When you think of iconic American companies today, you might think of tech giants like Google, Amazon, and Facebook. But what about one of America’s earliest brands: Harley-Davidson. There’s no story closer to the American dream than that of the iconic motorcycle company.
From their humble beginnings in a 10×15 foot tool shed to surviving the Great Depression and moving on to world motorcycle domination, the Harley-Davidson company has shown American strength and resilience for more than 100 years. Read on to learn some interesting facts about how the century-old company has managed to remain an iconic part of American history.
The First Harley-Davidson Was Built In A Shed
Well, technically it was the company’s first factory, but in reality, it was just a 10-foot-by-15-foot garden shed in the Davidson family’s backyard. It was there that William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson created the first “real” motorcycle in 1903.
The bike was based on the design of the Milwaukee Merkel motorcycle, but had a bigger engine and frame design. Even though it was the first, the prototype only lasted a year before they began tinkering to make it even better.
They Used To Be Known For Being A Quiet Ride
Long before Harley-Davidson embraced the loud, throaty growl of their V-Twin engine, they prided themselves for being a quiet alternative to other motorbikes. They tried for years to tweak their engines to make them sound quieter. In the early 1900s, this was because they wanted the motorcycle to be an upscale and civilized mode of transportation.
Early advertisements actually showed respectable-looking men riding the bikes. Harley-Davidsons were even once nicknamed “The Quiet Gray Gentleman.” That’s a little different than what we know them as today.
They Managed To Survive The Great Depression
Not many companies made it out of the 1930s with any sort of profit, and Harley-Davidson struggled at first too. After the stock market crash of 1929, Harley-Davidson cut costs and reduced their workforce but that wasn’t enough.
It was once they finally made that deal with Japan’s Sankyo company that they were able to stay afloat. Many say it was the international market and the Japanese factory that allowed us to still have Harley-Davidson motorcycles today.
They Stole The Idea For Their Iconic Engine
Harley-Davidson has always been linked with the V-Twin engine. If you’re not a motorcycle rider, that means the engine has two cylinders that are arranged in a V shape that are used for internal combustion. Harley-Davidson introduced their first bike with a V-Twin engine in 1909 and it has been part of their brand ever since.
But they weren’t the first to do it. The company’s rival, Indian Motorcycle, actually introduced the V-Twin in 1904 and rather than think up something better, Harley-Davidson took the idea and ran with it.
Harley-Davidson Started The Chopper Culture
The chopper style of motorcycle came from World War Two veterans returning home and taking it upon themselves to customize their motorcycles. They had ridden Harley-Davidsons all throughout the war and wanted both speed and power, but returning home the stock version of motorcycles usually only provided one.
As a compromise, these veterans would buy the powerful stock version of a Harley-Davidson and “chop” the fenders down to make them lighter and faster. Thus the term “chopper” was born.
They Made Their Name As Racing Bikes
The Harley-Davidson motorcycle was the first of its kind to average over 100 miles per hour. That made the bikes a top choice for racers to use. One of the most famous racers was Otto Walker. He was sponsored by Harley-Davidson and was the one to break the speed record.
In 1921, he won a race at over 100 mph and that was the first time people realized that these bikes had the capacity to really go fast.
Police Departments Were Their #1 Customer
It didn’t take long after the company’s start for police departments all across America to begin requesting custom bikes. For police, a motorcycle was a fast, maneuverable, and easy way of getting around and stopping crime. Not to mention, it was much more cost effective than a motorcar.
By 1907, Harley-Davidson began providing bikes to more than 40% of police departments in American. To this day, their motorcycles are still used by officers.
There’s A Reason For The Harley “Sound”
Most gearheads can recognize a Harley-Davidson from a mile away just because of the sound. Some of the early engines on the motorcycles had multiple sparks firing at the same time. Those sparks combined with Harley-Davidson’s distinctive 45-degree motor to create the “throaty growl” we know and love today. Some even call it the “potato potato potato” sound.
The sound of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is so distinct that at one point, the company even tried to trademark it.
Just How Loud Is That Rumble?
Now that we know why a Harley-Davidson has such a distinct sound, we can be in awe of just how loud it actually is. The rumble that comes from the exhaust emits around 80 decibels. For perspective, a car emits 50 decibels at high speed and a chain saw emits 120.
If a Harley owner removes the muffler, the sound can go up to 100 decibels! At that level, it would only take 15 minutes of unprotected ears to cause permanent hearing loss.
5% of Their Sales Come From Clothing
Today, Harley-Davidson sells a lot of motorcycles. In 2016 alone they sold more than 262,000 brand new bikes. Obviously, these high-priced items account for most of the $6 billion of annual profit, but a whopping 5% of sales come from just their clothing lines.
