From delivering the mail to defending the country, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle rolled profoundly across American history in the 20th century.
The mighty American-made motorcycle itself became a classic symbol of life and transportation in the US.
“Think of America and you think of the Statue of Liberty, the Golden Gate Bridge, James Dean, Elvis Presley, Coca-Cola, blue jeans and Harley-Davidson,” writes Hugo Wilson in the introduction of his book, Harley-Davidson.
“The metal, chrome, bold paint and throbbing sound of the class Harley has become an international symbol of the American dream,” adds Wilson.
Harley-Davidson Story – Generally the story began as the 20th century began. In 1901, a 21-year old William S. Harley completed detailed plans on what was to be basically a motorized bicycle.
Harley and Arthur Davidson worked in their spare time to perfect their design in a makeshift basement garage.
Two years later they had expanded their operation to a small, backyard wooden shed which bore the scrawled company name, Harley-Davidson Motor Company.
More importantly, they had produced their first few Harley-Davidson motorcycles on site in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
By 1904 Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson, had joined the business and a Chicago dealer had sold one of the three original motorcycles the trio had produced. Earlier, the group had sold one of the motorcycles right in the factory.
Harley-Davidson 1903 Motorcycle Diorama
Incorporated – The growing Harley-Davidson operation was finally incorporated in 1907. The stock was divided four ways to not only include the three earlier partners, but to also include another of Arthur’s brothers, William Davidson.
By this time, the company had 18 employees and was eagerly looking for ways to expany their factory site.
Barely one year later, in 1908, the firm sold the very first Harley-Davidson motorcycle to a police department. It went to the forward-thinking police department of Detroit, Michigan.
Fascination with speed – But the greater appeal of the Harleys was the public’s fascination with speed. Over the next few years they were regularly being advertised for their speed and their accomplishments at various racing events.
Much changed by the following decade. The company, doing well with the ‘workhorse’ F-head engine, modernized with a V-Twin model engine which incorporated mechanically operated intake valves.
Soon the growing company was exporting motorcycles to places as far away as Japan.
Stateside, their 1912 network had expanded to include more than 200 dealers operating independently selling the latest issue of Harley-Davidson vehicles.
Just one year later their yellow brick factory was demolished to make room for an even bigger five-story red brick building. Production then increased to more than 16,000 motorcycles annually.
Joined the Army – Harley-Davidson had joined the Army by 1916 when the federal government employed them at the Mexican border to deal with the forces of Poncho Villa. This time, the military-equipped motorcycles bore fully firing machine guns.
Harley-Davidson 1942 WLA Military Motorcycle
The Harleys saw service in numerous other federal agencies as well as including thousands which were used for rural mail delivery by the US Post Office.
Bicycles – The firm reached out to Ohio in 1917 with the idea of also manufacturing a Harley-Davidson bicycle. The bikes were produced as individual components by the Davis Sewing Machine Company in Dayton, Ohio. They were then sold through the Harley-Davidson dealer network.
After legendary service for the military during World War I, the Harley-Davidson company was again making changes and improvements in its vehicles. One change was the evolution of fuel storage to the so-called tear-drop tank in the middle 1920s.
During that same decade, the crew at Harley-Davidson developed an even more efficient racing motorcycle. Based on the distinctive sound of its exhaust system it was called the Peashooter.
Despite all the changes of that period the standard olive green finish for each motorcycle remained.
Toy Replicas – During the 1930s, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle was so incredibly popular that leading toy manufacturing companies like Hubley began producing cast-iron replicas of the might bike.
Hubley variations included the hill climber motorcycle with side car and the parcel post truck.
Knucklehead – Meanwhile at Harley-Davidson, the 1930s saw the oddly named Knuclehead became a major design. Its name was attributed to the remarkable push rod tubes and the rocker pivots that came with the model.
The FL version operated on low compression, while the EL operated on high compression. The Knucklehead remained popular in the trade for the next two decades.
“The Knucklehead was one of Harley’s most important models,” comments Wilson. “Its combination of good looks, excellent performance and mechanical innovation helped Harley overtake Indian as America’s prime motorcycle producer.”
First Harley-Davidson “Knuckhead, 1936 EL”
War Effort – Harley-Davidson went to war in a big way during the early 1940s. Rather awesome models were produced immediately for the war effort. Some 80,000 to 90,000 units were made available, the WLA being made for the American Army and the WLC for he Canadian army.
They weren’t particularly fancy, but they were rugged. The WWII military models were “devoid of all unnecessary trim and featured upgraded air filters, bash plates and mudguard, as well as obvious military modifications such as gun holsters and blackout lighting,” add Wilson.
Surviving models of those amazing World War II models complete with army gear are highly prized by collectors today.
Post-War – By 1948 the post-war Harley-Davidson company had redesigned the original Knucklehead engine. Given newly altered rocket covers on its revised valve gear, it also acquired a new name, Panhead.
Harley-Davidson “Panhead FL”
Early in the 1950s Harley-Davidson expanded on its marketing of motorcycles to police departments around the US. The Harleys sold to the police forces were typically durable and rugged.
One sold to a department in an Ohio town (Willowick), for example, was used on the job for 36 years.
Harley-Davidson “Panhead Police Bike”
Durability not withstanding, competition from Europe steadily increased on the American motorcycle market during the 1950s.
Response to Competition – Harley-Davidson responded, in part, with new and improved models. Their XL Sportster later in that decade featured a futuristic overhead-valve system and consequently an even more powerful motorcycle.
Harley added an electic starter to the Duo Glide in the 1960s and marketed it as the hipper, fully-equipped Electra Glide. Revised and revved up, it flirted at speeds of 100 miles per hour.
Production and public admiration sped through the 1970s and 1980s side by side for Harley-Davidson in this country and elsewhere.
Keep Rolling Ahead – Into the 1990s, production of Harley motorcycles exceeded 80,000 in 1993 and three years later production neared 100,000 annually. Today Harley-Davidson motorcycles and memorabilia of the past just keep roling ahead to the future.
From the movie Easy Rider, the radical customized Harley-Davidson Panhead Motorcycle