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William S. Harley, Arthur Davidson, Walter Davidson & William Davidson Riding High On The Hog

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Engin Sezer |

William S. Harley, Arthur Davidson, Walter Davidson & William Davidson
Co-founders of The Harley-Davidson Motor Company
Founded: 1901

The Harley-Davidson motorcycle has become an American icon. Recognized around the world, it is a symbol of America's inventiveness, rugged individualism and pioneering spirit. Ironically, what would become one of the world's largest and most widely recognized motorcycle manufacturers was born out of pure and simple laziness.

Around the turn of the century, a new invention was sweeping across America-the bicycle. This two-wheeled wonder enabled individuals to travel farther and faster than ever before possible, and millions took off to explore the country with pedal-power.

But this wasn't enough for 21-year-old draftsman William S. Harley and 20-year-old pattern-maker Arthur Davidson. In 1901, these two boyhood friends embarked on a quest to "take the work out of bicycling." Their dream was to build a motorized bicycle that would enable people to travel reliably and as fast as the technology of the time would allow.

Realizing that to fulfill their dream they would need a skilled mechanic, the duo enlisted the help of Arthur's brother, Walter Davidson, a railroad machinist whom they lured from his job in Kansas by promising him a ride on their motorcycle. After arriving in Milwaukee, Walter discovered that he would have to help William and Arthur build their motorcycle before he could ride it. But he decided to stay on anyway. The eldest Davidson brother, William, then a tool-room foreman at a Milwaukee railroad shop, also offered to pitch in.

Working out of their first factory, a 10-foot by 15-foot wooden shed in the backyard of the Davidson family home with "The Harley-Davidson Motor Company" painted on the door (William Harley was given top billing because it was his idea to build a motorcycle in the first place), the four men produced their first three motorcycles in 1903. Like all their early motorbikes, the 1903 Harley-Davidson had a bicycle crank, a single-cylinder engine, pedals and a leather drive belt. To start one, riders simply pedaled the bike until enough engine compression had built up, then soared away with power.

Harley-Davidson's next few years can be summed up in two words: growth and development. The partners produced three motorcycles in 1904 and seven more in the following year. The company was growing so fast that the Davidson backyard could no longer contain it. In 1906, Harley and the Davidson brothers built a new factory on Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee and produced a record 50 machines. The company formally incorporated in 1907 and, by 1909, they had doubled the size of their factory, hired 35 employees and increased production to around 1,000 motorcycles per year.

Obsessed with improving his invention, Harley began working on a design for a two-cylinder engine. After a false start in 1907, he perfected the model in 1909. The new engine, called a V-Twin, could propel a motorcycle at a lightning speed of 60 mph. Thanks to the success of the V-Twin, the company quickly developed a reputation for building reliable, unusually fast motorcycles, and by 1910, annual production rose to 3,200 machines.

To build excitement and promote sales, Harley-Davidson sponsored a racing team dubbed "The Wrecking Crew," who became known for their seat-of-their-pants racing style. While the fame generated by The Wrecking Crew kept the company in the news and stimulated sales, to stay ahead of the competition, the company began re-investing much of its profits into engineering and product enhancements.

Harley-Davidson's next big breakthrough came in 1912, when Harley perfected a chain drive to replace the outdated leather drive belt. A few years later, in 1916, Harley came up with the step-starter, which eliminated the need for pedals and finally broke the motorcycle from the parentage of the bicycle.

But many people, including the U.S. government, still relied on bicycles for an inexpensive means of transportation. Always looking for other ways to market his company's product, Arthur became determined to convince government officials that motorcycles could replace bicycles at the U.S. Postal Service and many other government agencies. Arthur's strategy worked, and by 1914, the USPS had more than 4,800 Harleys delivering mail. The military was also attracted to the rugged, fast bikes, and Harley sales soared.

By 1920, production reached 28,189 bikes annually, and Harley-Davidson became the world's largest motorcycle manufacturer, with dealerships in 67 foreign countries. Harley was riding high, but problems lay ahead. The country experienced a mild depression in the early 1920s, which caused sales to slip. In addition, the motorcycle faced competition from Henry Ford's cheaper, imminently more practical Model T.

