When you think of a classic, red-blooded American motorcycle brand the first two words that come to mind are probably ‘Harley’ and ‘Davidson’. After all, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company is the quintessential producer of American bikes. Their stylings, sound, and overall vibe appeal to people from all walks of life – from top-level executives to outlaw bikers.
Harley-Davidson was first established in 1903, and the first recorded prototype was ridden a year later. The founders of the company – that is, William Harley, Arthur Davidson, William Davidson, and Walter Davidson – sought to create motorized bicycles that were capable of unmatched speed and perfect maneuverability. The great success of their bikes in the racing scene, policework, and even the military proves that they pulled it off.
The motorcycles produced by this company are some of the most popular in the world, but it hasn’t always been smooth sailing. Luckily, the hardy firm has survived a lot – including hostile takeovers, economic depressions, and even extensive public backlash. Of course, it is worth mentioning that they now make billions of dollars in revenue each year. They are also an international company, so they sell their motorcycles all over the entire world.
This company has a long, storied history with many interesting occurrences and facts surrounding it. Whether you are a beginning biker or a seasoned motorcycle enthusiast, you will probably be interested in knowing more about this world-renowned motorcycle company. If you want to learn some obscure and fascinating facts about this motorcycle brand, read on as we examine 20 fun facts about Harley-Davidson.
They Were One of Two Motorcycle Manufacturers to Survive the Depression
When the Great Depression hit in 1929, many firms struggled to stay afloat in these trying times. Motorcycle companies were no exception – many people saw this type of transportation as a luxury, rather than a necessity, leading to their downfall. However, Harley-Davidson, alongside Indian Motorcycle Company, managed to survive the Great Depression. Despite the dismal economic conditions, they were able to continue business during the Great Depression. It is notable that the company relied on creating industrial engines for some time, solely for the purpose of keeping some sort of revenue flowing, no matter how little. However, they ended up having enough cash to release a brand-new motorcycle design in 1932 – the three-wheeled Servicar (which was produced until 1973).
Their First Bike Was Built in a Shed
A lot of the biggest, most successful companies in the world have come from very humble beginnings. However, there may not be a single firm that has had as humble of a start as the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Their very first motorcycle was created in a ten by fifteen-foot wooden shed, with the words “Harley-Davidson” scrawled crudely into the door. This first bike had a very small motor and was little more than a normal bicycle that had been converted to something that was gasoline-powered. Though Harley-Davidson did not officially release a production model of this bike until two years later, records indicate that they had at least a functional prototype by 1903. The 1905 version of the bike was functionally similar, with a few minor improvements to increase the likelihood that they would sell.
They Have Factories All Over the Globe
Harley-Davidson is generally known as a quintessentially-American brand of motorcycle. However, besides their four locations in the United States of America, the Motor Company also has factories in other places. Three countries with Harley-Davidson manufacturing plants are Brazil, Thailand, and India. This brand proves that it is now international in another way as well. Besides manufacturing plants, they have a metallurgy plant in Australia that produces some of their parts. This gives them a vested interest in global affairs – though with billions in revenue they probably already had one.
They Have Been Providing Police Bikes for Over 100 Years
Not too long after the Harley-Davidson Motor Company got its start, various police departments began requesting custom-built bikes to use in the course of their business. It was around 1907 when the firm first began providing bikes to law enforcement agencies. They were well-engineered, strongly-built, and quite suitable for policework of all types. One surviving bike was originally sold to the Los Angeles Police Department. It was reliable, fast, maneuverable, and capable of going where a motorcar could not. This bike came up at auction recently and boasted a full restoration and all-original parts. This bike has already sold for an undisclosed amount. To this day, Harley-Davidson continues to provide such bikes to our peace officers and agents.
Harley-Davidson Bikes Served in World War One
In the First World War, many armies began using motorcycles in the field for the first time. As far as the record states, it can be determined that the British were the first to adopt motorcycles for general military use. They made use of the Triumph Model H. These bikes were decent, but not quite up to scratch with a Harley-Davidson. The Americans joined the war in 1917, and promptly ordered thousands of Harley-Davidson motorcycles to issue to the troops. In fact, the US Military ordered over 15,000 bikes. This was a huge jump from the five-bike inventory that the company started out with less than twenty years prior. This order was a boon to the company, and brought their motorcycles even greater public recognition than they already had.
The Company Produced Bicycles for a Short Time
When Harley-Davidson examined the market, they determined that they would maximize long-term profits by catching their customers early. They produced their very first bicycle in 1917, which was targeted to pre-teen boys. It was also painted in olive drab to support the troops. Unfortunately, these bicycles never really took off. They were sinking more money into the idea than they were gaining from it and ceased production only a few years after it began. These bikes are quite rare today, and thus are highly sought-after by collectors.