It may not sound like a lot, but that translates to more than $285 million a year just from Harley-Davidson t-shirts, jacket, and bonafide leather riding boots.
Their Bikes Served In WW1
Harley-Davidson motorcycles weren’t the first ones used in World War One, but they were the best. The British were the first to introduce motorcycles but the Triumph Model H that they used weren’t very stable or long-lasting.
When the United States joined the war in 1917, they introduced Harley-Davidson bikes to the rest of the world. In fact, the U.S. Military ordered 15,000 new Harley-Davidsons just for the war effort.
They Once Made Their Motorcycles In Japan
Even though Harley-Davidson is known for being an iconic American company, they too fell into the trap of cheap labor and production around the world. Today, they have factories in India, Brazil, and Thailand, but their earliest one was in Japan in 1935.
The Japanese factory had a licensing deal with another motorcycle company called Sankyo. Harley-Davidson gave them the rights to build copies of their bikes for the Japanese market.
There Was A Third And Fourth Partner
It wasn’t always William Harley and Arthur Davidson running the show. For a brief period of time, Arthur’s older brother Walter Davidson joined the ranks in the company. Walter Davidson was a toolroom foreman in the Milwaukee rail shop, which allowed a lot of early motorcycle parts to be created for cheap.
Luckily, the addition of another two Davidsons didn’t mean changing the name. It would have been strange to say you’re riding a “Harley-Davidson-Davidson-Davidson.”
They Had A Bicycle Department
Even though Harley-Davidson’s main goal in the early years was to create a bike that didn’t need petals to ride it, they still tried their hand at the bicycle market. In 1916, the company decided to try selling both motorcycles and pedal bicycles.
They sold pedal bikes successfully for six years until Harley-Davidson decided to give them the ax because of costs. The parts for the bikes were made in Dayton, Ohio then shipped to Milwaukee for assembly, so it was actually more expensive to make bikes than motorcycles!
Pancho Villa Inspired The Use Of Harleys In War
We know that Harley-Davidson was used by American troops in WW1 but there’s a reason why the U.S. felt so comfortable using them — they already had shown their worth in conflict! In 1916, the gun-toting bandit Pancho Villa attack America through New Mexico using Indian Motorcycles.
President Woodrow Wilson sent 5,000 troops to the border and was inspired by police departments to use motorcycles as a way of getting there fast. After the success using Harley-Davidsons against Pancho Villa, the army ordered more bikes and began equipping them with weapons.
Why Are They Called “Hogs”?
We’ve all heard Harley-Davidson motorcycles called hogs, but do you know why? No, it doesn’t stand for “Harley Owners Group” but it harks back to their racing days. One of the Harley-Davidson racing team members, Ray Weishaar, owned a piglet as a pet.
The pig became the team’s unofficial mascot and whenever they would win a competition, the racing team members would take a victory lap on their Harley-Davidsons with the mascot on their bike.
Green Harleys Are Bad Luck
Black, grey, and orange are seen as the most popular and iconic Harley-Davidson colors, but one color you won’t see is olive green. There are a few superstitions why olive green is considered bad luck for a Harley rider. The first is that in the early racing days, Harley-Davidson motorcycles would often be beat out by British racers with green bikes.
The motorcycles that came back from the war were also painted green but in terrible shape, so the green post-war bikes would often break down mid-ride. Whatever the reason is, don’t paint your motorcycle green.
Its First Major Movie Appearance Isn’t What You Think
Most people view 1969’s Easy Rider as the quintessential Harley-Davidson film but their motorcycle appeared on the silver screen much earlier than that. It was in the 1953 old Hollywood classic, The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, that Harley-Davidson was front and center.
In the film, Brando starred as a gun-slinging outlaw who was the head of a motorcycle gang. Brando himself rode a Triumph Thunderbird in the film, but his co-star Lee Marvin is frequently seen riding his Harley-Davidson Hydra-Glide. The film is widely believed to have kicked off the motorcycle gang film genre.
Have You Ever Noticed A Harley Bell?
You’d have to get up close and personal with a Harley-Davidson bike to have noticed the nice metal bell hanging off the back. This small bell is a favorite for superstitious Harley-Davidson riders. Apparently it is a guardian bell that are meant to ward off evil road spirits.
The Harley-Davidson myth says that if you buy the bell yourself, you’ll have good luck on the road. If someone else gifts you the bell, then you’ll have double the luck.