As part of their survival plan, Harley-Davidson convinced America's police departments that the fast, nimble motorcycle was an ideal vehicle for law enforcement. By the middle of the decade, more than 2,900 sheriffs and state patrols were using Harley-Davidsons. Boots, breaches and saddlebags gave motorcycle cops a "Wild West" image that thrilled young boys and captivated the public's interest. Walter recognized the allure of this "motorcycle look," and launched a campaign to sell Harley-Davidson accessories and clothing. The ingenious marketing move helped the company survive the down days of the 1920s and created a booming market for Harley-Davidson accessories that remains a major part of the company's success to this day.

Through smart marketing and further improvements, including a larger engine and front brakes, Harley-Davidson sales began to slowly increase, and by 1928, more than 22,000 motorcycles were being produced per year. Optimism had returned. But this attitude proved premature.

The stock market crash of 1929 sent motorcycle sales into a tailspin. Production plummeted to just under 4,000 bikes by 1933. To reverse the slide, Harley gave the bikes a facelift, replacing the standard block-letter Harley-Davidson logo with a new art-deco tank design featuring a graceful stylized eagle. The company also began offering bikes in an array of different color schemes.

Development continued, and in 1936, Harley unleashed its EL model. Boasting an engine that could deliver twice as much power, a new frame, a new suspension and a new tank design, the EL was a major breakthrough for the company. These new bikes hit the road and started to rev up sales. Production climbed back to almost 10,000 units per year, where they would remain until the end of the decade.

The coming of World War II would further increase Harley production and sales. Harley built and shipped more than 90,000 of its military-version motorcycles overseas for use by the Allies.

Following World War II, Americans eagerly returned to motorcycle riding. To meet the exploding demand for its motorcycles, the company purchased additional manufacturing facilities in the Milwaukee suburb of Wauwatosa in 1947. By the time Arthur Davidson, the last of the original founders, died in 1950, Harley-Davidson had become the undisputed king of the road.

Over the next four and a half decades, as a second generation of management rose through the corporate ranks to replace the company's founding fathers, Harley-Davidson would experience a series of ups and downs, resulting from image and mechanical problems as well as competition from the Japanese. But by being faithful to the tradition of quality and development established by its founding fathers, Harley-Davidson stands as the sole survivor of what was once a group of 300 U.S. motorcycle manufacturers.

Marching Orders

In 1916, General "Black Jack" Pershing was sent to Mexico to capture Francisco "Pancho" Villa. The Mexican revolutionary had been raiding towns on both sides of the U.S.-Mexican border, and Pershing's orders were to stop Villa any way he could. Pershing's men had difficulty chasing Villa's bandits on horseback through the rugged Mexican terrain, so they asked The Harley-Davidson Motor Company for help. The company loaded 12 motorcycles onto a railroad car and shipped them to Pershing. These specially designed motorcycles were equipped with a sidecar gun carriage that served as a machine gun platform.

Although Pershing never caught Villa, the motorcycle proved its worth in combat, and when America entered World War I, Harley-Davidson was drafted. In 1917, Harley was supplying about half of its motorcycles to the military. But by the end of the war, all of Harley-Davidson's production was going to the military¬-more than 20,000 motorcycles in all.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles would once again be pressed into service of the country in World War II. Almost immediately after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Harley-Davidson converted its factories to support America's fighting forces. During the war, more than 90,000 Harleys, the company's entire production output, were shipped overseas for Allied troops.

Because they could go virtually anywhere, U.S. armored divisions used Harley-Davidsons for reconnaissance, to probe for enemy mines, scout for ambushes, secure bridges and establish forward positions. In a tank attack, motorcycles either led or followed the tanks, riding a full throttle with their machine guns blazing.

The wartime exploits of the dashing motorcycle riders gave the bikes an air of glamour and adventure back home, creating a growing mystique around the motorcycles that would greatly boost sales after World War II.

The Wrecking Crew

Today, the idea of a motorcycle manufacturer sponsoring a racing team seems like a common-sense marketing strategy. But back in the 1900s, when The Harley-Davidson Motor Company sponsored a racing team dubbed "The Wrecking Crew," the idea was revolutionary. Known for their death-defying "board track" racing, these fearless daredevils competed on wooden tracks which featured banked turns of up to 60 degrees.

Making the transition from straightways to banked curves at speeds of up to 80 mph was difficult and often deadly. Accidents were frequent and usually fatal for both riders and spectators, so The Wrecking Crew abandoned board tracks in favor of dirt tracks, which proved to be just as popular, though less dangerous. The Wrecking Crew was just as successful on dirt tracks as they'd been on board tracks, and from 1915 on, they were the team to beat.

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