1920’s – 1930’s

By the 1920’s, Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle company in the world. The First World War was over and industry had returned to peacetime pursuits. American consumers went on a buying frenzy, and motorcycles were hard to come by as factories were working to capacity. It was estimated that it would take the motorcycle industry two years to catch up with the demand.

Despite the optimism at the beginning of the decade, the tide quickly turned a few months later. Manufactures in all sectors overproduced, retail prices rose, and banks were overextended with loans. Retail sales dropped sharply. To stimulate sales, Henry Ford cut prices on his cars, which put a scare into related industries, and motorcycle sales declined.

Sales of the 61 cubic inch V-twin motorcycles comprised the bulk of Harley-Davidson’s sales in 1921. Manufacturing slumped to the lowest number in almost a decade as just over 10,000 motorcycles were produced. To give sales a boost, H-D created their first 74 cubic inch engine, which developed 18 horsepower. It was designated for sidecar and tandem riding, while the established 61 V-twin remained for solo riding. The 21-CD was a single cylinder model developed for commercial use. It boasted 80 mpg and a penny-a-mile operating cost. By 1924, 1,400 police and sheriff’s departments nationwide were using Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

In a continued effort to motivate sales in the early twenties, Harley-Davidson not only produced large catalogs of accessories and clothing, but took an aggressive stance against the use of non-genuine parts in its motorcycles. Harley also developed their Pay-as-you-Ride program, where for as little as $2.50, you could start your own Savings Club plan. By adding money every week or every payday, when you reached a certain total you could convert to the Pay-as-you-Ride plan and “ride out on your own mount”.

Enhancements to the Harley-Davidson motorcycles continued throughout the 1920’s. An alemite lubrication system appeared in 1924, and grease guns became indispensable. Dropforged, steel-frame fittings were developed in 1925. The teardrop gas tank also appeared that same year. Then, in 1927, two of today’s “must have” items appeared on Harleys, the front brake and the carburetor air cleaner. By 1928, production had increased to over 22,000 motorcycles.

1928 also welcomed the second generation of Harley-Davidson family when William H. Davidson, son of William A. Davidson, joined the company. He was followed the next year by William J. Harley and Walter Davidson’s sons, Gordon and Walter C. Davidson.

Of course, 1929 brought the start of the Great Depression. Dozens of motorcycle manufacturers went out of business. Harley-Davidson suffered along with everyone else, but through a strong dealer network, established advertising programs, quality products, and conservative business management practices, the company prevailed.

The 1930 line of Harley-Davidson motorcycles were hailed as being without comparison in the industry. These models were loaded with features. The single and twin-cylinder models all had new Ricardo removable heads, which provided easier maintenance, improved efficiency, and 15 to 20 percent horsepower increases. The 74 cubic inch model also included easily detachable, interchangeable wheels.

In 1931, H-D introduced the three-wheeled Servi-Car for use by garages and service stations. The Servi-Car touted high economy with its 45 cubic inch single cylinder engine. It also had a large capacity rear storage box which made it ideal for carrying tools. Soon, police and sheriff departments began using it for traffic control and to enforce traffic restrictions.

In 1933, the height of the Depression, used Fords could be bought for $50 and motorcycles began to become luxury items. This hurt the motorcycle business as industry-wide sales hit an all-time low 6000 units. Harley-Davidson only produced 3700 cycles that year. To combat this trend, H-D introduced Art Deco tank designs with vibrant color options. A chrome package was also offered for $15. Harley-Davidson had hit upon the concept of factory custom parts and accessories. By 1934, sales climbed back to 10,000 units and remained constant throughout the end of the decade.

Harley-Davidson introduced two new models with the 1936 lineup. The first was an 80 cubic inch side-valve model, which could reach speeds of nearly 100 mph. The second was a 61 cubic inch model, named the EL, which included a new, overhead valve design engine. This overhead valve design doubled the horsepower over the side-valve 61. The EL also included many features that became direct ancestors of today’s models. These include a tank-top instrument cluster with speedometer and gauges, a hand-shift four-speed transmission, wraparound oil tank, and the first oil circulation system. The EL was later dubbed the “Knucklehead” because of its valve covers that look like the knuckles of a clenched fist.

1937 was a tragic time for the motor company as William A. Davidson, vice-president and cofounder, died on April 21.

H-D chose to refine existing models to round out the decade. By 1939, their lineup was by far the most popular in the United States with 67% of registered motorcycles being Harleys.

Bolfert, Thomas. The Big Book of Harley-Davidson: Official Publication by Harley-Davidson Motor company; Centennial Edition. Milwaukee: Harley-Davidson, 2002.