A look back at the life of Harley-Davidson’s first president, Walter Davidson

Walter Davidson ready to ride, about 1909

Walter Davidson was born on Sept. 30, 1876 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to William C. Davidson and his wife Margaret.

In his youth, Walter raced bicycles and often did his own repairs and maintenance in the family kitchen. In his teen years, he became a talented self-taught electrician, and knew how to make his own batteries. Possibly, his first paid job was working for an electrical contractor. Later, he learned a trade as a machinist working for the Milwaukee Railroad. 

In 1903, he received a letter from his brother Arthur, who had teamed up with their longtime friend William Harley. They made it clear that Walter’s machining experience would come in handy in completing a new motorcycle they were building. Walter quit his position and relocated back to Milwaukee.

Walter Davidson winning the FAM Endurance

Together, the three finished the first production motorcycles sold to the public. William Harley and Arthur Davidson later credited Walter with the actual building of the first production motorcycle. They worked first in a ten foot by fifteen-foot wooden shed. Within ten years, they had built a red brick factory site of over 300,000 square feet (where corporate headquarters remains today) and HDMC was already one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world.

The founders incorporated Harley-Davidson on September 17, 1907 and named Walter the company’s first President and General Manager. The remainder of his life would be spent with the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Among his responsibilities was addressing the stockholders at the annual meeting to discuss successes as well as the challenges H-D faced. Those speeches and other written evidence indicate that Walter was a man with a direct and honest approach. 

Walter Davidson quickly became a great motorcycle enthusiast and accomplished competition rider. His winning of the Federation of American Motorcyclists endurance run in the Catskill Mountains of New York in 1908 vaulted the name Harley-Davidson into the motorcycling world. Earning a perfect possible 1,000 points, Walter competed without any support from a repair crew.

As both an accomplished rider and machinist, Walter demanded the highest quality of the Motor Company’s products. His service as a trustee of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and as a director of the Milwaukee Gas Light Company was among his business accomplishments outside of Harley-Davidson. In a 1919 speech given to a local Rotary club, Walter stressed that “personal service is really the keynote of our [Harley-Davidson] organization, and that ... service has proven a good investment is evidenced by the fact that the company has been successful from the start.”

Walter Davidson, circa 1915

According to his brother William, Walter gave disproportionately large amounts to charity and was a great believer in complete honesty. As with other founders of H-D he was known to visit with motorcyclists and other guests who stopped to visit the factory. His favorite past times included fishing and running the H-D™ bowling club, but he was never far from building motorcycles, even in his free time. 

He died on Feb. 7, 1942, still serving as President. He was survived by his wife, Emma (who he married in 1910) and three sons, Gordon, Walter Jr. and Robert. To date, no one has served as President (or CEO) of Harley-Davidson for a longer tenure than Walter Davidson.

For more on H-D's history, visit the Harley-Davidson Museum.