Although Honda and Yamaha lead the pack worldwide as motorcycle manufacturers, Harley-Davidson has successfully carved a niche for themselves that is completely different from the rest. Even through countless hard times and record drops in sales, the Harley-Davidson name has survived, and is the most recognized American motorcycle brand.
Harley-Davidson had their modest start in a backyard shop in 1903. 115 years later, that distinctive “potato, potato, potato” sound of the V twin engine is still the most notable trademark of the brand. And the classic look of the bike maintains a design that gives a nod to the original. Furthermore, there’s the type of person who rides a Harley; the bearded, long-haired, leather wearing, bandana-sporting older man associated with the brand.
Although Harley-Davidsons are generally considered an American motorcycle, the manufacturer has come under heat recently, drawing the attention of the Commander-In-Chief. A recent storm of tweets by the president has chastised Harley-Davidson for moving manufacturing out of the United States. He promises a hail-storm of taxes on the company to negatively incentivize their return of work to American factories. Could this influx of taxes result in an end to the Harley-Davidson brand?
It wouldn’t be the first time the company has overcome hardship and financial setbacks. Let’s take a look at the history of Harley-Davidson, the bikes themselves, and the troubles they overcame through the years. Here are 20 facts about Harley-Davidson that most people don’t know.
In 1903 in a small shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, two childhood friends set to work on designing a new mode of transportation, a motorized bicycle. William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson created plans for a small-displacement engine that could sit on the frame of a regular pedal bicycle. They worked obsessively on the design in their spare time, and two years later, they had a finished product.
Unfortunately, the motorcycle’s engine wasn’t powerful enough to make it up even small inclines, and needed the assistance of the bike’s pedals. After a few more redesigns, the two friends and inventors had a fully-functioning, engine driven, 2-wheeled ride. Mass production of the Harley-Davidson motorbike began in 1905 with a whopping 8 motorcycles. By 1920, they were the largest motorcycle manufacturer worldwide.
While the original Harley-Davidson was built as a motor-driven bicycle, that wasn’t the intention of the creators. They wanted a bike that didn’t need pedals at all, and could be used to get all over town and ridden successfully on a variety of terrain (streets back then were often dirt and gravel). Yet in 1916, the company went back to its roots by creating standard bicycles.
For 6 years, Harley Davidson sold bicycles to their adoring fans. The parts for their non-engine rides were made by Davis Sewing Machine Company in Dayton, Ohio.
The parts were then shipped to the Harley-Davidson factory in Milwaukee, where they were assembled. Unfortunately, the bicycle department ended in failure because they were way more expensive than their other bicycle competitors.
18-The Great Depression.
Just like many successful businesses, it’s not always sunshine and rainbows. Harley-Davidson has overcome a fair amount of adversity over the years and is still going strong (although we’ll see how they fair under the current president’s recent criticisms). One of the biggest challenges they faced was the collapse of the stock market and the years of the Great Depression.
In 1929, just before the Great Depression knocked the US off its feet, Harley-Davidson made over 21,000 motorcycles. They had seen steady growth in production over those first 26 years, but in 1933 Harley’s numbers decreased to only 3,703 sales. But Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycles persevered, as the only 2 American motorcycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression.
The distinctive orange and black Harley-Davidson shield and bar logo is recognized by even non-motorcycle riders. Vital to the Harley-Davidson brand, the logo didn’t even exist until 1910, this was 7 years after the motorcycle’s inception. Little is known about the initial design or who created it, but eventually, the logo was trademarked and licensed.
There have been many logos over the years placed on Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Even more important, they sealed the deal by slapping that image on a plethora of sellable items. Of course we’re familiar with all the leather riding gear branded by the logo, but Harley even sold neckties, cigarettes and beef jerky.
16-Potato, Potato, Potato.
You can hear a Harley-Davidson coming from a mile away. Some people love that loud, low rumble, while other people think it’s obnoxious. Regardless, that “potato, potato, potato” sound we mentioned earlier is loved by Harley riders. They’ll even modify their bikes to accentuate that growl.
At stock, that sound coming from the exhaust emits around 80 decibels, depending on the model. To put it in perspective the average car is around 40 decibels at idle and only produces 50 decibels at high speeds.
When Harley riders remove their mufflers, or put a straight pipe on, the noise increases to 100 decibels. Without hearing protection, that level of sound can cause permanent hearing loss in only 15 minutes.
