Remembering William A. Davidson


When William A. Davidson joined with his two brothers Arthur and Walter, and with family friend William Harley in their efforts to design and build a new and better motorcycle, he completed the quartet that would go on to found the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Although the automotive industry at the time was new and highly unstable, William was intrigued by the work his brothers and Harley were doing. He was already a skilled mechanic and had been the tool room foreman at the West Milwaukee shops of what was at the time the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad. His experience brought a wealth of knowledge to the budding company and his efforts went far to assuring its future success.

When the company was incorporated in 1907, William Davidson, who preferred being called “Bill,” became the works manager. As a tool maker, he was ideally suited to identify and purchase the presses and other equipment needed to refine the manufacturing process. His desk was always covered with parts from various stages of the manufacturing process: a semi-finished hub, bearing, shaft or rod. He knew the steel from which it was made, the processes it had undergone and those which were necessary for completion. He used this knowledge to continually improve factory operations, since the demand for Harley-Davidson motorcycles was rapidly growing.

His expertise in the manufacturing process kept William Davidson in close contact with Harley-Davidson’s factory employees, whose insight he relied on to keep continually informed about any problems or possible improvements in factory operations. He was known for his compassion, generosity, and willingness to listen to even the smallest problem. Remembering the days when he, himself, was pounding a hammer, it was his pleasure on Christmas to pack baskets for people, some of whom he had never seen. Sometimes it was to buy coal for the needy or lend an overcoat to a friend who had none. Never were these deeds publicized. This affability extended to everyone he encountered; with everyone from machinists to dealers, bankers to politicians, he was willing to share his time.

Well respected throughout the business community when he passed away on April 21, 1937, at the age of 66, William A. Davidson probably did not realize how far his legacy would extend. His son William H. Davidson would serve as President, as would his son John. William H.’s other son William G. Davidson, known more affectionately as Willie G., now serves as Chief Styling Officer Emeritus and Brand Ambassador for the Motor Company after an illustrious career spanning almost five decades, and is perhaps the most familiar face of the Harley-Davidson family. Willie’s G.’s children, Bill and Karen, make the fourth generation to contribute to the legacy of Harley-Davidson that William A. started.

Typical of the tributes paid “Bill” Davidson is the following from one of his co-workers:

“To have known Mr. Davidson, to have worked with him, to have been associated with him, was indeed a rare privilege. His example, his precepts, his deeds, have left their influence on all those with whom he came in contact. The world is happier, a cheerier, a better place for his having been among us.”

Caption: Standing William Davidson (left) and Walter Davidson (right) with Della Crewe seated on motorcycle with sidecar. Taken to commemorate Della Crewe’s 5,000+ mile solo trip from Waco, Texas to New York City. (1914)