Are you a Harley-Davidson enthusiast, and you are curious to learn more about the first Harley-Davidson bike? If yes, then you are certainly in the right place.
Where is the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle is a common thought that pops up in the minds of Harley bikers who love exploring the history of the iconic company. The first Harley-Davidson bike was the Harley-Davidson Serial Number One, and this bike dates back to the early 1903-05 era. The bike currently resides in the Harley-Davidson lobby located at the Juneau Avenue. The company founders created at least one prototype before this bike and, of course, several production machines after it that differed in both the power of the engine and in general configuration.
In this article, you will get to learn all about the first Harley-Davidson bike, where is the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle, the history and evolution of the company, and more. Continue reading to get all the answers that you are looking for.
Where is the First Harley-Davidson Motorcycle?
The Harley-Davidson Serial Number One is the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The bike dates back to the 1903-05 era, and it currently resides in the Harley-Davidson lobby at
Juneau Avenue. The founders of the iconic company built at least one prototype before it. Further, it also produced hundreds of amazing machines after it, and they differed both in terms of the power of the engine and general configuration.
Meticulous research by Harley-Davidson Archives staff and external experts has proven that Harley-Davidson Serial Number One was actually built without fenders and used in competitions. It probably illustrated the power and reliability of the bike’s motor. After all, as the company name implied, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company sold both motors and motorcycles.
While it is clearly identified with many of its components as Serial Number One, it isn’t actually the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle known to man. This distinction would go to one of the unnamed prototypes of the bike. Instead, it was the development platform from which the very first true Harley-Davidson street motorcycles originated. It is the first Harley-Davidson bike to be considered ready for production. Except for the refinements that civilized it as a street machine, it is essentially the same as the models that followed it.
Harley-Davidson Serial Number One might not be the first Harley-Davidson bike in theory, but it is definitely the first true Harley-Davidson bike. Moreover, beyond any doubt, it also happens to be the oldest Harley-Davidson bike in existence today.
A Detailed Look at the First Harley-Davidson Motorcycle
Motorcycles all over the world come with unique aspects and features, but some of them are as simple as the standard motorcycles seen around the world. When you come across a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, these bikes are recognizable for their iconic designs. Harley bikes vary from classic to modern machines. Harley-Davidson has designed, assembled, and marketed motorcycles, accessories, and motorcycle parts for centuries. The headquarters of the company are in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States.
The iconic company offers general merchandise that is related to its products, and the company markets through a market of independent dealers all over the world. Harley-Davidson continues producing high-quality and innovative motorcycles. Despite the decades that have passed and events that happened such as the great depression or the COVID-19 pandemic, they never seem to get out of the style of customizing motorcycles in the community.
How the company created its first production bike
There are hundreds of exciting facts about William Harley and the three Davidson brothers, but the team had rather humble beginnings. The story started with a speck of ideas and plans of William Harley, a 20-year-old boy. He began to create small engines and small displacement motorcycles with regular pedal bicycle frames.
Years later, William started work on a motorized bicycle with his childhood friend Arthur Davidson and his brother Walter Davidson. The first valuable learning experiment helped improve the vehicle. The motorcycle received an engine with a displacement of 24.74 cubic inches, having a flywheel that weighed 28 lbs.
The pattern of the loop frame of this bike was similar to the design of Joseph Merkel’s 1903 Milwaukee Merkel motorcycle. The band of boys used the design pattern for more significant loop frames and engines, while also marking it for future motorcycle designs. It was actually in 1901 when William Harley started developing a prototype using an engine capacity of 7.07 cubic inches.
Arthur Davidson is the one who began work on the bike and finally finished the first prototype in 1903. Once the first prototype was complete, the company decided the work on a better version and considered it as the first real Harley-Davidson bike.
William Davidson, who was the toolroom foreman and also the oldest of the Davidson brothers, had a major role in the bike. He used to work for the West Milwaukee rail shop, and it was here that they fabricated the major parts of the prototype and used the 405cc prototype at the Milwaukee race competition in 1904. Edward Hilderbrand rode the motorcycle and finished the race in 4th place.
Stunning features of the first Harley-Davidson production bike
The first production of the first Harley-Davidson bike started in 1905 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, United States. The Harley-Davidson Serial Number 1 was almost the same as the motorcycles built in previous years. The model used an engine of the inlet-over-exhaust single. It came with a capacity of 24.74 cubic inches and operated on the transmission of a single-speed belt drive.