A Harley-Davidson Was the First to Average over 100 Miles Per Hour
The Harley-Davidson Motor Company had originally signed and sponsored a racer named Otto Walker in 1914. Though he ended up getting injured soon after his initial contract, he returned to the scene and participated in the first major race that Harley-Davidson had a stake in. This was a 300-mile race that took place in Venice, California. However, it was not until a few years later that Otto Walker broke records on a Harley. When he won a race in 1921, it was determined that his average speed had been over 100 miles per hour for the entire run. This was the first time that anyone had brought a bike to these kinds of speeds consistently throughout an entire long race.
They Were Presented With Two Army-Navy ‘E’ Awards
An Army-Navy ‘E’ Award is meant to recognize the best firms during times of war. They were invented and presented during World War Two, honoring companies who displayed “excellence in production”. Two of them were granted to Harley-Davidson in the years 1943 and 1945 for their strong commitment to the nation. It is not surprising that they achieved this recognition, as they had created over 90,000 military-grade motorcycles for the war effort. The Harley-Davidson WLA made up most of these bikes (with a few other models in the mix). The WLA even ended up being coined ‘The Liberator’ due to its prominent role in the American war effort.
There is a Mechanical Reason Behind the Harley “Sound”
The first Harley-Davidson motorcycle engines were designed to use only one set of ignition points, and they lacked a distributor. Thus, both sparks would fire at the same time, regardless of which cylinder was actually active. This helped create the initial Harley ‘sound’. The main force behind the throaty growl of a Harley motor is the 45-degree motor. Because of this particular motor arrangement, there are distinct, uneven intervals between the firing of the cylinders. This causes the sound that Harley-Davidson motorcycles are known for. The firm even tried to trademark the sound at one point but were denied due to the high likelihood of other bikes having a similar sound. It was simply unenforceable.
They Have an Environmental Warranty
You may not think of Harley-Davidson as huge proponents of the environment. After all, they focus a lot on the outlaw biker portion of their customers in a lot of their advertisements. However, during the environmental scare of the early 2000s, Harley-Davidson elected to provide an ‘environmental warranty’ on all of their motorcycles. This warranty simply meant that all of the parts or bikes made by the company would be guaranteed to be EPA compliant. Thus, any poor workmanship or defective materials would be replaced for free. This was a definite plus for Harley-Davidson, showing their commitment to lowering emissions.
They Were the First to Volunteer for the One Clean-Up Program
The One Clean-Up program was initially designed to facilitate the clean-up of affected groundwater and soil at the New York Naval Ordnance Plant. This program was backed by state and local governments, as well as the federal government. A few other organizations also voiced their support for the program. Harley-Davidson won the praise of the EPA when the firm elected to become the first voluntary participant in the program. Director of Operations Paul Gotthold put them on a pedestal, urging other companies to follow in their footsteps. This is yet another piece of proof of environmentalism – Harley-Davidson takes an active role in environmental conservation, despite the devil-may-care attitude of the outlaw bikers that most people associate them with.
The Oldest Harley-Davidson Club Was Founded in 1928
Back in 1928, famous Czech racer and Harley-Davidson rider B. Turek decided to get married. About sixty fellow Harley-Davidson riders attended his wedding. It was during the reception that they elected to meet up more often, thus forming the very first Harley-Davidson club. This club, which is based in Prague, will be celebrating their 90th anniversary this year. This is quite an accomplishment – especially considering the fact that they barely survived World War Two. In fact, only about 10% of the members that were in the club before the war remained active afterwards. Despite this, the club remains open to this day and holds the title of the oldest Harley-Davidson organization.
They Used to Push the Quietness of their Motorcycles
If you look at most ads for Harley-Davidson motorcycles today, you will see that they generally focus on the outlaw, loud, brash side of motorcycling. This mentality is deeply-ingrained into biker culture and has been since at least the 1960s. However, their ads were not always as blatant and brusque. The earliest Harley-Davidson ads on record show that the company initially prided itself on being quiet and refined. In fact, the ads often featured illustrations of respectable-looking men and women, giving the bikes a civilized air. They also marketed their first motorcycles as “The Quiet Gray Gentleman”. This is an interesting juxtaposition to the ads we see today.
The ‘Hog’ Nickname Came from a Real Hog
A lot of people who ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles lovingly refer to their preferred method of transport as a ‘hog’. This term originates from a group of farm boys who often raced on their motorcycles in the 1920s. They had a pig for a mascot and would even take him for victory rides after winning a race. Harley-Davidson embraced the term, and even formed the acronym H.O.G. to stand for Harley Owners Group. They also tried to trademark the term but were denied as it was too commonly used to refer to other brands of motorcycles. However, they did manage to change their NYSE demarcation from HDI to HOG in 2006.
