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The Early History of Harley-Davidson

June 14, 2023 Comments Comment

How did the names of two friends become synonymous with motorcycles all over the world?

As we celebrate 120 years of Harley-Davidson, we look back at the beginning of our story, in this guide to the early history of Harley-Davidson.

The Initial Spark: How Did Harley-Davidson Start?

In the 1890s, two young men became fast friends. They shared an interest in mechanics and design, but they could have had no idea where their shared interests would take them.

By the turn of the century, one had already gained experience working in a bicycle factory, the other as a draftsman. But in 1901, it wasn’t their work that proved the initial spark for a world-changing innovation—it was a bit of entertainment.

Heading to a vaudeville show, these two men went to see the well-known performer Anna Held, who put on a characteristically bawdy production. But of all the fanfare they saw on stage that night there was one particular prop that captured their attention: Held had, the story goes, ridden on a sort of three-wheeler, propelled across the stage by a single-cylinder engine. Unbeknownst to the stage heroine, that short ride across the stage would effectively spark a revolution in automobile and manufacturing history.

Who Started Harley-Davidson?

The two men in the audience that night, of course, were the pair that started Harley-Davidson: William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson.

Not long after their meeting, inspired by their evening at the theater, the pair began experimenting with single-cylinder engines adapted to bicycles. Their friend, Henry Melk, offered a bit of help as well. Another enterprising friend offered his expertise: a young machinist and engineer named Ole Evinrude, who would go on to become the catalyzing force in outboard marine motors.

Their fledgling effort was a bicycle adapted with a small engine and belt drive. But it was underpowered and did not satisfy their hopes. By 1903, they started over with a new, larger engine and frame designed to fit together.

As they worked through problems, they realized they still needed help. Davidson wrote a letter to his brother Walter, who was working as a machinist for a railroad in Kansas. Arthur made it clear that Walter’s expertise would be valued. So, he resigned from his position to move back to Milwaukee to help. He was critical of the new machine and set to work improving it.

When was Harley-Davidson Founded?

With this, Harley-Davidson was founded in 1903, growing steadily from their initial stimulus. Evidently, their growth wasn’t entirely well received by all: father William C. Davidson, apparently a bit bothered by his sons’ budding project, asked them to move their project from the basement to the backyard. There, they built a 10x15-foot wooden shed. This was the first Harley-Davidson factory—and where the group sold its very first motorcycle, to a local resident and friend, Henry Meyer.

By 1904, they doubled the size of that factory. That year, Harley set off for the University of Wisconsin’s engineering program. In 1906, they expanded the factory yet again. Then, on September 17 of 1907, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated. The first stock was disbursed, with William Harley taking less stock in favor of cash to help pay for his engineering degree. On that day, William A. Davidson also formally joined the company as Works manager, overseeing the business’s growing manufacturing. 

Finding Speed: Harley-Davidson Races Ahead

Even as the company built its second factory, plans were being laid for a third. With the help of a $170 loan from the Davidsons’ uncle, a beekeeper named James McLay, they were able to purchase a parcel of land. In 1913, a state-of-the-art six-floor brick factory was built to help meet the young company’s quickly multiplying demand.

Where Was the First Harley-Davidson Store?

The demand was driven with the help of key early relationships, including an especially critical one with Chicago businessman Carl H. Lang. Lang had agreed to sell Harley-Davidson’s first motorcycles out of his Windy City shop—making him the first Harley® dealer.

By 1908, Lang wasn’t merely selling motorcycles; he was leading rides with customers around the city and helping to set the tone for similar shared events celebrating community and the joy of riding that would soon come to define Harley-Davidson.

A New Lane

Although the Harley founders’ vision for the company was centered on reliability, good service, and knowledgeable salespeople, they soon found a new venue for showcasing more than just reliability.

Although HDMC had previously denounced racing because of its danger to riders and spectators, eventually leaders conceded that the marketing value of racing was undeniable. The founders of H-D understood they had to compete with other companies who had already taken to the circuit. It would not take long for Harley-Davidson to find itself at centerstage.

Within their first year, the new team—the very first factory-supported racing team—dominated races, sometimes owning each of the top three, or even five, finishing positions. They came to be referred to as the “Wrecking Crew,” and firmly established Harley-Davidson as a force in the American motorcycle landscape.

However, Harley-Davidson was quickly becoming not just an American name but one known the world over. With a dealership network already grown across the Atlantic and Pacific into both Asia and Europe, Harley built a foundation helping it become what it is today: Within just a few years, H-D would lay claim to being the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer.

All that—and an ensuing century of innovation—grew from the coming together of two friends, two families, and the spark of inspiration.

Museum Collection

Want to learn more about the history of Harley-Davidson? Plan a trip to the Harley-Davidson Museum to check out the latest exhibits, tours, events and more. Or browse the Harley-Davidson Museum Collection to find exclusive apparel, collectibles and accessories.  

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