The frame used for the Harley-Davidson Serial Number 1 is a tubular loop and had a weight of 1.851 lb. Interestingly, it could hold a maximum speed of 40 mph and utilized pedal power. This was largely needed once the engine couldn’t provide the sufficient amount of power needed.
The bike was selling for as much as $200, which was considered a fair chunk of money at the time. The iconic motorcycle company only produced 38 copies of the motorcycle. A model of the first production motorcycle is still on display in the lobby of the company’s headquarters. After almost 120 years, the Harley-Davidson Serial Number 1 is well worth over $15 million according to a valuation tool. It is still the oldest bike from the company, which is still in existence today.
Harley-Davidson Serial Number 1 revolutionized the company’s production
After the production of the Harley-Davidson Serial Number 1, Harley-Davidson earned its reputation with single-cylinder 24 cubic-inch bikes. Further, the company was also ready to go right into the ranks of the manufacturing business. After 12 months of production of the company’s first production motorcycle, they built their first-ever factory, located on Juneau Avenue in 1906. The factory is still in existence today, and it is currently at the location of the Harley-Davidson headquarters.
The company improved its creation with the engine enlarged to 26.8 cubic inches and included a spring suspension system at the front end. The model received a color option – Renault Gray with a red pinstripe, which spawned the interesting nickname “The Silent Gray Fellow”. This extremely rare 1906 Harley-Davidson was essentially the historical origins of the company.
In 1907, the motorcycle company expanded the factory, and it was incorporated that September. With the expansion, the production got increased to 150 units in the same year. William A. Davidson, the eldest of the Davidson brothers, decided to quit his job and joined the motor company the same year. In February 1907, Harley built a 45° V-Twin engine prototype model and displayed the model at the Chicago Automobile Show. The Harley-Davidson V-Twin engine had a displacement of 53.68 cubic inches, and it had a horsepower of 7 HP. This gave the simple version almost 2x its power, and the given top speed was around 50-60 mph.
Since then, the motorcycle company thrived in the motorcycle industry and created some of the most iconic bikes in the world. Further, Harley-Davidson has gone on to create some of the most important bikes in history.
The Rich History of Harley-Davidson Bikes
In 1901, a young boy named William S. Harley drew up creative plans for a small engine that could potentially be used in a motorcycle frame. With the help of his friend Arthur Davidson, William Harley worked on his motorized bicycle for many years at a local machine shop that was owned by a friend of theirs. The two boys had grown up just a few blocks apart from each other in their hometown of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
The boys were fueled by their love of bicycles from an early age. William had a job at a bicycle factory when he was 15 as he worked as a cycle fitter and drafter. This was while working as a drafter at the Barth Manufacturing Company that William designed his first internal combustion engine.
The first prototype
With the help of Water Davidson, the brother of Arthur, this prototype bike was finished in 1903. It was quite underpowered and unable to get up hills around Milwaukee without any help from the pedals of the bicycle. The three boys were undeterred, though, and began work on a new design.
Soon after that, the two boys were joined by William Davidson, the eldest brother of Arthur Davidson. The Davidson brothers and William Harley had finished the second prototype by 1904. This motorcycle took part in a local motorcycle race and placed 4th. The team was officially up and running.
Now that they got a successful prototype, they started to build a company. By 1905, the company made 5 motorcycles, three of which got sold by Carl H. Lang of Chicago. This made him the first Harley-Davidson dealer in history. By 1906, the four of them were moving out of the wooden shed in their backyard and into their first factory.
Setting up the factory
During Harley’s first year in the factory, the company produced 50 pieces. The following year, Harley-Davidson expanded the factory and was officially incorporated. In 1907, the company made 150 motorcycles and began selling them to police departments and the general public.
Harley-Davidson continued growing and marketing the motorcycles anywhere they saw an opportunity. Soon, not just the police departments, but the United States Postal Service also started using them to deliver mail. During WWI, Harley-Davidson produced more than 20,000 bikes for the US military.
Harley-Davidson was one of the two American motorcycle companies to survive the gear depression. The company also played a significant role in WWII as it produced a staggering number of bikes for the military, manufacturing over 90,000 pieces. For the efforts, the company was awarded numerous awards for excellence in production.
The new image of Harley-Davidson
Veteran bikers were able to buy their battered army motorcycles from the military for cheap and continue using them in civilian life. Many of these motorcycles got modified, and the chopper was officially here. The image of the Harley-Davidson bikers was no longer that of a clean-cut USPS delivery man, but of a cool, wild, roaming outlaw who performed wheelies and got in bar fights.
