Harley History

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1900's - 1910's: The Beginning

During the past 100 years, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company has endured strong competition, World Wars, and The Depression, to become one of the greatest American success stories. We've all heard the story before, especially with all the 100th Anniversary parties, events, magazine articles and television shows of late. But it is important to remember that the company flourishes today because of the way it connects with all of us who take great pride in owning and riding our Harleys. With over 1,100 local HOG chapters all over the world, there is a lot of pride to go around.

There is a great deal of Harley history crammed into the past 100 years. I hope to hit most of the highlights in the History Corner this year. Lets begin by looking back on the first two decades.

William Harley and Arthur Davidson worked for the same manufacturing company in 1902 when they began dreaming of putting a gasoline engine on a bicycle to make it faster and easier to get to and from the factory. Arthur, a pattern maker for the company, developed plans for a small, air-cooled, gasoline engine and the two set to tinkering in the Davidson's basement. This duo's first engine, with 25 cubic inches, a 5-inch flywheel, tomato-can carburetor, and sparkplugs as big as doorknobs was built to fit a bicycle frame, but proved to be greatly underpowered. Feeling that they had reached their engineering limits, the two talked Arthur's older brother Walter, a skilled railroad mechanic, into joining their efforts. With Walter's help, they developed their first commercially constructed 3 HP engine with a bore and stroke of 3 x 3.5 inches, a monster-sized 11.5-inch flywheel, and one-inch radiating fins to dissipate the heat. Ole Evinrude helped the boys design their first satisfactory carburetor.

Mrs. Davidson got tired of the boys tracking their work through her house, so she kicked them out of the basement. They built their first 'factory' in the backyard; a 10' x 15' building with Harley-Davidson Motor Company painted on the door. The boys felt that 'Harley' should come first because Bill engineered the original cycle. In 1903, they manufactured and sold three motorcycles out of that first factory.

Manufacturing increased slowly but steadily throughout 1904 and 1905. During this time, the factory size doubled to 10' x 30' and the company hired its first full-time employee.

In 1906, production demands increased, so a new 28' x 80' factory was built on Juneau Avenue (then called Chesnut Street), staff size was increased to six full-time employees, and 50 new motorcycles were produced. This is when Harley-Davidson first began calling their bikes "Silent Gray Fellows". "Silent" because they were very proud of their quiet mufflers (quite the opposite of today), "Gray" because gray became the standard color following the first few years of basic black, and "Fellow" because the bikes promised to provide companionship on the lonesome road.

In 1907, William A. Davidson quit his job as a tool foreman with the railroad and joined the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Production tripled to 150 motorcycles. Then in 1908, production increased to 410 after a 40' x 60' addition was built onto the factory. 1908 was also the year the first motorcycle sold for law enforcement was delivered to the Detroit Police Department.

1909 saw the Motor Company's first attempt at V-Twin technology. Their first V-Twin was the 7 hp, 49.5 cubic inch (810 cc) Model 5-D. The 5-D utilized atmospheric (sucking) intake valves which opened by the vacuum of falling pistons. These valves were not as effective on the V-Twin as on their predecessor single-cylinder models and all engines were recalled and destroyed. Only one is know to have survived, and is currently in the Harley-Davidson archives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The V-Twin didn't reappear until 1911 with the 6.5 hp Model 7-D.

In 1912, the twin-cylinder, X8E introduced the first commercially available motorcycle clutch, a free-wheeling rear wheel mechanism designed by Bill Harley. This made it possible to replace the common leather belt with a roller chain.

A new single cylinder, 5-35 model was introduced in 1913, which offered five horsepower and 35 cubic inches. A two-speed rear hub was also introduced that year. The following year, HD released a step starter, which eliminated the need for a rear stand while starting the engine. An internal expanding rear brake and carburetor choke were offered as well, followed in 1915 by a three-speed sliding gear transmission.

1915 also saw the introduction of the side-van for commercial use. This side-van could be interchanged with a sidecar so the motorcycle could be used for both business and pleasure.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles saw their first military duty in 1916 as General "Black Jack" Pershing fought border skirmishes with Pancho Villa. Then in 1917, when the United States joined World War I, about one-third of all Harleys produced went toward military duty. Just prior to the US joining the war, British civilian motorcycle production had already been suspended, so non-military, European riders looked stateside for their bikes. Harley-Davidson drew a good share of this business and their overseas reputation grew steadily.

World War I became responsible for one of Harley-Davidson's ongoing traditions. The army needed a way to service their motorcycle fleet, so the Quartermasters School was established in July of 1917 to train military personnel. This later became the Harley-Davidson Service School.

In 1919, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company pioneered the most radical motorcycle to date, the Sport Model. This revolutionary new design featured a 37 cubic inch, longitudinally opposed, fore to aft, twin, six horsepower engine. This design only lasted four years, but in its day, it set a record with a 74 hour, 58 minute run from Canada to Mexico.

1919 also saw the introduction of the 20J V-Twin, which was the first design to incorporate a Harley-Davidson electrical system.

As the decade came to a close, Bill Harley and the Davidson brothers were well on their way to becoming a dramatic success in the motorcycle world. In 1919, within the walls of their 400,000 square foot factory, nearly 1800 employees turned out 22,685 motorcycles and 16,095 sidecars.


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