Do you own a Harley-Davidson bike and feel intrigued by how great it feels to take your bike out for a long drive? But did you ever wonder where it all began, and where did Harley-Davidson start? If so, you’ll get to know all about it here.
Harley-Davidson started in a 10×15 foot shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin after two close friends William Harley and Arthur Davidson had the idea of creating a bike that ran using power from a motor. The first few prototypes failed, but the friends kept on trying, adding more people to their team, and eventually, they were able to produce a working prototype With time, Harley-Davidson ended up being the most iconic motorcycle brand in not just America but all over the world.
In this article, you’ll get to know all about the story behind Harley-Davidson, where did Harley-Davidson start, the Harley-Davidson timeline, and more. Stick around to get all the answers that you’re looking for.
Where did Harley-Davidson start?
Whether you’re a die-hard Harley-Davidson rider or just a casual motorcycle owner, there is no denying that very few companies have achieved the success and status that Harley-Davidson has enjoyed over its almost 120-year history. But where did Harley-Davidson start, and who were the visionaries responsible for this iconic brand?
Most people would guess that it was likely some guy named Harley and his fellow partner Davidson. This would be very close to the truth, but there are more parties involved as well. A more complete version would be that Harley-Davidson was founded by William Harley and the three Davidson brothers – Arthur, Walter, and William.
The Harley-Davidson brand can trace its beginnings all the way back to the late 1800s to a house on 9th Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In fact, there were actually two houses on 9th Street, the first one belonged to the Harley family while the other belonged to the Davidson family. William Harley and Arthur Davidson were just a year apart in age and grew up just a few houses away from each other. This made for the beginnings of a life-long friendship.
Similar to most boys of that era, they were entranced by the hot new form of two-wheeled transportation called the bicycle. William became so intrigued by bicycles that he ended up taking a job at the Milwaukee-based bicycle factory aged 15. Little did he know that this would set him on the path to building his first Harley-Davidson bike.
By the turn of the century, William had managed to work his way up from cycle fitter to draftsman. He eventually left the company to work as a draftsman for the Barth Manufacturing Company. It was actually during this time that he ended up designing his first internal combustion engine based on the French de Dion-Bouton engine. It was widely used and copied by early motorcycle manufacturers. With the help of Arthur Davidson, a fellow draftsman at Barth, and a mutual friend whose dad owned a lathe, William spent the next few years trying to complete a prototype machine in his spare time.
Creating the prototypes for the first Harley-Davidson bike
The first machine didn’t actually materialize, but Williams had already started putting his skills as a draftsman to use. By 1903, he was ready with the second prototype. William and Arthur soon realized that they needed a competent machinist to build a complete motorcycle. They decided to hatch a plan to enlist the help of Arthur’s oldest brother, Walter. Walter was a highly experienced machinist who worked at the Milwaukee Railroad, but was living in Parsons, Kansas at the time.
To convince Walter to come, Harley and Davidson sent him a letter that claimed they had already built a bike, and they were saving the first ride for him. Walter took the bait and once he arrived, he found that they weren’t even remotely close to having a properly assembled motorcycle. It was just a pile of different parts. However, something about the idea of a two-wheeled self-propelled bike appealed to Walter. He decided to stay to help the two build their first motorcycle.
The same year, William ended up enrolling in the School of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. It was around this time that the eldest Davidson brother, William, caught wind of what his brothers and William Harley were doing. He also came and joined the group. William was a tool room foreman and a mechanic for the West Milwaukee shops, and his skillset was a great asset in developing their first motorcycle. With the “dream team” together, the construction of the first Harley-Davidson bike started in earnest in a small wooden shed located in the backyard of Davidson’s home.
Most of the bikes on the road during the early 1900s were basically just motorized bicycles. Even Harley’s soon-to-be rival, the Indian Motorcycle Company, utilized a bicycle-style frame with a small, under-powered motor. William took note of that and looked at the loop frame design that was used by fellow Milwaukee motorcycle manufacturer Merkel. Taking inspiration from the Merkel frame for his own designs, the first Harley-Davidson prototype was built using a loop frame and a 440cc single cylinder motor.
