History, with all The Dust Blown Off

Traveling into the past is a thrill when you ride with Harley-Davidson.


Did you know?

Tracing The Ever-Evolving Harley-Davidson

Headlights. Speedometers. Shock absorbers. Which would you have found on the first Harley-Davidson bikes? None of the above.

Harley-Davidson® motorcycles are works in progress. Each model represents the latest in safety, comfort, and design, with new technology continually introduced. Some features start as options and eventually become standard. (Headlights were once optional!) Others stay purely voluntary, like cool chrome doodads – a hugely popular way to personalize bikes.

Stroll through Harley history to discover when and why various features made their debut.

Going from Vroom to Zoom

Part: Final Drives
Model: 1913 Model E

Riding a motorcycle is fun. But only if it actually moves. That’s where “final drives” come in, transmitting power to the rear wheel. Without them, motorcycles would be just big, gas-powered paperweights.

On this bike the final drive is the chain on the left side linking the wheel sprocket to the primary chain connected to the engine.

Final drives were originally leather belts. More durable metal chains replaced leather beginning in 1912. In 1980, the FXB Sturgis introduced tough Kevlar® belts. Today, all Harley-Davidson motorcycles feature carbon-fiber final drives.

Seeing is Optional?

Part: Electric Lights
Model: 1915 Model 11-J

Want to get where you’re going? Seeing the road helps.

Early bikes offered gas lamp headlights as optional accessories. These had an annoying tendency to catch fire or explode. (Talk about “burning up the road”!) Later models offered battery-powered lights that dimmed as the battery drained.

In 1915, Harley-Davidson’s Model 11-J introduced an electrical system, uniting headlight, taillight, ignition, and horn. Its generator kept the lights bright all night. Touted as “the most powerful motorcycle lighting system” around, it vastly improved safety, letting riders see and be seen.

Buddy Onboard

Part: 1914 Rogers Sidecar
Model: 1918 Model J

Today we have social networks. In 1903, they had a “social attachment” – essentially a wicker chair on wheels that you attached to a motorcycle. (Presumably you could “unfriend” a buddy back then too … by unhooking the chair.)

Motorcycles began as one-person vehicles. But it’s fun to ride with a friend, so two-passenger accessories developed. Tandem seats, which often had handlebars for the rear rider, appeared in the 1909 Harley-Davidson accessories catalog. By 1915, Harley-made sidecars were offered. In the 1920s, a bigger “chummy car” let the whole family ride.

Preferring Brakes to Breaks

Part: Front Brake
Model: 1928 Model JH

Speeding along the open road is exhilarating. But being able to stop is nice too. Also safer.

Braking systems have evolved tremendously. Early motorcycles, like bicycles, had pedal-operated coaster brakes for the rear wheel. Stronger drum brakes with a foot pedal appeared in 1914 – but still only in the rear.

Harley-Davidson added front brakes operated by a hand lever in 1928, promising riders “double safety” and “smooth and velvety” stopping. You can see the brake lever on the left handlebar of this model. A cable links it to the front wheel.

Accelerating from Zero to … What?

Part: Speedometer
Model: 1937 Model UH

“But officer … I was only doing 30!” That argument is a lot easier to make if you have some way to actually measure your speed. Most early motorcycles didn’t.

At first, there were few traffic laws – so calculating miles-per-hour hardly mattered. But faster vehicles brought speed limits. The 1936 EL model, with a powerful, fast 61-cubic-inch engine, introduced the first integrated instrument cluster. The next year, all models boasted a speedometer, ammeter (measuring battery current), and other gauges.

The speedometer on the UH is a 120-mph Stewart Warner model.

Gradual Shifts in Shifting

Part: Clutches and Shifters
Model: 1947 Model EL

Early motorbikes had just one cylinder and just one speed. Riders didn’t have to worry about shifting. The first three-speed transmission arrived in 1915.

Manual transmissions involve changing into higher gears as you go faster, which requires a clutch and shifter. Their configuration has often changed. On this model, a pedal on the left operates the clutch. The shift lever is on the tank.

Hand shifts reigned until 1952 when an optional big twin model offered a foot shift. (Foot shifting is safer. Driving isn’t a good place for, “Look Ma, no hands.”)

Riding Should Not Be a Pain in the Butt

Part: Front & Rear Suspension
Model: 1958 Duo-Glide

You could cover a lot of distance on an early motorcycle. Unfortunately, much of it was up and down.

Without shock-absorbing suspension, every bump in the road rattled riders from butt to brain. Many wore “kidney belts” (like weight-lifting belts) to keep their insides inside.

The 1949 Hydra-Glide™ introduced hydraulic front suspension. This was an improvement over the springs used in older models, reducing vibrations. But with only front shock absorbers, bikes still had “hard tails.” Rear suspension appeared on smaller models in 1952; in 1958 the Duo-Glide added rear shock absorbers to the big twin.

Getting a Good Start

Part: Electric Start
Model: 1968 Electra Glide®

People today often talk about “kick starting” a process to get it going. The term comes from motorcycles, which for decades used kick-starters, introduced in 1916, to turn over the engine.

Kick starting looked cool – as when Fonzie did it expertly on his Triumph on TV’s Happy Days. But it was often unreliable (and looked less cool when the engine failed to start.) In 1964, Harley-Davidson debuted an electric pushbutton starter on its three-wheeled ServiCar™. Its success brought the first electric start on a big twin motorcycle, the 1965 Electra Glide®.

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