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History Of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles (Ultimate Guide)

Harley-Davidson bikes appear to be known almost worldwide. Especially when you compare their brand recognition to their sales numbers, it’s quite impressive what a presence they command. This brand familiarity is all down to the intriguing history of Harley-Davidson. 

Harley-Davidson has long specialized in big motorcycles, especially cruisers, so if that’s what you’re looking for, they have some good bikes to choose from. They’re currently in an interesting place as a company, seemingly trying to branch out from their long-standing image.

There’s more to learn about this company though, and their history, especially their early history, is pretty different from the seemingly global view of the company now. Read on, as below I’ll cover more of their history in depth, as well as some of the most popular Harley-Davidson bikes.

The History Of Harley-Davidson 

The year was 1901. A young man in Milwaukee, Wisconsin named William S. Harley drew up the design for a small motor that could be used in a bicycle frame. With some help from one of his friends, a man named Arthur Davidson, William improved upon his motorized bicycle project. 

William and Arthur had grown up only a few blocks apart from one another in Milwaukee. They worked on the motorized bike for a few years at a local machining shop that was owned by a friend. 

The desire of the young men was fueled by their love for bicycles in the early years of their lives. William actually worked at a bicycle manufacturer at the age of 15, his position was as a cycle fitter and drafter. It was during this time working at the Barth Manufacturing Company that William designed his very first internal combustion engine.

The Original Prototype

With some help from Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson, the first prototype motorcycle was completed in 1903. It was quite an underpowered bike, totally incapable of getting up the hills around Milwaukee without having to pedal the bike pedals. The 3 young men were not deterred, though, and soon started work on a new and improved design.

Soon the 3 were joined by another Davidson, William, who was Arthur’s eldest brother. Together, the 3 Davidson brothers and William Harley finished their second motorcycle prototype by the year 1904. They entered it in a local motorcycle race and it placed fourth. Harley-Davidson was starting to come together.

Now that the group had developed a successful prototype, they started to work on developing a company. In 1905 they produced 5 motorcycles. 3 of these were sold by Carl H. Lang of Chicago. 

Selling these bikes would make him the world’s first Harley-Davidson dealer. By the year 1906, the 4 young men were moving out of the smaller shed in the Davidsons’ backyard, and into their first proper factory. 

The First Factory

During the first year in their new factory, the four produced 50 motorcycles. After that year was over, they expanded the factory operation and became officially incorporated. In 1907 they produced 150 motorcycles, 3 times more than the previous year. They started selling these bikes to police departments, as well as to the general populace.

Harley-Davidson continued to grow further, marketing their bikes wherever they were able to. Before long, not only were police departments and the general public using them, but the United States Postal Service started using them as mail delivery vehicles. During the first world war, Harley-Davidson produced a staggering number of motorcycles for the U.S. military, over 20,000.

Harley-Davidson was also one of only 2 American motorcycle companies that made it through the great depression. The other company was Indian Motorcycle Company. 

Harley-Davidson also played a huge role in the Second World War, producing an even bigger number of bikes for the U.S. military, totaling over 90,000. For their efforts, the company was given a few different awards for excellence in production.

Harley’s Postwar Image

After the war was over, veteran riders could buy used and beat-up army bikes from the U.S. military for relatively cheap and continue riding them in civilian life. A lot of these bikes started to get modified, and the chopper was birthed. 

The common image of a Harley rider changed, no longer that of a well-dressed and clean-cut USPS delivery man, but of a wild man, a lone outcast, a roaming outlaw who did wheelies and got in bar fights.

As this idea of the violent and individualistic biker was more and more strengthened, the opposite end of the motorcycle market was left more and more open. This is around the time that Honda Motor Company entered the fold.

Honda Motor Co.

Companies like Honda took a completely different approach. While Harley-Davidson riders were seen as aggressive and outside proper society, and Harley supported that with their marketing, Honda sold their bikes as being for everyone, a bike for the people

Honda opened its first storefront in 1959, in Los Angeles. The Honda Super Cub is the first bike to be sold. The Super Cub heralded a new era of what a motorcycle could be. It was cheap to build, cheap to purchase, cheap to use, and cheap to repair. It was marketed as a bike for anyone and was specifically designed to work for everyone. 