As the vivid image of the violent, individualistic biker got strengthened, the other side of the market kept on being left more and more open. This is when rivals like Honda came into the picture.
While Harley-Davidson bikers were viewed as aggressive and sometimes even anti-society, Honda marketed its bikes as being for everyone. The history of Honda and Harley-Davidson in the United States are very much intertwined.
On the brink of failure
Honda performed a wonderful job of selling bikes to people who were not that interested in motorcycles. Now faced with a couple of years of declining profits and a strong competitor with an entirely different approach, what did Harley do? Harley-Davidson went to Ronald Reagan and asked for help in dealing with the fact that the company was being beaten. In 1983, Reagan came through and placed a 45% tariff on imported motorcycles over 700cc.
This largely excluded foreign companies from having any chance to succeed in Harley-Davidson’s core market space, at least for a couple of years. Reagan’s protection seemed to work from the outside, which sparked an upward trend for the company. By 2006, the company netted more than 1 billion dollars in profit.
However, it was not specifically Reagan’s help that the company helped here. Foreign manufacturers began selling 699cc bikes in the United States, so the tariffs didn’t seem to affect them as much as they could have. The profits had more to do with Harley-Davidson cleaning up its production and quality control, which really saved it. Regardless of that, in the eyes of many, Reagan helped bail them out.
Post-tariff years of Harley
Harley-Davidson was back, for now, but time eventually caught up. If the average Harley-Davidson biker was 43 in 1999, they were 46 in 2004, and 48 in 2008, but how old are they now? The company stopped releasing these numbers, but assumptions could be made.
Harley-Davidson knew that its market was aging, so in the late 2000s, the company began trying to appeal to younger generations, with like the XR1200 Sportster. However, the previous focus on the hardcore image of bikers meant that, for most younger folks, Harley-Davidson still appeared just how it was branded itself a few years earlier. For this reason, among many others, these motorcycles did not sell that well.
Ultimately, the sales in the years gone by indicated a consistent decline in profits. The company started buying back shares at an alarming rate, so the company’s share price looked quite good, but the sales painted a different picture. By seeking the help of Reagan, the company solidified its image as a pure-blooded American company. This choice might have helped the company at the time, but Harley-Davidson has now been actively trying to sell its bikes to markets outside the USA. When tariffs in the United States were instituted on imported aluminum and steel, the EU responded by instilling tariffs on American products like Harley-Davidson bikes.
Modern problems for Harley-Davidson
The result was that Harley-Davidson had to pay more for materials to make motorcycles that are selling internationally for much less than it was previously. The company ramped up overseas production to try and dodge these tariffs that began to eat into its profit margins.
As you can imagine, this was in direct contrast to the hardcore image Harley-Davidson had been pushing for years. With these changes, hardcore American fans were not happy about this change.
Harley-Davidson, relatively undeterred, has been attempting to do what Honda did all that years ago, and tried to bring bikes into a non-rider space. Electric motorcycles and small e-bikes have all been done in the name of reversing this unsustainable image. If it were Yamaha or Honda looking to expand into this market, it wouldn’t seem too odd or even notable. However, this is Harley-Davidson and its choice appears to be in direct contrast to the past 50 years of history.
The future for Harley-Davidson is pretty uncertain, after spending years heading blindly in a specific direction, and seems to be taking a gradual turn and heading back in the positive direction. This is a difficult rebranding effort and if the company goes through with this, only time will tell whether it’ll work or not. But one thing is for certain, though, Harley-Davidson is not giving up.
Where was the first Harley-Davidson bike built?
Harley-Davidson was officially founded in 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It was here that the first Harley-Davidson bike was built. The first production of Harley-Davidson is still present in the Harley-Davidson Museum.
What is the oldest Harley-Davidson bike?
The Harley-Davidson Serial Number 1 was the first bike produced by the legendary American manufacturer Harley-Davidson.
Does the first Harley-Davidson bike still exist?
Harley-Davidson Serial Number One is not actually the first Harley-Davidson bike, but it is the first true Harley-Davidson that went into production that was later developed. Beyond any doubt, it is the oldest Harley-Davidson bike that is still in existence today.
What is the first bike in the world?
General inventor Karl von Drais is widely credited with developing the first bicycle. His machine was called the “swiftwalker” and it hit the road in 1817. The early bicycle didn’t have any pedals, while its frame was a wooden beam.