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Childhood friends William Harley & Arthur Davidson designed their first “motor-bicycle” in 1903

Martin Chalakoski

In 1901, two boys from Milwaukee, Wisconsin made a pact to secretly meet every single day so they could work continuously and with no interruption on a project they started from scratch. Little did they know that their childhood effort and their determination to go to great lengths would change motoring history forever. It all started with a sketch.

One of the boys, William S. Harley, during his early childhood moved with his family to Milwaukee, where he started working at a bicycle factory in the Northern part of the city. Surrounded by all the bikes and having witnessed their production on a daily basis for almost three years, young William gradually began to think that something could be done to increase their efficiency.

William S. Harley, mechanical engineer and co-founder of Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

William S. Harley, mechanical engineer and co-founder of Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

Inspired, he started working on this idea of a bike, where instead of pedals, it would be run by a motor engine. So one day chose to show a hand-drawn rough sketch of it to one of his friends named Arthur Davidson.

Although what he saw was nothing more than a design of a tiny engine and a flywheel attached to a bicycle frame, he was very excited and enthusiastic about the idea of “taking the hard work out of pedaling a bicycle,” as Arthur recalls about this past event many years later. Guessing they are on to something revolutionary, both made a pact to work on this project in utmost secrecy whenever they can.

Walter Davidson after winning the Endurance Race in 1908.

Walter Davidson after winning the Endurance Race in 1908.

And they did, in a small family machine shop right next to their homes in Milwaukee. Here almost single day after school, whenever Wiliam was not working and while every other kid was playing on the streets with sticks and stones, these two were working in a shed, determined to make their dream a reality.

The only people who at this stage knew about their plan was Henry Melk, a friend of theirs who provided his father’s shed (the machine shop), and Arthur’s brother Walter.

After two whole years of hard work, and a little help from Arthur’s brother, in 1903 the team finally had something viable, one modest version of a bicycle with a tiny seven cubic inches engine and four-inch flywheels attached to its frame. Eager to see if their plan would work, they gave it a test run. Some short rides of excitement through the city on this first prototype and they found a huge flaw in it. The motor that was powering the bike was not strong enough to ride uphill without pedaling.

Don Whitlock’s Harley Davidson. On Vine street in front of Davis Brothers elevator driveway, December 1915

Don Whitlock’s Harley Davidson. On Vine street in front of Davis Brothers elevator driveway, December 1915

Having learned from their first experience and knowing it would take time and effort, the team carried on. First on their list was constructing a bigger and more powerful engine than the previous one. So both started looking for examples as guidance, and soon enough found the best fit in the Milwaukee Flying Merkel created by Joseph Merkel. This one-cylinder was already in production, extremely popular, and consequently easy to find and analyze. Studying the Flying Merkel, they’ve created one in its image, only bigger and more powerful. Three times bigger and three times heavier than their previous one, the unsuccessful one.

They’ve attached the engine to a brand new glossy black loop-frame with a single-spring seat for the driver on top, in a design which seemed to be extremely intriguing and plausible enough, even for the inventor Ole Evinrude. At the time he was developing gas engines for automotive purposes nearby in Milwaukee. Attracted by the possibility, he decided to take part in the development process.

Years later, Evinrude came to be known as the inventor of the first outboard motor with a practical commercial use, and this fresh looking “motorcycle” weighing a total of 83 kg, one century later was labeled as the most valuable and expensive cycle in the Hagerty Price Guide released in 2015, valued at staggering 15 million dollars.

The First,” the first motorcycle from Harley-Davidson, developed by William Harley and Arthur Davidson and his brothers.

The First,” the first motorcycle from Harley-Davidson, developed by William Harley and Arthur Davidson and his brothers.

According to the company official statements, the boys used Davidson’s 10 x 15-foot small family shed to assemble the parts together, thus turning their intriguing blueprint into reality, helped by Arthur’s older brother and their whole family.

The first fully-functional and operational prototype of this design was finished by 1904, or so it is believed. According to the official H&D site, one of the first models was sold to a friend to the boys named Henry Meyer, who allegedly bought the bike directly from them back in 1903.

However, the first ever official introduction of a Harley-Davidson it seems to be on September 8, 1904, where a motorcycle of theirs competed for the grand prize in Milwaukee but ended fourth. A year later, on July 4th in Chicago, their motorcycle won a 15-mile race, with a time of 19:02, which is not bad for a bike designed and developed by 20-year-olds.

Founders of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company – William A. Davidson, Vice President and Works Manager; Walter Davidson, President, and General Manager; Arthur Davidson, Secretary and Sales Manager; William S. Harley, Treasurer, and Chief Engineer. December 1920

Founders of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company – William A. Davidson, Vice President and Works Manager; Walter Davidson, President, and General Manager; Arthur Davidson, Secretary and Sales Manager; William S. Harley, Treasurer, and Chief Engineer. December 1920

Soon after that, complete models of the 1903 Harley- Davidson Single as it is recognized today were in production for commercial sales, and the team of 6 moved to their new and bigger factory in Chestnut St. William A. Davidson, Arthur’s oldest brother joined the company in 1907, the same year when the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was officially founded.

Read another story from us: Dr. Seuss proposed to his wife on a motorbike, when she said yes, he crashed

So, what began as a mere sketch of a bicycle powered by a motor engine and hard work done by teenagers in a small shed with “Harley-Davidson Motor Company” engraved on its door, turned out to be the inspiration for almost all motorcycles designed in the future.