The Super Cub was designed to be able to replace the bicycle. In Japan, soba delivery boys would use bicycles, and they’d need a hand free to carry the soba. So, the Super Cub had to be able to be ridden 1-handed, and pretty easily. The net result of these design ideas was a bike that could be ridden very easily by almost anyone.

Honda & Harley’s Intertwined History

Now that you know a little more about Honda, you can understand why the history of Harley-Davidson isn’t complete without Honda. Harley-Davidson is busy developing its reputation as a motorcycle company for gruff outlaws and cowboys, while Honda is marketing its bikes for grandmas and kids to ride around the neighborhood.

You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda

“You meet the nicest people on a Honda” was the golden phrase used by Honda in their U.S. marketing campaigns. Honda motorbikes were branded as bikes for respectable people. Their mascots were not scary bikers but well-dressed businessmen in nice suits and their equally well-dressed wives. 

This particular marketing campaign was very successful. The little Honda bikes attracted all sorts of different customers, many of whom likely never considered buying a motorcycle before the Honda Super Cub came around.

The Super Cub’s design didn’t fall short of the marketing. The semi-automatic 3-speed transmission was easy for anyone to operate, and didn’t require any manual clutch work. The aerodynamic-looking leg shield was good at keeping rocks and debris away from the rider’s legs.

This shield also hid the engine, which made the bike look sleeker, and a lot more scooter-ish. The enclosed chain guard prevented any dirt or grease from the chain getting slung on the rider’s legs, a common problem with exposed chain motorcycles.

Harley-Davidson On The Brink Of Failure

Honda had done a really good job of selling motorcycles to a customer base that wasn’t particularly interested in motorcycles. Over 100 million Super Cubs have been sold to this day, more than any other vehicle, by a huge margin. 

Harley-Davidson would see no such numbers. So, Harley now faced a few years of declining profits and a few successful competitors with approaches that are completely different from theirs. What do they do? Harley-Davidson decides to go to Ronald Reagan and ask for help. In 1983, Reagan delivered, placing a huge tariff (49%) on imported bikes over 750cc. 

The goal of this was basically to exclude foreign motorcycle companies from having any real chance of success in Harley-Davidson’s main market space, larger bikes. Reagan’s crazy tariff seemed to work, outwardly, and Harley-Davidson was back on the uptick. By the year 2006, Harley had netted over 1 billion dollars in profits.

However, although it isn’t fully clear, it wasn’t entirely Reagan’s help that caused this change. Foreign motorcycle manufacturers just started selling 699cc motorcycles in the U.S. market. Reagan’s tariffs didn’t really appear to affect their sales as much as they could have, although they certainly did change things.

Regardless of this, it seems to be Harley revamping their production processes and quality control standards that really saved them. Whichever thing or combination of things actually saved Harley, how it looked was that Reagan had bailed them out.

Post-Tariff Years

So, Harley-Davidson was back, for now, but eventually, time catches up. If the average Harley rider was 43 years old in 1999, 46 in 2004, and 48 in 2008, how old are they now? Harley-Davidson actually stopped releasing these numbers, so we don’t know for sure, but one can assume the average age of riders is still increasing.

Harley was aware of this aging market, so later in the 2000s, they started trying to focus more on younger generations, with bikes such as the XR1200 Sportster. However, to much of the younger generation, Harley-Davidson was still viewed as a motorcycle company for grizzled war vets, not younger riders. For this reason, albeit among others, these bikes didn’t really sell very well.

Harley’s more recent sales numbers show a pretty consistent decline in profits. The company has recently been buying back a bunch of shares. So, the price of shares looks pretty good, but the sales numbers definitely show a different image.

By seeking Reagan’s bailout, Harley concreted its image as a die-hard American company. This choice may have helped them then, and possibly even saved them, but Harley is now trying to sell motorcycles in non-U.S. markets. 

