10% OFF All Motorcycle Wheels!


History of Harley Davidson Company, Engines & Models

by | Jun 26, 2024 | News & Updates

When most people think of motorcycles, even people who don’t ride motorcycles, the company that frequently comes to mind is Harley-Davidson, for good reason. Harley-Davidson is one of the most recognizable and beloved motorcycle brands in the world, with a rich company history that dates back to the start of the 20th century.

Harley-Davidson has revolutionized the motorcycle industry with its innovative designs, loud engine, iconic models, and unwavering commitment to quality. Let’s take a look at the history of the Harley-Davidson company and trace its global success to the present day.

The Early Years: Mr. Harley Meets Mr. Davidson

At 15, William S. Harley was working at a Milwaukee bicycle factory and later worked as a draftsman at Barth Manufacturing. Arthur Davidson was a neighbor of Harley’s who also worked at the Barth company. Legend has it that the two friends first started thinking of making a motorized bicycle after attending a vaudeville show that featured a three-wheeler that moved across the stage using a single-cylinder engine.

In 1903, they founded the company that bears their name. In a backyard shed with the help of Arthur’s brother Walter and engineer Ole Evinrude, they manufactured the Harley-Davidson Model 1, a single-cylinder, 405cc bike with a top speed of about 60 mph. The first sale was to local resident and friend, Henry Meyer. While not the first motorcycle ever made, it was the first made by what was to become a global motorcycle brand.

In 1907 the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated, the first Harley-Davidson dealer was established in Chicago in 1908, they introduced the first V-twin engine in 1909, which became a hallmark of design, with a 49-cubic-inch engine producing seven horsepower, nearly doubling the power of its predecessors.

By 1913 the company was able to purchase land to build what was then a state-of-the art six-floor factory. That factory on what is today Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee remains the site of the company’s headquarters.

The Golden Age: 1914-1945

Despite its dangers, motorcycle racing was growing in popularity. Harley-Davidson’s factory-supported racing team—known as the Wrecking Crew—was frequently in the top five and sometimes higher racing positions. This reputation on the racing circuit proved an effective marketing mechanism to promote the brand.

In 1920, a team of farm boys racing Harleys were consistent race winners. The group has a live hog as a mascot, which they would put on the motorcycle for a victory lap. This led to the nickname of “hog” for Harley-Davidson motorcycles, which much later became an acronym for the Harley Owners Group. The company later attempted to trademark the name but was unable to obtain trademark protection because “hog” had by then become a generic term for any large motorcycle.

During World War I, Harley-Davidson supplied thousands of motorcycles to the U.S. military for dispatch riders, which boosted the company’s production and solidified its reputation for reliability under harsh conditions. The Roaring Twenties saw Harley-Davidson’s popularity soar even more, and while The Great Depression that followed was a challenging period for any business, Harley-Davidson survived while many other motorcycle manufacturers went out of business.

They diversified their product line, introducing the EL model in 1936, also known as the “Knucklehead” for its distinctively shaped rocker boxes. This model featured a 61 cubic inch overhead valve engine, which became an instant success.

World War II brought another surge in production, with Harley-Davidson producing over 90,000 WLA models for the U.S. and Allied forces. These military motorcycles were beloved for their rugged build and became a crucial part of the war effort.

harley-davidson first storefront

Post-War History:1945-1969

After World War II, Harley-Davidson capitalized on the growing popularity of motorcycles in civilian life. Soldiers who rode Harley-Davidson military motorcycles during the war spurred demand for its use as a recreational bike.

The company introduced the “Panhead” engine in 1948 and the “Sportster” in 1957, both of which contributed to the brand’s legendary status. Riders wanting more speed shortened or removed the fenders to reduce weight, which led to the expression of “choppers” where parts considered unnecessary were chopped off.

The Electra Glide, introduced in 1965, was another groundbreaking model that combined power and comfort. The 1960s also saw Harley-Davidson become synonymous with counterculture and rebellion, thanks in part to Hollywood films like “Easy Rider” and “The Wild One.” The iconic look and sound of Harley-Davidson motorcycles became a cultural phenomenon, representing freedom and individuality.

Modern History: 1970-1999

The 1970s saw Harley-Davidson face increased competition from Japanese manufacturers. In response, the company invested heavily in research and development, introducing new models such as the FX1000 Softail in 1984 and the FLSTF Fat Boy in 1989. These models combined traditional Harley-Davidson styling with modern features such as electronic fuel injection while keeping the “retro” feel of earlier models that appealed to enthusiasts.

In 1994, Harley attempted to trademark the distinctive sound of its engines, though this proved eventually unsuccessful.

Contemporary Era: 2000-Present

After various management changes, it eventually saw its sale to an investment group led by Willie G. Davidson, grandson of the company founder. Davidson was more than just an owner, but a designer of several Harley-Davidson models, including the Super Glide and the Low Rider.

In the 21st century, Harley-Davidson has continued to evolve, introducing new models like the VRSCA V-Rod (2001) and the CVO Limited (2006). The company has also expanded its product line to include electric motorcycles, such as the LiveWire (2019), demonstrating the company’s commitment to innovation and evolving with the times. Additionally, Harley-Davidson has made significant investments in technology, including ABS brakes and traction control.

In 2008, the company opened the Harley-Davidson Museum, featuring exhibits on its culture, history, and, of course, motorcycles. The museum is located on a 20-acre campus, with two floors combined with a shopping and dining area open for group tours and Harley-Davidson enthusiasts.

Harley-Davidson’s impact on the motorcycle industry is undeniable. The company has inspired generations of riders and enthusiasts around the world. Its iconic designs have become synonymous with American culture. Harley-Davidson has also played a significant role in shaping motorcycle safety standards and advocating for motorcyclist rights.

From its humble beginnings to its current status as a global icon, Harley-Davidson’s history is a testament to innovation, perseverance, and dedication to quality. As the company continues to evolve and adapt to changing times, it remains committed to its core values: freedom, adventure, and a passion for riding.

Whether you’re a seasoned rider or just starting out, Harley-Davidson’s rich history is a reminder that motorcycles are more than just machines or a company, they’re a way of life.

harley-davidson logo on motorcycle

At SMT, we contribute to that way of life with more than 100 custom Harley wheels that upgrade the look and performance of your Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

*Images are screenshots from the YouTube trailer Harley and the Davidsons on Discovery’s channel which is the embedded video.