Harley-Davidsons are big, heavy, solid steel, and all-American, through-and-through.
Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, Inc., was unofficially founded in a small shed (how many times have we heard this story?) in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903 – the same year the Wright Brothers first flew their pioneering airplane.
Brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson, along with bicycle-turned-mechanical engineer William Harley (who built his first experimental engine in 1901 at the age of 21), officially incorporated their Motorcycle Company just three years later, in 1906. History recalls that Arthur Davidson was a keen fisherman who habitually cycled to his chosen fishing spots in the Wisconsin wilderness, and was motivated to create a motorcycle to “take the hard work out of pedaling.”
Walter Davidson was also a cycling aficionado, as well as an electrician. The Davidson’s older brother, also a William, was a workshop foreman at the Milwaukee railway yard where William Harley worked, with the Rail Company unwittingly providing much in the way of tools, machinery, and probably material to the start-up company (goodness me, what norty Biker boys. That wouldn’t happen nowadays, would it??)
One of the foundations underpinning HD’s longevity is also the reason the brand has become synonymous with Bikers over the past half-dozen decades and more; through thick and thin, through war and peace, through good economic times and bad, and in the face of changing fashions, oil price shocks, and environmental pressures,Harley Davidson has remained true to its roots. Like the Bikers who ride them, Hogs are dependable, genuine, the physical embodiment of the True Believer. Bikers don’t take any crap, and neither do their faithful iron steeds.
Everyone in the world knows what a Harley is, even if they don’t know the second thing about motorbikes. Harley-Davidsons are big, heavy, solid steel, and all-American, through-and-through. The big, thumping, V-twin engine is the heart of a Harley, and it echoes the heartbeat that reverberates in the chests of Bikers, as well as the soul of the culture they so proudly maintain.
Harley and the Davidsons were staunch patriots, and during both World Wars they prioritized motorcycle production for military use ahead of domestic sales, with around half the company’s total output going to the war effort. Among the 20,000 HDs to serve the US Army in the First World War were J-series bikes fitted with sidecars and machine guns, many of which had already seen service under General ‘Blackjack’ Pershing in the Mexican Border War.
Returning servicemen opted for Harley-Davidson bikes in civvy street as well, and by 1920 the firm had grown to become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. The Roaring Twenties saw the introduction of the V-twin engine and the teardrop fuel tank, both features that remain intrinsic to the Harley today. Along with Indian, and achieved partly by branching out into other industries, Harley Davidson was one of only two American motorcycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression.
The Second World War saw Harleys heading off to fight in Europe yet again, with some 90,000 WLA models (W series, high compression, Army) being manufactured for American and Allied military use. As with the aftermath of the First War, US and other soldiers returning to civilian life brought with them a knowledge and understanding of the bikes they had used in service, accompanied by a fondness and respect for the machines’ power and reliability.
To Serve And Protect.
Patriotism and motorcycles have long gone hand-in-glove with US veterans, and returned servicemen from America’s allied nations have similarly looked to the Harley-Davidson as the symbol of everything that was worth fighting for, even if they were rebelling against everything that wasn’t. So it was with men coming home from South-east Asia; not only to the States, but to Canada, Australia, and New Zealand as well, and even to Britain and Ireland. Motorcycle Clubs that would come to be known as Outlaws, across the English-speaking world and then beyond, were born following the Second World War, and their coming of age coincided with the turmoil of the Vietnam era and its aftermath.
Demobilized veterans, disenfranchised from their military buddies, and disillusioned with Government and society, found a sense of belonging and loyalty among the New Tribes that Biker clubs represented, and the Harley Davidson was the bike at the center of this community of fellowship. Others gravitated to them as well; lost and misplaced souls who hadn’t served in military conflicts, but who had battled plenty of demons of their own. There were those who had grown up on the wrong side of the tracks, tangled with the law, suffered through layoffs and breakups, and fought the devil in the bottle. In the Clubs they found comradeship, understanding, and acceptance, mirrored in the Harley that was still everything it had always been; solid steel, and true to its roots. This sheer authenticity was the glue that held these loyalists to a brand of motorcycle which represented everything that hadn’t sold them out.
Truth And Honor.
There are faster bikes than the Harley; there have always been faster bikes, Harley’s early racing successes notwithstanding. There are bikes that handle better, and cost a whole lot less to run. But none of that matters to Bikers and the Clubs that are literally their families, and in many cases their actual homes. For these guys and their ladies, the Hog is about more than speed or flashiness. It’s about faith, respect, and honesty; strength of character, the strength to remain true to one’s real beginnings. For more than 100 years Harley-Davidson has been just that. The company has survived recessions, changing lifestyles,corporate takeovers, and foreign competition – but it has never wavered in its authenticity, and neither have its bikes.
And that’s why Bikers still love them today.