The Oldest Harley-Davidson Club Was Formed In 1928
The first club for Harley-Davidson riders started out by accident. In 1928, a famous Czech racer, B. Turek, got married and invited all his fellow Harley-Davidson riders to the reception. They had so much fun at the wedding that they decided to meet up more often.
A few months later, the first Harley-Davidson Club was officially born and based out of Prague. The club is still active today and just celebrated their 90th anniversary.
A Tarnished Reputation And Some Nasty Nicknames
In the 1950s and 1960s, Harley-Davidson slowly began to lose the high-end reputation they had built. After AMF bought the company, they were forced to cut the workforce and streamline production which led to labor strikes and low-quality bikes.
As a result, riders began to switch to other companies, notably Honda, and began mocking Harley-Davidson. Some nicknames include “Hardly Ableson,” “Hardly Driveable,” and “Hogly Ferguson.” Thankfully, the original owners could buy back the company and put it back on track.
The Three-Wheeler Comes From The Great Depression
Harley-Davidson began manufacturing three-wheeled motorcycles in 1932 as a way to survive the Great Depression. The small three-wheelers were called the Servi-Cars because they originally became popular as delivery vehicles. The sales from these three-wheelers is another reason why Harley-Davidson was one of the few companies to survive the 1930s.
Today, the three-wheelers are a bonafide collector’s item. They ceased production in the 1970s and now, some are valued as high as $12,000.
Evel Knievel Used Harleys Excusively
It makes sense that America’s greatest motorcycle stuntman would put his life in the hands of America’s greatest motorcycle manufacturer. Knievel used Harleys almost exclusively for more of his stunts, with the exception of the bikes he handcrafted himself.
Knievel was a dream come true for Harley-Davidson because he was a living advertisement. In 1975, Knievel helped them even more when he broke the world record for longest jump over 14 Greyhound buses while on a Harley-Davidson XR-750.
They Aren’t Very Reliable
Even though they are the most iconic motorcycle company, Harley-Davidson isn’t exactly the most reliable. In fact, they’re ranked second-last in reliability, only beating out BMW. It seems like Harley-Davidson has always known this though because they’re constantly tweaking and redesigning their motorcycle engines.
Constant breakdowns and recalls should have ruined the company’s ratings, but 75% of Harley-Davidson riders still say they would buy from the American brand again.
They Actually Care About The Environment
Car and motorcycle companies aren’t exactly at the top of the list when it comes to protecting the environment, but Harley-Davidson went against the grain and became EPA compliant. Once evidence of climate change became well-known in the early 2000s, Harley-Davidson decided to provide an “environmental warrant” on their bikes.
That means all the bike parts are not EPA compliant and because of that, any defective materials would be replaced for free.
There Was A Television Show About The Company
In 2016, Discovery Channel released Harley and the Davidsons. The show was a dramatization of the early period for the company, from Arthur’s first time tinkering with an engine to their first factory and eventually, world motorcycle domination.
While the show may have definitely seemed dramatic, the company approved of the show, and by all standards, said it was pretty accurate. Hey, any good company has some infighting, but their love of motorcycles always brought them back together.
You Can Join The Iconic Harleyfest
Every five years, the company hosts the Harley-Davidson Ride Home event, which most Harley-lovers refer to as Harleyfest. It’s basically a pilgrimage for motorcycles riders to visit the hometown of the company, Milwaukee.
The 2018 Ride Home event began in the four corners of the country—San Diego, Seattle, Portland, and Fort Lauderdale—and eventually, thousands of bikers met in Milwaukee. Harleyfest is one of the sights you need to see to believe.
You Can Visit The Harley-Davidson Museum
You don’t have to be an enthusiastic Harley-Davidson rider to appreciate the history of one of America’s greatest home-grown companies. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company is one of the few manufacturers who own and operate their own museum that’s completely open to the public.
It’s based in Milwaukee (of course) and is full of hands-on activities that adults and kids will love. You can sit on old motorcycles, and even visit an engine room where they show you how their V-Twin engines are made.
The Company Was Briefly Bought Out
In 1969, Harley-Davidson hit another wall in sales that proved to be more disastrous than even the Great Depression. They were struggling financially and even considered selling the company. Luckily, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) decided to purchase the company but they didn’t exactly intend to save it.
In fact, AMF primarily produced bowling balls. It wasn’t long until motorcycle sales dropped even more. Thankfully, this further drop allowed for the 13 former Harley-Davidson executives to scrounge up enough cash and repurchase the company.
Porsche Collaborated With Harley-Davidson On An Engine
In the mid-1970s while Harley-Davidson was still under AMF, they decided to create a mid-weight sports bike. What resulted was the Harley-Davidson Nova, which was unique because it had a compact, liquid-cooled V-4 engine.