When tariffs in the U.S. were recently instituted on imported metals such as steel and aluminum, the E.U. started forcing tariffs on American products, one of them being Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. 

Modern Issues

The result of this series of events is that Harley-Davidson started paying much more money for materials to produce motorcycles that they are selling internationally for much less money. So, Harley ramps up overseas production, trying to avoid these tariffs that are killing their already weakened profit margins.

Here’s the issue. This business decision is in direct contrast to the die-hard American image Harley-Davidson had been promoting for so many years. Their die-hard American fan base is not happy about it.

Much more recently, Harley is now trying to do what Honda did all of those years earlier, and trying to make motorcycles appealing to different types of riders. Their new offerings are full of electric motorcycles, little e-bikes, things like that, all seeming to try and change their clearly unsustainable image.

Now, were it Honda or Yamaha or some other such company trying to tap into this market, it would seem quite normal and uninteresting. But it’s Harley-Davidson, so this choice is pretty much in direct contrast with their ethos for the last 50 years or more.

Harley-Davidson’s future as a company seems quite unclear. Having spent years heading, almost with a blind confidence in one very specific direction, it seems they are now trying to take a sharp left turn and head a new way. 

This will certainly be a difficult rebranding effort, if they actually go through with it, and I have no idea if it will work. Only time will tell how it all plays out, but Harley-Davidson is not done just yet.

The Feel Of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles

Harley-Davidson offers a few types of motorcycles, but their main focus is definitely cruiser/touring bikes. Within this category are various different offerings, all with a range of different engines, different accessories, and trim levels.

It appears that Harley-Davidson is still selling most of their bikes within this category. There are other options available within the brand, such as an electric motorcycle that seems to only be available in some places, and a couple of token sport bikes or adventure bikes. However, the bulk of their offerings and sales are still going on within cruiser and touring categories.

These cruiser bikes are primarily designed for just that, cruising. Many of them come with a litany of features and accessories, such as cruise control, speaker systems, navigation, and more. As Harley-Davidson’s target market has grown older, Harley has designed their bikes more and more to cater to the aging fanbase, and this is apparent when looking at their lineup.

Despite these cruiser tendencies, a lot of Harley-Davidson motorcycles are pretty raw and rough. The newer models, especially on the cruiser end will probably be a lot more cushy, but especially with the older bikes, Harleys can often be somewhat loud and vibrate-y. 

Solid-Mounted Engines

Many of the engines in Harley-Davidson bikes are solid-mounted, so no rubber in between the engine and the frame of the bike. Even the ones that aren’t solid-mounted tend to still be a bit shaky. Unlike some other engine designs, the average Harley V-twin just isn’t a very balanced motor, so vibration is relatively unavoidable.

Whether or not this is a good or bad thing depends on the type of experience you want. I’m not always crazy about the vibrating and unbalanced experience Harley engines give, but in the right mood, I can also really enjoy it. Many people who like Harleys seem to really like the nature of this feeling.

Brand Image

Harley-Davidson basically builds the motorcycle equivalent of old muscle cars, with big, slow revving engines that push out a huge amount of low-end torque. They don’t make very much power for their displacement or rev that high. There are a few models that don’t follow this recipe, but the majority of them are like this.

Harley-Davidsons also often come with some notable cultural associations, especially within the United States. Harley riders are often categorized separately from other types of motorcyclists, and they tend to socialize more with other Harley riders. Because Harley really committed to their hardcore branding, a lot of the people who ride them very much believe in that lifestyle.

Top Harley-Davidson Motorcycles

Harley-Davidson has been around for a long time, over a century. The company had produced its first bike before Soichiro Honda had even been born. Within this huge amount of time, the company has produced an equally huge range of motorcycles, from huge cruisers to dirt track racing bikes. Let’s cover some of the top Harley bikes from the last few years.

Street Glide

The Street Glide has been one of Harley’s top-selling bikes for a few years now, and it’s a good example of the type of bike Harley tends to sell a lot of. The 2022 model weighs around 830 lbs, which is a lot in comparison to many other bikes, but by Harley standards, it’s relatively average.