Chopper Culture Started Out on Harley-Davidson Motorcycles
During the time period immediately following the Second World War, many young men began to turn to motorcycle culture. They had, after all, ridden them in the war and took the motorcycling bug home with them. A lot of these guys were after speed and power, only one of which was provided by stock bikes. In fact, the Harley-Davidson FL with the Big Twin-style motor were quite ornate. They included a lot of unnecessary metal that looked good but dragged the bike down when it came to speed. So, a lot of the original adapters of these bikes began to chop the fenders down. Though the common term for this was a “bobber”, there are a few instances in which “chopper” was used instead.
They Have Their Own Television Show
In 2016, the show Harley and the Davidsons was released on the Discovery Channel. It was a dramatization of the early history of the company. However, it was mostly based on the true story and was a great watch for any gearhead or motorcycle enthusiast. The show focused on Walter, Arthur, and Bill, giving special attention to how they risked everything to launch their company. Of course, each of these men faced their own personal challenges. Yet, when it came down to it, they were all brought together by their love of motorcycles.
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 granted this honor due to their clever pooling of resources and incredible dedication when they started the company. They also faced a lot of challenges but overcame them all. The Department of Labor makes a special note about how the founders of the company felt about their own products. The assertation that they truly believed in the products rings true – after all, each of them also rode their own Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Plus, they put a lot of faith in their employees. Each of these traits leads them to be quite deserving of this honor from the US government.
They Hold a ‘Ride Home’ Every Five Years
The Harley-Davidson Ride Home, commonly known as Harleyfest, is a sort of biker pilgrimage to the Motor Company’s mother city of Milwaukee. It features thousands of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts, all riding side-by-side to visit the founding city of their favorite motorcycle manufacturer. It is a wild event, and often gets a respectable amount of media coverage. The 2018 event will begin in four corners of the country – that is, San Diego, CA; Seattle, WA; Portland, ME; and Fort Lauderdale, FL – and will converge in Milwaukee (of course). It is bound to be another great Ride Home and will certainly bring some of the country’s most dedicated bikers. These events are frequented by all sorts of people, from old-school bikers to new enthusiasts.
They Have Their Own Museum
Harley-Davidson Motor Company is one of the few manufacturers out there who also owns and operates their own museum. Located in Milwaukee, the Harley-Davidson Museum offers a lot of exhibits, activities, and tours – with fun for people of all ages. For example, they offer a ton of hands-on activities for the kids. The museum is full of motorcycles – some of which you can sit on and touch – as well as other objects from the history of Harley-Davidson Motor Company. They even have an “engine room”, or a place that breaks down Harley motors and shows how they are put together. This museum is a great place for anyone to visit, should you end up in Milwaukee.
They Created a Shaft-Driven Bike
During World War Two, the United States Army asked Harley-Davidson to create a motorcycle that could serve as the equivalent of a BMW R71. The company quickly delivered, essentially copying the design of the BMW and creating a shaft-driven bike called the XA (Experimental Army). They made about 1000 of these bikes, but they never were fully adopted by the military. This was due to the widespread usage of the Jeep, which killed this bike’s chances at making it to the field.
These bikes were also full of Harley-Davidson firsts. For example, they displayed the first welded frame used on a motorcycle from this manufacturer. They also had a direct four-speed shift, and a left-handed throttle (the latter of which was designed to allow the firing of a weapon while riding). The XA also boasted two gas tanks, a sealed beam headlight, and positive ground wiring – all of which were not seen for quite some time in other models from this manufacturer.
Harley-Davidson Motor Company is one of the quintessential American brands. They have created some of the most legendary beasts on two wheels that the country has ever seen. The motorcycles that boast the Harley-Davidson badge are always high quality and will continue to be instantly recognized for the foreseeable future. Without Harley-Davidson, many motorcycle firsts may never have been accomplished. For example, had they not included heavy ornate decorations on their 1940s models, the chopper culture wouldn’t have come around until a lot later. Plus, any groups or gangs associated with this culture wouldn’t have been riding around on Harleys (which, at the moment, is one of the main aspects of their identities).
All-in-all, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company is a classic part of American culture. Whether you like them for their looks, their performance, their history, or even that throaty sound, you can count yourself among millions of Harley-Davidson fans. They have since transcended national status, and have become an international symbol of American ingenuity.
Written by Garrett Parker
Read more posts by Garrett Parker