Even though this is one of our longest posts it barely scratches the surface of the story of the Harley Davidson motorcycle history. They are the oldest vehicle manufactures in the U.S.
In 1901, William S. Harley drew up plans for a small engine with a displacement of 7.07 cubic inches and four-inch flywheels. The engine was designed for use in a regular pedal-bicycle frame. Over the next two years, Harley and his childhood friend Arthur Davidson worked on their motor-bicycle using the northside Milwaukee machine shop at the home of their friend, Henry Melk. It was finished in 1903 with the help of Arthur's brother, Walter Davidson.
In January 1905, small advertisements were placed in the "Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal" that offered bare Harley-Davidson engines to the do-it-yourself trade. By April, complete motorcycles were in production on a very limited basis. That year, the first Harley-Davidson dealer, Carl H. Lang of Chicago, sold three bikes from the dozen or so built in the Davidson backyard shed. (Some years later the original shed was taken to the Juneau Avenue factory where it would stand for many decades as a tribute to the Motor Company's humble origins. Unfortunately, the first shed was accidentally destroyed by contractors in the early 1970s during a clean-up of the factory yard.)
In 1906, Harley and the Davidson brothers built their first factory on Chestnut Street (later Juneau Avenue). This location remains Harley-Davidson's corporate headquarters today. The first Juneau Avenue plant was a 40 ft × 60 ft single-story wooden structure. The company produced about 50 motorcycles that year.
By 1911, some 150 makes of motorcycles had already been built in the United States – although just a handful would survive the 1910s.
In 1911, an improved V-Twin model was introduced. The new engine had mechanically operated intake valves, as opposed to the "automatic" intake valves used on earlier V-Twins that opened by engine vacuum. With a displacement of 49.48 cubic inches, the 1911 V-Twin was smaller than earlier twins, but gave better performance. After 1913 the majority of bikes produced by Harley-Davidson would be V-Twin models.
In order to survive the Depression, the company manufactured industrial power-plants based on their motorcycle engines. They also designed and built a three-wheeled delivery vehicle called the Servi-Car, which remained in production until 1973.
In the mid 1930s, Alfred Rich Child opened a production line in Japan with the 74 cubic inches VL. The Japanese license-holder, Sankyo Seiyako Corporation, severed its business relations with Harley-Davidson in 1936 and continued manufacturing the VL under the Rikuo name.
One of only two American cycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson again produced large numbers of motorcycles for the US Army in World War II and resumed civilian production afterwards, producing a range of large V-twin motorcycles that were successful both on racetracks and for private buyers.
In 1969, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought the company, streamlined production, and slashed the workforce. This tactic resulted in a labor strike and a lower quality of bikes. The bikes were expensive and inferior in performance, handling, and quality to Japanese motorcycles. Sales and quality declined, and the company almost went bankrupt. The "Harley-Davidson" name was mocked as "Hardly Ableson", "Hardly Driveable," and "Hogly Ferguson", and the nickname "Hog" became pejorative.
In 1981, AMF sold the company to a group of thirteen investors led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson for $80 million. Inventory was strictly controlled using the just-in-time system.
The "Sturgis" model, boasting a dual belt-drive, was introduced. By 1990, with the introduction of the "Fat Boy", Harley once again became the sales leader in the heavyweight market. At the time of the Fat Boy model introduction a story rapidly spread that its silver paint job and other features were inspired by the World War II American B-29 bomber; and that the Fat Boy name was a combination of the names of the atomic bombs (Fat Man and Little Boy) that were dropped on Nagasaki and Hiroshima respectively.
1993 and 1994 saw the replacement of FXR models with the Dyna (FXD), which became the sole rubber mount FX Big Twin frame in 1995. The FXR was revived briefly from 1999 to 2000 for special limited editions
Building started on $75 million 130,000 square-foot Harley-Davidson Museum in the Menomonee Valley on June 1, 2006. It opened in 2008 and houses the company's vast collection of historic motorcycles and corporate archives, along with a restaurant, café and meeting space.
Location: Harley-Davidson Museum 400 W Canal Street Milwaukee, WI 53201 414-287-2789
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