The Little Engine that Could: Adventure and the Harley-Davidson® Sport model

In 1919, Harley-Davidson introduced a unique bike in the company’s history. The agile Model W Sport climbed mountains, tackled roads, and helped bring many women to motorcycling.

Transcontinental marketing (1920) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

The dawn of motor vehicles brought a new feeling of freedom.

Travelers could now cover distances much more quickly and were no longer bound to train schedules. But the nation’s roads were not yet built for these faster, horseless vehicles. This led to some creative forms of motorcycling. 

A Roadtrip Through Space & Time (2020-05) by Harley-Davidson MuseumHarley-Davidson Museum

Listen to Harley-Davidson Museum® Exhibits Curator talk about the rails, tracks and roads that paved the way for Harley-Davidson® motorcycles to go off road.

For some new motorcyclists, getting from one place to another was plenty of enjoyment. For others, taking more challenging routes provided more thrills.

Ted Gilbert climbs Larch Mountain (1920)Harley-Davidson Museum

Climbing steep grades, dealing with mud or sand, and navigating forests were journeys that tested machines and riders alike. Soon enough, timing of “runs” between two cities or topping mountain roads meant bragging rights for riders.

Sport model clipping (1919)Harley-Davidson Museum

A New Model

For the 1919 model year, in the midst of a recession and worldwide pandemic, Harley-Davidson introduced the new Model W, also called the Sport. Although its production run only lasted until the 1923 model year, the Sport left an indelible mark on the motorcycle world.

1920 W Sport Model detail (1920) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

It employed an opposed twin cylinder design with an external flywheel. This allowed for a lower center of gravity and smooth ride.

Sport model advertising poster (1920) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

The Sport had numerous attributes, chief among them its ability to handle more challenging off-road conditions. It also quickly earned a reputation for reliability. The lightweight Sport was also the first H-D® model marketed to women and European buyers.

Dealer Conference with Masks (1919-01)Harley-Davidson Museum

The new Sport model was the main attraction at the 1919 regional dealer conferences across the United States. Here it sits surrounded by conference attendees in San Francisco during the 1918 Pandemic.

Old Baldy Topped poster (1919) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

The Sport was the vehicle of choice in several challenges.

The Sport’s power-to-weight ratio gave it an advantage in climbing hills and handling rough conditions. Los Angeles rider Jack Fletcher climbed 10,080 feet of burro trail with his Sport on California’s Mt. San Antonio (aka Old Baldy).

"Hap" Scherer in photo studio (1919) by Harley-Davidson Photo StudioHarley-Davidson Museum

"Hap" Scherer was a motorcycle enthusiast and accomplished endurance rider in the early 1910s. He eventually worked for Harley-Davidson, first as a test rider, and later in sales. He continued to compete, specializing in endurance contests, and he often rode the Sport model.

Boss of the Solo Mounts brochure (1920) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Hap and his Sport Model set a “Three-Flag Record." This was a contest of making the quickest possible run between the Canadian and Mexican borders over U.S. roads. He did it in 64 hours and 58 minutes.

Transcontinental marketing (1920) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Also among their achievements, Scherer and his Sport were awarded the first trans-continental tour medal by the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association in 1920. The MATA was the predecessor to the present-day American Motorcyclist Association (AMA).

Joe Ryan and William Brazenor (1919) by Harley-Davidson Photo StudioHarley-Davidson Museum

In the Spring of 1919, William Brazenor rode from Milwaukee to New York City in just over 70 hours’ time. William was the son of Brooklyn Harley-Davidson® dealer Bob Brazenor.

William Brazenor (1919) by Harley-Davidson Photo StudioHarley-Davidson Museum

Brazenor’s father wrote to The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast magazine, “My son William rode from the factory... through blinding storms and muddy roads a foot deep in mud and rain. He tells me he never could have made it on a heavy machine at this time of the year.”

Mrs. Mary Barber and her Sport (1920-06) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

The Sport was the vehicle of choice for many women, too.

The Sport model was the first H-D® motorcycle that had female riders in mind. Harley-Davidson frequently marketed the agile lightweight to women. 

Gertrude Hoffmann Sport Model print ad (1920) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

An entertainment luminary of the 1910s and 20s, Gertrude Hoffmann was widely known to the public as a free spirit who did not hesitate to be recognized as motorcyclist — and Harley-Davidson did not hesitate to capitalize on her fame.

Article by Lillian Hauerwas (1921-11) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Lillian Hauerwas of Milwaukee was another passionate rider. She penned an opinion piece in The Harley-Davidson Enthusiast magazine touting the benefits of motorcycling and her Sport model.

Issue Number 29 cover (1920-10) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

At times, promotion of the Sport model for both women riders and adventure touring was simultaneous.

Harley-Davidson® 1921 WJ Sport Twin (1921) by Harley-Davidson MuseumHarley-Davidson Museum

The Sport remains a one-of-a-kind motorcycle in Harley-Davidson’s history. Watch as the Lead Museum Collections takes  a look at the museum's Sport model in this episode of "Off the Shelf". 

100 years after the introduction of the Sport, motorcycles such as the new Harley-Davidson® Pan America™ models are still taking adventurers off the beaten path.

Dot Robinson and Lester McKay at the Jack Pine run (1950)Harley-Davidson Museum

Explore Harley-Davidson's off-road history

From extreme rides and competitions to motorcycle camping and transcontinental sightseeing — experience it all by visiting the Off-Road Harley Davidson® exhibit at the Harley-Davidson Museum.

Credits: Story

Harley-Davidson Museum
Harley-Davidson Archives

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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