With William away at engineering school and others working full time, things began to move a bit slowly. The second prototype got completed around 1904, and it still survives until now. It is known as Harley-Davidson Serial #1, and it can be seen at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee. It was also the first Harley-Davidson bike to be documented as participating in a motorcycle race. However, they ended up losing to another rider on a Mitchell motorcycle.
Incorporating the company in 1907
Harley-Davidson was finally incorporated in 1907. The middle brother Walter got chosen to be the first president of the company. Arthur would take over the position of general sales manager and secretary. The eldest brother William became the works manager. By then, William Harley had graduated engineering school and took on the role of chief engineer and treasurer. With the four founders at the help, Harley-Davidson tripled its production for 1907 by producing 150 machines.
With the company finally being established, you might be wondering why it was known as Harley-Davidson when there were three Davison brothers and just one Harley. The original idea of building a motorized bicycle actually came from William Harley. Hence, everyone agreed that his name should go first.
One of the secrets to the success of the Harley-Davidson brand was that all four founders were true motorcycle enthusiasts. Whether it was taking part in endurance runs or racing or just taking the bike down to the lake for fishing, Harley and the Davidson brothers truly lived and breathed motorcycles. All four founders continued working for Harley-Davidson until their deaths. Arthur Davidson outlived all of them until he eventually passed away in 1950.
The timeline of Harley-Davidson motorcycles
Let’s go back in time and follow the timeline of Harley-Davidson as a company –
- 1903 – William Harley, Arthur Davidson, Walter Davidson, and William Davidson build their first motorcycle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin
- 1909 – Harley-Davidson introduces the first-ever V-twin engine
- 1936 – Harley-Davidson’s first-ever overhead-valve engine, the Knucklehead, debuts in 1936 after Harley-Davidson becomes one of the only two American motorcycle brands to survive the depression
- 1941-45 – Harley-Davidson manufactures over 90,000 motorcycles to be used by the US Military and its Allies during World War II
- 1957 – The Harley-Davidson XL Sportster model is introduced
- 1965 – The brand’s first public stock offering goes live
- 1971 – The introduction of the Harley-Davidson FX Super Glide model, the brand’s first “factory custom” as well as the precursor to models such as the present-day Softail Deuce
- 1981 – 13 members of Harley-Davidson’s senior management team buy the company from AMF in a leveraged buyout
- 1984 – The introduction of Evolution V-twin while also debuting the first Softail model
- 1986 – Harley-Davidson returns back to public ownership, with the stock trading at $11 per share at its IPO
- 1998 – Harley-Davidson acquires Buell, with over 100,000 enthusiasts traveling to Milwaukee to celebrate the company’s 95th birthday
- 2001 – The Harley-Davidson V-Rod equipped with Harley-Davidson’s first-ever liquid-cooled engine gets released
- 2003 – The Motor Company officially celebrates its 100th anniversary with a year-long worldwide celebration
- 2006 – The 2006 Harley-Davidson Dyna bike gets released with six-speed transmissions, while the company also announces that a major new museum is scheduled to open in Milwaukee
- 2007 – Harley-Davidson upgrades its Big Twin motor, stroking it to 96 cubic inches, earning the moniker Twin Cam 96
- 2008 – The company opens its impressive major new museum in time for the company’s 105th anniversary
- 2009 – Keith Wendell becomes the first person since 1981 to become the CEO of Harley-Davidson without any previous connections to the motor company
Thank you for reading. Hopefully, now you know a lot more about the story behind Harley-Davidson, where did Harley-Davidson start, the Harley-Davidson timeline, and more. Harley-Davidson started in a 10×15 foot shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin after two close friends William Harley and Arthur Davidson had the idea of creating a bike that ran using power from a motor. The first few prototypes failed, but the friends kept on trying, adding more people to their team, and eventually, they were able to produce a working prototype With time, Harley-Davidson ended up being the most iconic motorcycle brand in not just America but all over the world.