Harley-Davidson’s history is pure American culture

Learn about the company that has embodied the stars and stripes for more than 100 years.

August 24, 2016

Harley-Davidson is not just one of the great motorcycle or even motoring brands, but one of the most iconic and recognisable business names full stop. And it all began in a small wooden shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

There, in 1901, William S. Harley, aged 21, drew a blueprint of an engine that could be fitted into a bicycle frame. Two years later he and his friend Arthur Davidson presented their first motorcycle to the public. The brand took off and a proper factory was opened in 1906.

The brotherhood of beginnings

Friends Arthur Davidson and William S. Harley tinkered with engines and bicycles but they needed mechanical expertise. In 1903, Arthur wrote to his brother Walter, a railroad machinist. Walter arrived in Milwaukee and continued the work they had begun. A third Davidson brother, William, who was a skilled mechanic, completed the quartet who founded the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. 

Medal of honour

World War II was a key moment in the brand’s history as Harley began supplying the US military with motorcycles in 1942. 

Loved by American soldiers, they returned home after the war and took up motorbikes as a hobby. After the war in 1947 the brand brought out a range of black leather motorcycle jackets. 

Seen on screen

The popularity of biker films with cinema audiences in the 1950s helped propel Harley-Davidson and other brands such as Indian to greater heights. A young Elvis Presley sitting on a Harley KH motorcycle on the cover of The Enthusiast motorbike magazine must have sent the marketing department into rapture.

Harley-Davidson well and truly put their stamp on motorcycle history with the introduction of their iconic Sportster in 1957. 

Join the club

The Harley Owners Group, or H.O.G. to use its nickname, was launched in 1983, which enabled Harley-Davidson owners to congregate and celebrate their love of the company. Within six years, membership stood at more than 90,000 and grew to more than 500,000 by the year 2000. Today there are more than one million members of H.O.G. across 1,400 chapters worldwide. 

Timeline

1901
William S. Harley, aged 21, makes a blueprint of an engine to fit into a bicycle frame. 

1908
Harley-Davidson sells its first motorcycle to the Detroit Police Department. A year later it releases its first V-twin powered motorcycle that has seven horsepower. 

1920
Harley-Davidson is the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, with 2,000 dealers across 67 countries. In 1921 it wins all eight National Championship races. 

1925
The instantly recognisable shape of the teardrop tank is introduced.

1942
Harley-Davidson supplies motorcycles to the US army and receives four medals for its contribution to the war effort. 

1987
Harley-Davidson is listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

1993
A procession of more than 100,000 bikers salute Harley-Davidson’s 90th birthday. 

1998
Harley-Davidson opens its first factory outside the US in Manaus, Brazil. In 2009, India also welcomes a production plant.