Today, the Harley-Davidson brand is an icon of American innovation and history. This company has manufactured motorcycles for over a 100 years and shows no sign of slowing down — in fact, it’s producing 35 models, providing a variety of choices for bike enthusiasts.

So what laid the foundations of what would become a key influence in American culture? Some may be surprised to learn that this global powerhouse was begun by a group of young men who had little more than a thirst for knowledge and a dream of creating something that would bring others joy. The story behind Harley-Davidson is an inspiring tale of how hard work and perseverance — not to mention a bit of teamwork — can create an empire.

Humble Beginnings

The Harley-Davidson origin wasn’t initially a plan for an internationally renowned corporation. Instead, motorcycle building was merely a hobby for four young men:

William Harley
Arthur Davidson
William Davidson
Walter Davidson

The three Davidsons were brothers who grew up on the same street as Harley. In fact, Harley and Arthur Davidson were close friends, whose shared enthusiasm for bicycles would become the basis for their work together.

The two were fascinated by bicycles, which were in the midst of a popular craze in the 1890s due to the release of the first “safety bicycle.” In fact, Harley was so enthusiastic that he went to work for a bike manufacturer at 15. There he learned the skills which would lead to the first H-D prototype.

The first working Harley-Davidson motorcycle was a regular bike frame with a small engine attached. It was created by the four young men in a small shed behind the Davidson’s house. Though somewhat unwieldly, it was able to propel itself and a rider. With this proof of concept, Harley-Davidson incorporated was born.

New Base of Operations

Where was Harley-Davidson founded? The motorcycle manufacturing enterprise was begun in Milwaukee, WI, where a factory exists to this day.

At first, the new business was run from the shed as single orders came in. Once demand began to rise, however, the four knew they were going to need better accommodations.

In 1906, a new factory was built and six full-time employees hired. By this time, the founders had settled into their roles:

William Harley as chief engineer and treasurer
Arthur Davidson as secretary and general sales manager
William Davidson as works manager
Walter Davidson as president

In fact, all four would work at the company for the rest of their lives, taking joy in the impressive enterprise they built together.

Global War

While Harley-Davidson continued to grow by taking leisure orders, business really kicked off once the US joined the First World War. The federal government wanted motorcycles for use overseas, and its orders accounted for nearly half of all sales in 1918. This cemented H-D as a reliable brand hardy enough to even brave combat.

This boom helped the corporation climb to the number one spot globally by 1920. With new engineering innovations producing faster and safer bikes, Harley-Davidsons were used by racers around the world – and even won the National Championships across the board. However, economic tragedy was about the strike, turning the business’s focus from growth to pure survival.

Industry Titan

In 1929, the stock market crashed, taking many companies with it. This included most of the motorcycle manufacturers that had cropped up over the past few decades.

Harley-Davidson, however, managed to weather the storm, and emerged in 1939 as one of the two motorcycle companies to do so. It produced new models to be used as police vehicles and even licensed equipment and blueprints to a Japanese company, which sowed the seeds of the Japanese motorcycle industry.

This elimination of competition would serve H-D well. Already considered the best manufacturer of motorbikes, the corporation would stand virtually unopposed until the 1950s.

Looming War

World War II led to massive orders for motorcycles by the federal government. As was true of many industries, the war effort reinvigorated manufacturing, leading to a boom.

It may be here that Harley-Davidson truly became an American icon. During military production, the business received four awards from the armed forces for mechanical excellence. For many servicemen, their time in the military was the first time they were exposed to the brand. The reliability and patriotism associated with these bikes proved a lasting impression, as many returning veterans ended up choosing H-D when shopping for motorcycles.

Changing Ownership

The last founder of Harley-Davidson passed away in the 1950s, which leaves many people wondering: Who owns Harley-Davidson now? The company changed ownership several times over the past 40 years, sometimes into surprising hands.

By the end of the 1960s, the corporation was struggling and nearly bankrupt. In 1969, it was bought by the American Machine and Foundry Company. However, the merger was short-lived. By 1981, the Gang of Thirteen, which included descendants of the Davidsons, bought the company back. It’s still operating independently even now.

American Icon

Nowadays, the silhouette of a Harley-Davidson cruiser is easily identifiable and considered part of Americana. All over the country, biker clubs enjoy riding together on highways and in cities. Motorcycle enthusiasts customize their bikes to achieve the perfect experience.

However, the face of motorcycle riding is changing, both for leisure and professional racing. The Japanese market has produced intense competition on both fronts. While tradition is deeply instilled in H-D culture, the company is also striving to broaden its horizons and appeal to younger generations.

Modern Innovation

Harley-Davidson has returned to its innovative roots by redesigning its touring bikes in 2009. It’s also reimagined some of its classics like the Iron 883 and Cross Bones to produce bikes more in line with customer demand.

In fact, the 2019 lineup has shown new focus on expanding options, with additions to the Softail and Sportster lines. It even includes an electric motorcycle to meet demand for electric vehicles.

Today you can get the newest models and best Harley-Davidson parts from dealers and OEM parts sellers. The legacy of H-D is one to inspire entrepreneurs and delight motorcycle enthusiasts for years to come.