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The first design Willie G. Davidson ever did for Harley-Davidson was the tank emblem in 1957. He wasn’t an employee yet, just a young designer out of Art Center College of Design moonlighting for the Motor Company.
With a father who took him to races and rode a different motorcycle home from work almost every night, and uncles who also worked at The Motor Company, Willie G. had motorcycling in his blood. When it came time to build our styling department in 1963, it was a job he was literally born to do.
No one could have foreseen all that would happen from there, but 49 years later, history shows it was one of those rare moments when the right person arrives in the right place at exactly the right time.
Willie is quick to point out that the things this company has accomplished are far more than any one man could do, but those who have worked with him are just as quick to point out any number of accomplishments that never could have happened without him.
Starting from the ground up, he built a department whose work fills volumes of books on motorcycle design. But more important, he says, is the way those motorcycles have changed the lives of their owners.
His constant evangelism of the emotional rewards a Harley-Davidson motorcycle must deliver, from the moment a customer lays eyes on it through thousands of miles of riding, has permeated our culture down to the steel beams that run through our buildings.
Willie G., 78, will forever be reflected in the depth of our paint, the V-Twin engine mounted like a jewel in the frame, the perfect curve of a fuel tank, the look that instantly announces to the world: “Hey, this is a Harley-Davidson”.
But the motorcycles are only half the story.
Willie G. has long served as the ambassador of Harley-Davidson at rallies around the world—meeting riders, talking to customers, lending his famous signature to jackets, and setting an example of staying close to the customer that has become one of the pillars of the Motor Company.
Willie says it would take a Manhattan phone book to list all the people who have helped make his work possible. But he is especially thankful for the support of his family: his wife, Nancy, who has been his constant companion at events all over the world, his daughter Karen and son Bill, who work at the Motor Company, and his son, Michael, who is an avid rider.
From his new office at the Harley-Davidson Museum, Willie G. will continue to serve as ambassador of Harley-Davidson. He will also continue to work on special design projects – going full circle to that first tank emblem he created all those years ago.
His is a legacy built over half a century. It will continue to roll on: In the look, sound and feel of the new motorcycles. In the people he has chosen to carry our designs forward in the future. In the unwavering principles that forever make a Harley-Davidson motorcycle a Harley-Davidson.
There are very few men walking the earth who can truly be called a legend, but among those who love motorcycles, Willie G. Davidson is inarguably one of them.