Harley-Davidson Motor Company: The Early Years

The first few years of Harley-Davidson Motor Company

Portrait of William Sylvester Harley (1915) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

The Friendship - William S. Harley

In a neighborhood of Milwaukee, Wisconsin in the 1890s, a teenager named William Harley first met Arthur Davidson.

Photo of Arthur Davidson (1913) by L. C. RosenkransHarley-Davidson Museum

The Friendship - Arthur Davidson

The city of Milwaukee was a thriving industrial center on the western shore of Lake Michigan. Both boys shared interest in mechanics and design. Harley had previously worked in a bicycle factory and Davidson had experience as a draftsman.

When young Harley worked at an elevator producer, Barth Manufacturing, he invited his friend Davidson to apply for a job where he learned patternmaking.

Sheet music:Weber & Ziegfel Present Their All Star Stock Co. in Higgledy-Piggledy (1904)The Strong National Museum of Play

Inspiration and the Beginning

One night in 1901, they saw the stage show of Anna Held, a performer who often included motorized three-wheeled vehicles in her show. 

While others may have remembered Held’s risqué act, Harley and Davidson later recalled the three-wheeler Held rode with a single cylinder engine as a moment of inspiration.

Within that same year, Harley and Davidson were tinkering with motorized bicycles, with a bit of help from a friend name Henry Melk, who owned a lathe. Nearby was another enterprising friend who offered his expertise, a young machinist and engineer named Ole Evinrude who went on to become the catalyzing force in outboard marine motors.

Components of a bicycle motor (1901) by William S. HarleyHarley-Davidson Museum

Their fledgling effort was a bicycle adapted with a small engine and belt drive. But it was underpowered and did not satisfy their hopes. By 1903, they started over with a new, larger engine and frame designed to fit together.

Portrait of Walter Davidson (1912) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Walter Davidson Joins

As they worked through problems, they realized they still needed help. Arthur wrote a letter to his brother Walter, who was working as a machinist for a railroad in Kansas.

Arthur made it clear that Walter’s expertise would be valued. So, he resigned his position to move back to Milwaukee to help. He was critical of the new machine and set to work improving it.

First Harley-Davidson factory (1903) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Building the Business

Feeling somewhat pestered by his sons’ new project, father William C. Davidson asked them to move their project from his basement to the backyard. There, they built a 10 x 15 foot wooden shed in 1903 and later sold their first motorcycle to a friend, Henry Meyer.

Their commitment to growing a new business was evident immediately. In 1904, they doubled the size of their tiny factory and William Harley was in his first year of the engineering program at the University of Wisconsin. They needed additional funding and sought money to borrow to purchase property to expand their operation.

James McLay the "Honey Uncle" (1904) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Instead of going to a bank, they borrowed from the Davidsons’ “Honey Uncle,” a beekeeper name James McLay. The amount was $170.

Carl Herman Lang (1913) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Building Loyalty

Arthur Davidson in 1903 also met a Chicago businessman, toolmaker and German immigrant Carl H. Lang. Lang agreed to sell new Harley-Davidson®  motorcycles from his Adams St. shop in Chicago, making him the first dealer. 

Motorcycle outing in Chicago (1908) by Motorcycle IllustratedHarley-Davidson Museum

In 1908, Carl Lang led a motorcycle ride of his customers around the city. Similar events would go on to define the future of Harley-Davidson: employees and dealers riding with the customers, and creating new reasons to ride. 

Walter Davidson on motorcycle (1907) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Expansion

The young Motor Company grew aggressively in its first decade. In 1906 a new factory  (pictured here behind Walter) was constructed on a recently acquired parcel of land on Milwaukee’s Chestnut Street, just one block from the Davidson home.

Even as that factory was producing new motorcycles, plans were underway for a vastly larger facility to meet demand. By 1913, a state of the art six floor brick factory building was a manufacturing powerhouse. From only 3 motorcycles sold in the first year, Harley-Davidson was now just under 13,000 vehicles within 10 years’ time. To learn more about the growth of the Harley-Davidson factory site in the early years, click here.

Harley-Davidson employees at incorporation (1907) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

On September 17 of 1907, the Motor Company incorporated. The first stock was disbursed, with William Harley taking less stock in favor of cash to help pay for his engineering degree.

William A. Davidson photo (1915) by L. C. RosenkransHarley-Davidson Museum

On that same day, William A. Davidson formally joined the company as Works Manager, overseeing manufacturing.


To learn more about the founders of Harley-Davidson, click here.

Racer Jim Davis (1921) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Speed and Success

The founders saw the core of HDMC as being reliable motorcycles, good service and knowledgeable salespeople that were second to none. This would go on to be the foundation of the Motor Company’s future. But what about racing? 

Harley-Davidson racing team members (1914)Harley-Davidson Museum

Other manufacturers had already adhered to the philosophy of “win on Sunday, sell on Monday.” Racing was not just about bragging rights, but marketing. Other motorcycle companies were dominating the race courses and by extension, the marketplace.

HDMC had previously denounced racing because of the immense danger to riders and spectators. But the marketing value of racing was undeniable. The founders of H-D understood they had to compete and formed the first factory-supported racing team.

Harley-Davidson racing team by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Within their first year, the new team dominated races, sometimes owning the top three or five finishing positions. Later referred to as the “Wrecking Crew,” they went on to firmly establish Harley-Davidson as a force in the American motorcycle landscape.

Workers in the factory tool room (1913) by Harley-Davidson Photo StudioHarley-Davidson Museum

Moving Into the Lead

The move to racing would not be the only needed pivot. The motorcycle market that lay ahead would provide opportunities and challenges. Changes in the automobile market in the 1910s and 20s would force motorcycles to be repositioned as a leisure vehicle.

But by this time, growth of the dealership network had already expanded outside the United States into Europe and the Pacific Rim. Harley-Davidson had a broader worldwide footprint than any other manufacturer. As later economies and markets shifted, those early actions would prove to be critical.

Page from motorcycle sales brochure (1927) by Harley-Davidson Motor CompanyHarley-Davidson Museum

Within just a few years, H-D would lay claim to being the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. What started with two friends and a common interest would become a name synonymous with motorcycles.

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