For those Harley-Davidson riders who are superstitious, you may know the story of the Harley bell. Look closely at one of these motorcycles, and you’ll see a small bell dangling under the bike. These guardian bells or gremlin bells are novelty items sold at many motorcycle stores.
These little metal bells, often with the Harley logo on them, are to ward against evil road spirits. These spirits are to blame for bike problems, obviously not because of poor design by Harley. The myth goes that if you buy the bell yourself, you’ll have luck on the road. If someone gives you a bell, your luck will double, protecting you from riding mishaps.
14-Three Wheeled Harley.
From 1932 all the way into the 70s, Harley-Davidson manufactured a line of small 3 wheeled fleet vehicles. The Harley-Davidson Servi-Car used a variety of 45 cubic inch flathead engines. In 1964, the vehicle was equipped with an electric starter, making it the first civilian Harley to use one.
The Servi-Car was created during the Great Depression when the company was struggling to make sales. The small utility motorcycle became popular for use as delivery vehicles.
They were also frequently used by police departments, and this was still the case into the 1990s. The small vehicles are popular amongst collectors and Harley lovers, and hold their value at around $12,000.
Earlier this year, Harley-Davidson had the great misfortune of having to recall 250,000 motorcycles. The bikes are having a brake problem that causes them to fail suddenly. Harley initially tried to avoid a recall, saying this problem was caused by user error, if you’re not replacing the brake fluid in the recommended time frame. But they eventually opted to recall, saying there was concern for the safety of their product’s riders.
The bike recall encompasses models from 2008 to 2011 that use anti-lock brake systems. The whole event was sparked by over 40 customer complaints and 2 injuries. If you can’t flush your brake system yourself, take yours in to avoid road gremlins.
There were 3 different prototypes built by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson over those first few years. The pair tweaked their design little by little, fixing problems as they arose. The initial design was a small engine with 7.07 cubic inches of displacement, and the use of 4-inch flywheels. This was then increased to a much more advanced design of 24.74 cubic inches and 9.75-inch flywheels.
A big increase at the time, but still a far cry by today’s standards. The modern Harleys vary a bit from model to model, but take the twin-cam engine that’s been in production since 1998 for example. The bike still shares characteristics of the original design, but the Twin Cam 88 name represents the 88 cubic inches of displacement.
11-Reliability…Or Lack Thereof.
Harley-Davidsons have never been known for extreme reliability. In fact, Yamaha comes in first for reliability, and BMW comes in last. Ranked at second to last is Harley-Davidson.
But for loyal riders, it’s more about the look, sound, brand and reputation. Despite the lack of dependability, 75% of Harley riders say they would buy from the American brand again.
Shockingly enough, even way back in the early turn of the century, when the Harley-Davidson creators were still working through the kinks of their bikes, they created a hog that was as reliable as a modern bike. One of the initial small-engine bikes had 4 different owners and achieved over 83,000 miles of ground covered.
In 1908, Harley-Davidson made a successful career move when they sold their first bike to the Detroit Police Department. The motorcycles gave the police an advantage over the alternatives, horseback and automobile. The motorcycles were faster, more agile and able to maneuver off road. For several years, the bike was just a civilian Harley with a different paint job. The bike didn’t even have police lights or sirens initially.
Harley-Davidson motorcycles became a popular choice by the police when Prohibition hit in the 1920s. They were also popular amongst bootleggers, who were evading the police by buying the nicer, more expensive Harley-Davidson motorcycles and outrunning the law.
Harley-Davidson motorcycles are often lovingly referred to as hogs. The name came from their early racing days on the dirt tracks. Harley-Davidson had a pig as a mascot for their race team in the 1920s. And the men on the race team were known as “hog boys.”
After a race, the winner of the Harley team would take a victory lap with the mascot pig riding on the gas tank. The nickname stuck for the bikes, and in the 90s, Harley tried to trademark the name “hog.”
They didn’t succeed because it was ruled a generic term for large motorcycles. The name is also used as an acronym for Harley Owners Group, a club of enthusiast Harley riders.
Harley-Davidson has a long history of motorcycle racing. Their first taste of competition was in 1906 with a long distance endurance race. Arthur Davidson didn’t see the point in building race bikes, but he saw value in winning and beating some records to help sell bikes. Their first race was an absolute disaster, but they pushed on, and sparked a lifelong rivalry with Indian’s race team
If you’ve ever watched dirt track racing, especially on the rattle-trap bikes of the early 1900s, you understand what treacherous competition is. The bikes were designed to go fast, and that’s about it…with no front brakes, many of the races ended in tragedy. The oval tracks, called motordromes, became referred to as “murderdromes.”
