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Harley-Davidson: How Four Friends From Wisconsin Came Together to Form the World’s Most Famous Motorcycle Brand

Ian Harvey
Photo Credit: Brandon Bell / Getty Images
Photo Credit: Brandon Bell / Getty Images

To motorcycle enthusiasts everywhere, the name Harley-Davidson is legendary. The brand has long been known as the producer of some of the best motorcycles on the road, but how did it get its start? As it turns out, four childhood friends were the ones who came up with the brand, and little did they know just how successful it would eventually become.

Forming an inevitable friendship

Portrait of William Davidson, Walter Davidson, Arthur Davidson and William Harley
William Harley and the three Davidson brothers, 1920. (Photo Credit: Luke Grant / Chicago North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

The men behind the company were William Harley and the three Davidson brothers, Arthur, Walter and William. Their dream began back in the late 1800s, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, when the men were kids living on Ninth Street, and their families were neighbors.

Arthur Davidson and William Harley were close in age and had similar interests. Their nearly inevitable friendship formed early and lasted their entire lives. Like many boys at the time, the two friends were fascinated with bicycles. William’s love of bikes was so serious that, by the time he was 15, he’d taken a job at a bicycle factory in Milwaukee.

William Harley wanted to add an engine to the standard bicycle

Prototype of a Harley-Davidson motor-bicycle on display
Harley-Davidson monotype motor-bicycle prototype. (Photo Credit:Cjp24 / Wikimedia Commons CC BY-SA 3.0)

Over several years, William Harley worked his way up at the factory, eventually becoming a draftsman. He stayed interested in bicycles, and he was particularly drawn to the idea of finding a way to add an engine that would allow for a lot more speed than manual pedaling. In 1901, at the age of 20, he drafted his first blueprint for an internal combustion engine, based on the designs of early French de Dion-Bouton motorcycle power units.

Over the next two years, William and Arthur Davidson set to work on a prototype of a “motor-bicycle.” That first machine never quite materialized, but the men began working on a second prototype. It didn’t take them long to figure out they needed a skilled machinist to help move the project forward, so they recruited Arthur’s brother, Walter, a railroad machinist.

Their factory was a 10-foot by 15-foot shed. That same year, William began studying mechanical engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, perfecting his craft. The final part fell into place when the oldest of the Davidson brothers, William, took an interest in the project and offered to lend his mechanic’s skills.

With the men each adding their unique skills to the project, their first motorcycle was completed. While an innovative feat, it wasn’t all that powerful, with the four men quickly realizing it couldn’t quite make it up hills without pedaling.

Establishing Harley-Davidson

Harley-Davidson sign hanging on the outside of a building
Harley-Davidson sign, 2023. (Photo Credit: Jakub Porzycki / NurPhoto / Getty Images)

Following their first prototype, William Harley and the Davidson brothers continued to build motorcycles, slowly making a name for themselves. The company was incorporated in 1907, with Walter serving as its first president and the others in key positions. William became the first works manager, while Arthur was the first secretary and general sales manager. William Harley, who’d completed his post-secondary degree, became the treasurer and chief engineer.

That year, Harley-Davidson produced 150 motorcycles, an incredible feat.

In 1908, Walter won a perfect score of 1000 points at the 7th Annual Federation of American Motorcycle Enthusiasts Endurance and Reliability contes. As a result, Detroit became the first city to buy Harley-Davidson motorcycles for its police force. By 1910, the bar and shield logo came into use, and an icon was born.

Harley-Davidson becomes a world-famous brand

US Army lieutenant sitting on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle
US Army lieutenant with a Harley-Davidson motorcycle operated by the military, 1918. (Photo Credit: Brennan C Gauthier Collection / Getty Images)

It wasn’t long before Harley-Davidson motorcycles became common sights on America’s roads. This was largely thanks to Arthur Davidson, who took his job as general sales manager seriously. Along with getting the bikes into other police forces, he managed to get orders from the US military and the US Postal Service (USPS). He even went so far as to open a school dedicated to training certified mechanics.

By the time the First World War came around, Harley-Davidson motorcycles had already seen action as part of the Pancho Villa Expedition and it only saw continued use as the former conflict raged on in Europe. As time gave way to the 1920s, the company was officially the largest bike manufacturer in the world, and it was one of only two American brands to safely emerge from the Great Depression.

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Following the Second World War, Harley-Davidson continued to grow, albeit while navigating some controversy – in particular, charges of restrictive practices and labor strikes following it being sold to American Machine and Foundry. However, eventual restructuring allowed it to reclaim its spot as one of the most successful motorcycle companies, and the rest, as they say, is very much history!

Ian Harvey

Ian Harvey is one of the authors writing for The Vintage News