This engine was a result of Harley-Davidson partnering with automobile powerhouse Porsche to create a top-of-the-line sport engine. Unfortunately, no one ever got to see the finished product because AMF sold the company back to the original Harley-Davidson investors and the Porsche engine project was shelved.
They Made A Shaft Driven Bike
During World War II, the United States Army asked Harley-Davidson if they could create a motorcycle that was the equivalent of the BMW R71.
The company was quick to respond and basically copied the design of the BMW bike and creating a shaft-driven bike called XA for Experimental Army. While they made 1,000 of these bikes, they were never fully adopted into the United States Military mostly because Jeeps were the preferred choice of vehicle.
The Founders Have Been Inducted Into The Labor Hall Of Fame
Back in 2004, William Harley, Arthur Davidson, Walter Davidson, and William Davidson were all inducted into the Labor Hall of Fame. They were presented with the honor for their smart use of resources and dedication to starting and maintaining their company.
Over the years, they were also faced a lot of hard circumstances which they overcame on numerous occasions, showing their resilience and skill in the business. They are also noted for their solid business model and treatment of employees.
The History Of The Logo
Most people that don’t even ride motorcycles can recognize the company’s Harley-Davidson shield and bar logo. It is one of the greatest aspects for their brand although the logo didn’t even come about until 1910, 7 years after the start of the company.
While little is known about who designed it or the initial designs, today, it’s one of the company’s best advertising strategies. However, they did have numerous logos over the years.
The King Kong Bike
In the 1950s, a Harley-Davidson enthusiast, rider, and mechanic named Felix Predko got very creative with an FL 74 OHV Twin. All in all, he created a Harley that had two knucklehead engines and two transmissions.
On top of that, the bike had 2 seats, 4 pipes, and two handlebars. The bike was a whopping 13-feet long and was given the title of “King Kong.” The bike took 4,000 hours to build and can now be seen in the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee.
A Stolen Harley Was Found Buried
In a strange turn of events in 2006, one man was found guilty of lying about his stolen Harley Davidson. He reported the vehicle, saying it was at his property one day, then gone the next. Insurance covered the cost of the stolen bike, and the loan he took out to pay for it.
Six years later, the Harley was found buried in the man’s backyard. The house had been bought by a new owner, who found the hog while having some grading done by a contractor. This is one story that proves you can’t always trust a friendly face!
They Became The World’s Biggest Motorcycle Company In Just 20 Years
By 1920, Harley had become the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer with over 2,000 dealers in 67 countries. Their “Wrecking Crew” racing team grabbed the attention of the world and began dominating the sport by 1910, which helped Harley-Davidson reach the top of the market.
While Harley-Davidson still may be seen as “The King” by many, with 50% of the United States market, today, Honda Motors has the title of the motorcycle company with the most output.
Least Stolen Motorcycle
A report published in 2011 showed that Harley Davidsons were the least stolen of the top five motorcycle brands. The most stolen honor went to Honda, who released their first motorcycle in 1949. Considering the automaker’s reputation for quality, it makes sense.
In the same sense, it’s logical to think that with the high maintenance cost and low reliability of Harleys, that they wouldn’t be popular among bike thieves. Why steal something if it won’t make it out of the driveway or parking lot?
They Weren’t Supposed To Be Racing Bikes
Despite earning their reputation in the early 1900s as racing bike, Harley Davidson’s weren’t designed for the track. Arthur Davidson saw no interest in selling racing bikes, but he did see money in winning. By winning races, the brand would ensure exposure and increased sales.
Harley’s racing bikes were designed to go fast and had no brakes. Sadly, despite the popularity of this no frills form of racing, several competitions ended in tragedy. Motordomes even became known as “murderdomes.”
There Are Seven Types Of Harleys
Everyone who buys a new motorcycle has different ideas of what they want. To try and satisfy every customer, there are seven different kinds of Harley Davidsons. Generally, those seven types fall into six different categories; Softail, Heritage, Touring, Sportsters, Dyna, VROD, and Porsche.
Yep, you already knew Porsche designed a Harley, and you can still buy it as one of your options today. The only one you can’t buy anymore is the Dyna, but true collectors still find ways.
The Bowling Ball Connection
Harley Davidson was struggling for business in 1969 and needed to do something drastic. About to give and up liquidate all their assets, they got an offer they couldn’t refuse. American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought Harley Davidson.
The company had no interest in saving the brand. They were known for leisure products such as bowling equipment. As sales continued to plummet, AMF began considering liquidation. Their purchase of the company, however, gave the Gang of 13 (former executives), enough time to scrounge for money and buy Harley back.