsible for training qualified mechanics. Arthur saw the true value in the coalition of industry insiders and riders as they worked toward the common end of advancing motorcycling. Davidson got inspired to align himself closely with and support the American Motorcyclist Association.
William Davidson was born in Milwaukee alongside his brothers Arthur Davidson and Walter Davidson. William quit his job with the Milwaukee Road railroad and joined the founding crew that would start Harley-Davidson. It was a big risk considering how well his old job paid.
Once the original foursome started Harley-Davidson, William was made the works manager. His responsibilities were to buy presses and other tools for the manufacturing process. Throughout his tenure, William would keep in close contact with factory employees. They were his eyes and ears on the ground, and would keep him abreast of everything necessary to keep the factory running smoothly.
As a child, Walter Davidson raced and repaired bikes. As a teen, he taught himself to be an electrician and was also known to make his own batteries. After he got called to Milwaukee from Kansas to work on the first bike, Walter became an indispensable part of what would eventually be known as Harley-Davidson. He joined his brother Arthur and William in finishing the first batch of motorcycles sold to the public. Walter, as it turned out, was responsible for building the first bike.
When the company was incorporated in 1907, Walter would be made the first President and General Manager. He would spend the rest of his life working at Harley-Davidson, including delivering speeches to stockholders. Waters was also a motorcycle enthusiast, as he won many races as a rider, including the 1908 Federation of American Motorcyclists endurance run in the Catskill Mountains. This was a great accomplishment, and it provided a great deal of press for the new motorcycle company.
Thank you for reading. Hopefully, now you know a lot more about Harley-Davidson as a brand, when was Harley-Davidson founded, about the early days of the brand, the four owners who started the company, and a lot more. Harley-Davidson is a brand that was founded back in the early 1900s thanks to childhood friends William Harley and Arthur Davidson. The brand has come a long way since the initial days and has been offering premium motor services for more than a century. Harley-Davidson has managed to establish itself as the signature motorcycle brand of America and continues to release powerful bikes that are a joy to ride.