7-Types Of Harleys.
Every customer of the Harley-Davidson brand has a different taste based on their needs, the look, performance and social status. Generally, the bikes produced by Harley fall into 6 main categories.
If you’re a long distance rider and often carry a passenger, the Touring model is your go-to bike. If you’re into that classic Harley look, you might be into the Heritage bikes of the Softail model.
There’s also the now dead Dyna, which ended production in 2017. The Sportsters are great for around town cruising, with a smaller fuel capacity, engine and frame. Then you’ve got the VROD’s, which included a collaboration with Porsche and a liquid-cooled engine. Finally there’s the Dyna, which was built to appeal to a younger market, is more affordable and falls in line with Honda motorcycles.
In the mid-50s, a loyal Harley-Davidson rider and mechanic named Felix Predko got very creative with an FL 74 OHV Twin. He customized the motorcycle with 2 complete knucklehead engines and 2 transmissions. He altered the Harley by loading on 4 pipes, 2 seats and 2 handlebars.
The monstrous bike stretched over 13 feet long, and was appropriately named “King Kong.” The motorcycle took around 4,000 hours to build and was essentially two in one. You can spot the absurd King Kong in the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, along with 400 other unusual and historical bikes. The King Kong takes the cake for wildest Harley out there.
In 1975, the most famous stuntman in the world hopped on the back of a Harley-Davidson and broke the world record for longest jump over 14 Greyhound buses. The man was Evel Knievel, and the bike was an XR-750.
Knievel had used Harleys almost exclusively for many of his physics-defying stunts. With this jump, he held the record distance for many years at 133 feet.
In 2008, his record was finally surpassed by Bubba Blackwell on another XR-750. Blackwell also attempted to break Knievel’s 22 car jump record in 2001. But instead of breaking the record, he broke himself. The near-fatal stunt ended with Blackwell in a coma for several months.
Harley-Davidson has had an extensive connection to the military in wartime. Starting with World War I, the American company supplied 15,000 motorcycles for military personnel. They even worked closely with engineers from the military to make the bikes better for the battlefield, hence the creation of Harley-Davidson University. Funny enough, the military didn’t trust electricity on the Harleys, and instead opted for gas powered headlights.
In World War II, Harley-Davidson was the main supplier for the military.
Their motorcycles were updated and adapted for use in the varying climates and conditions of Europe, Japan and North Africa. Ironically, these new models’ designs were inspired by captured German BMW R71 motorcycles.
3-Bowling Balls And Harleys.
In 1969, Harley-Davidson had hit another wall in sales. The company was struggling financially and was looking to sell. They were in talks with a company that was notorious for buying struggling businesses, selling all the assets and liquidating. This might have been Harley’s fate, were it not for American Machine and Foundry.
AMF was known for making recreational and leisure products, primarily bowling equipment. They bought Harley-Davidson, rescuing it from liquidation. Unfortunately, AMF wasn’t interested in supporting and growing the Harley brand. Quality dropped and sales were waning. But The Gang Of 13 (former Harley-Davidson executives), scrounged together enough funding to repurchase the company.
Despite its military background and olive drab paint color, many Harley-Davidson riders refuse to ride a green motorcycle. Ever since World War II, there has been a negative connotation with green Harleys.
Superstitious riders say the color is bad luck. Most assume this stems from the fact that Harleys were brought back from the war, refurbished and resold, resulting in unreliable bikes that would break down frequently.
Others say that the stigma comes from their early racing days. The Harley-Davidson team was often beat by British motorcycles, whose team color was green. Another rumor is that green bikes are dangerous to drive because they blend in with nature, making you more at risk of getting hit. If you’re superstitious, you might consider picking any other color for your next Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
In 1916, a sombrero-wearing, mustache-sporting, gun-toting bandit named Pancho Villa attacked the United States in New Mexico. This brought America into a conflict they had otherwise stayed out of.
President Wilson sent 5,000 men to the border to take down the bandit. The troops arrived to chase the often horse-riding Villa on none other than Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Prior to this, motorcycles had never been used in armed conflicts by the US. But the J model Harley’s that were supplied were capable of traveling up to 60 miles per hour, giving the troops an advantage in border travel. The military used a combination of solo ridden bikes and sidecars, and even had them equipped with weapons.