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Harley-Davidson: 110 years on the open road

Aug. 30, 2013
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In 1903, a year of major revolution in transportation, Henry Ford started his motor company and the Wright Brothers got their first airplane off the ground. That year also saw childhood friends Arthur Davidson and William S. Harley create the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle, which would go on to symbolize the freedom of America’s open roads. Crude motorized bicycles had just begun to appear and the two friends spotted one on the street, according to the curatorial director of the Harley-Davidson Museum, Jim Fricke.

“They were both avid bicyclists and they thought—that looks cool and we want to make one of those. And that’s really the genesis of the company—two young guys who saw a motorcycle and wanted to build one so they could ride it,” Fricke says.  After a couple years of tinkering, they perfected their first bike in 1903, which is now referred to as Serial Number One. A refurbished version of this bike is on display in the Harley-Davidson Museum, illuminated in a display box. A glowing rectangle on the floor marks off the 10-by-15-foot shed that served as the first Harley-Davidson headquarters.

With the help of Davidson’s brothers Walter and William, the company quickly expanded. By 1907 they had incorporated and moved into bigger headquarters. By 1920, they were producing 27,000 motorcycles a year and that number continued to climb.

In the hall in front of Serial Number One, a long parade of motorcycles wraps through the museum and creates a visual timeline of the evolution of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle throughout the decades.

In the beginning, Fricke says the company wasn’t about the “Born to be Wild” imagery. He points to an early Harley ad in the museum that depicts mom, dad and little Suzie posing next to their motorcycle outfitted with a sidecar. 

“They believed this could be the number one family transportation. Motorcycles were billed as economical, reliable family transportation, an alternative to cars.” Fricke says. After cars won out as the family vehicle, Harley switched focus to being a recreational vehicle. Fricke shows a photo from a 1933 ad that shows two young couples enjoying a picnic at Bradford Beach with their bikes parked in the background. 


Harley after World War II

Harley was a major force in World War II. They supplied 80,000 bikes for all of the Allied forces and trained motorcycle mechanics. Afterward, tens of thousands of young men returned home knowing how to ride motorcycles. Harley offered the veterans surplus motorcycles at a discount. Motorcycle clubs formed. Most of these clubs were more along the lines of a bowling club and not the popular image of the outlaw biker gang. The clubs belonged to the American Motorcycle Association and focused on racing.

The popular image of the rebel motorcycle club began with the “Hollister Incident,” July 4, 1947. A club named the Boozefighters, led by “Wino” Willie Forkner, rode out to an AMA event in Hollister, Calif., and spent the night cruising between bars, drinking heavily and generally acting disorderly. Newspapers were happy to sensationalize the event, screaming that bikers had “taken over the town.” The Wild One (1953), starring Marlon Brando, was based on the incident and popularized the leather jacket look. It is claimed that this incident led to the AMA releasing a statement that “99 percent of motorcyclists were decent, law abiding citizens.” Outlaw motorcycle gangs began to embrace the term “one percenter.”

By the 1960s, Japanese bikes had begun to tear into the market and Harley found itself in financial trouble. “It was a time where Harley’s factories were wearing out and we were being challenged from the business point of view. We needed to put a bunch of money into the business at a time where we didn’t have it. So in 1969 they sold the company to American Machine and Foundry (AMF),” Fricke says. AMF was a conglomerate of companies that specialized in recreational equipment for bowling, skiing and yachting.

“They didn’t know a lot about motorcycling, so they alienated a lot of people. It turned out we weren’t a cash cow and they needed to put a bunch of money into the company, so the ’70s were a difficult period.” In 1981 William G. Davidson and 12 other people pooled their money and bought back the company. They celebrated with a motorcycle ride from the York, Pa., Harley factory to Milwaukee’s headquarters.

Since then, the company has seen ups and downs, but has kept both wheels on the ground. In 1985, Harley-Davidson began celebrating anniversaries on a regular basis, issuing special edition bikes. One of the last things you’ll spot toward the exit of the museum is a sparkling new 110th Anniversary edition Harley-Davidson, the latest machine parked proudly in a long line of motorcycles.

You can find out more about the Harley-Davidson Museum at h-dmuseum.com.


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