February 5, 2007


And the men behind the brand are...
William Harley and Arthur Davidson

William Harley and Arthur Davidson were Wisconsin boys looking for a way to make their rowboats get to the fishing holes faster. Harley began tinkering with drawings a friend had brought back from France of a small, one-cylinder gas engine.

Davidson had worked as a pattern maker for Ole Evinrude who was to become famous for outboard motors; he drew the patterns. Harley was working as an apprentice bicycle fitter. They read all available literature on gas motors. Davidson and Harley decided to work on motorized bicycles instead.

By 1903 they had their first prototype ready for the streets of Milwaukee. Their new motorcycle was painted gloss black and reached a top speed of 25 miles per hour. Harley, 23, and Davidson, 22, had no intentions of making their hobby a business but friends began asking for a similar machine.

Working weekends in a backyard shed two more motorcycles were constructed the next year. They chose the name "Harley-Davidson" in recognition of Harley's original design. Davidson's aunt created the distinctive logo for the gas tank.

Arthur's older brother Walter quit his job as a machinist in a railroad shop to come on board full-time in 1904 as Harley went to school full-time at the University of Wisconsin to gain formal engineering training. He paid expenses while waiting on fraternity tables.

Five motorcycles were hand-made in 1905 and by 1907 there were 150 motorcycles in production. Everyone surrendered their outside interests and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was officially incorporated. Walter Davidson was named president, William Harley chief engineer, Arthur Davidson sales manager and William Davidson, the eldest of the Davidson brothers, joined the company as production member. Each founding partner remained in their original positions until their deaths.

In 1907 the American motorcycle market was glutted with small manufacturers. One way to stand out was to win highly publicized races. Harley-Davidson joined motorcycle competition in 1908 when Walter Davidson entered a two-day endurance ride in New York. Eighty-four riders representing 22 manufacturers started the race and fewer than half survived the gutted country roads. Davidson won the race and another several weeks later, getting an estimated 188 miles per gallon.

Behind the renowned Harley-Davidson racing team, known as "The Wrecking Crew", sales grew. But the controversies and fluctuations that have always dogged the motorcycle industry had already begun. In 1920 Harley-Davidson sales reached to the 28,000-bike mark. They would not reach that level again until 1942.

William Davidson was the first of the partners to die, in 1937 at the age of 66. As production manager he enjoyed a close relationship with his workers, often carrying personal debts he would never collect from his men. Shortly before his death seven workers organized a union affiliation with the CIO, creating a rift in the close-knit Harley-Davidson plants. Two days after William Davidson saw his beloved production team become a union shop he died.

Walter Davidson ruled, oft times ruthlessly, as president until his death in 1942 at the age of 67. His tight-fisted operational style was necessary to keep Harley-Davidson a viable concern, especially during the lean years. In times of prosperity, like the early 1920s the public could more readily afford cars and in bad times they couldn't afford any transportation. Output dropped to less than 4000 motorcycles during the Depression. But Walter Davidson kept his company profitable.

Although William Harley relinquished much of the day-to-day design work on new motorcycles he remained a giant in the industry as the creator of the original, reliable Harley-Davidson bike. An avid outdoorsman, Harley increasingly became an automobile enthusiast through the years. He remained chief engineer until his death in 1943 at the age of 63.

Arthur Davidson was the most outgoing of the partners. His biggest contribution to the firm was the creation of an extensive dealer network when the only Harley-Davidson claim to fame was Walter Davidson's road-racing triumphs. By 1921 there were Harley-Davidson dealers in 67 countries. Arthur Davidson died at the age of 69 in 1950, ironically, in a car crash.

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