Despite its heavy weight, it should have no issue getting around due to its Milwaukee 107 v-twin, a 107 cubic inch (1750cc) plant that churns out 111 ft/lbs of torque and about 106 hp. It will empty its 6-gallon fuel tank in probably around 200-250 miles, depending on the road and the rider.

The Street Glide should be a great turn-key tourer, coming standard with saddlebags, an infotainment system, and other such features. The price of a new one is quite a lot, though, so be prepared to set a serious chunk of change aside if you want one of these.

Iron 883

The Iron 883, while still being considered a cruiser, is definitely not as much of a tourer, and is a much different bike than the Street Glide. It’s a pretty popular bike among Harley’s newer offerings, and a new model is about half the price of a Street Glide.

The 2022 model weighs in at about 560 lbs, which is a much more manageable weight, although still not light, especially in comparison to a lot of other brands. The engine is much smaller at 54 cubic inches. 

Still a v-twin, of course, the 883 horsepower engine cranks out around 54 ft/lbs of torque and 49 horsepower. This is really not that much power, especially given the still somewhat hefty weight, but it definitely won’t feel slow. The mileage figures are a little better than the Street Glide, but not as much as you might think.

As far as I’m concerned, the best part of the Iron 883 is the way it looks. The 883 has a much more naked bike style than the bigger cruisers, while still maintaining Harley’s low swept back styling specialty. A couple of nice accents such as fork boots go a long way to make this bike look as good as it does.

Tri-Glide

Harley is really the only manufacturer that makes things such as this, and the Tri-Glide is a perfect modern example. The Tri-Glide is a trike, with 3 wheels, 2 at the back and 1 at the front. The Tri-Glide could be considered a Street Glide with an extra wheel, you could also view it as a giant mobility scooter for the highway.

However you want to think about it, Harley really sells these things, and you can’t get something like this from any other manufacturer. The 2022 model weighs in at around 1,250 lbs, not including any rider, which is more than some small cars. 

To lug around this hefty package, Harley gave this bike a 114 cubic inch v-twin that churns out around 121 ft/lbs of torque and 107 hp. For reference, that’s 400 lbs more weight than the Street Glide, and 1 more horsepower.

So, the Tri-Glide is certainly capable of getting around, 121 ft/lbs is not nothing, but it probably won’t win any motorcycle awards for acceleration. As far as fuel economy, it’s definitely a bit less than the Street Glide, but not by a lot, so no problems there.

Really, the only person I’d recommend a Tri-Glide to is someone who is otherwise physically incapable of riding a motorcycle. For that use, they probably work just fine. Even then, you could get a Can-Am Ryker reverse trike for less than ⅓ the price of a Tri-Glide, so maybe do that instead.

V-Rod

Last, but certainly not least, the Harley-Davidson V-Rod. Harley doesn’t make these bikes anymore, which in my eyes is a shame, because they’re just really cool. They were made from 1999 through 2017, and there were quite a few different versions within that time.

The V-Rod is a muscle bike and designed to compete with other Japanese and American muscle bikes. The most recent version weighs in at around 670 lbs and churns out around 125 hp, and 84 lb/ft of torque.

While the numbers themselves are relatively impressive, what’s really interesting about this engine is how it was designed. The engine was a collaboration with Porsche and is a 60-degree v-twin with 4 valves per cylinder and dual overhead cams. 

The redline of this interesting motor was around 9,000 RPM, which for Harley-Davidson, is a lot. Really a lot. There were even some special edition bikes that had even more horsepower, around 165. Beyond the engine itself, the bike is styled somewhat differently than Harley’s others.

It still looks like a Harley-Davidson, but it’s much lower, longer, and sleeker. As far as I’m concerned, it’s one of Harley’s best-looking bikes, and it seems like a total blast to ride. If you can find a good deal on one, I’d go for it.

Final Thoughts

Harley-Davidson is a renowned motorcycle company with an interesting history. While most of their bikes are somewhat overhyped by their aggressively loyal fanbase, and their bikes are too expensive for many riders, Harley-Davidson is still one of the most iconic motorcycle brands.