The Founders of Harley-Davidson

By Harley-Davidson Museum

William Harley and Arthur Davidson sold their first motorcycle in the backyard of the Davidson family home in Milwaukee in 1903. That same year, they were joined by Arthur's brother Walter. By 1907, their brother William joined them. They could have scarcely imagined what they had started. 

William S. Harley (1929)Harley-Davidson Museum

William S. Harley

William Sylvester Harley was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 29, 1880. He began working at the Meiselbach bicycle factory in Milwaukee at age 15 and worked his way up to a position as a draftsman. His next job was with Barth Manufacturing in Milwaukee as a full-time draftsman. It was in that job where he met coworker Arthur Davidson, who worked as a pattern maker. They developed a friendship that would grow into something no one could have foreseen.   About 1901 William and Arthur began experimenting with single-cylinder engines adapted to bicycles. They received help from colleague, friend and fellow draftsman, Henry Melk. The project was shelved in favor of a true motorcycle with larger engine displacement and frame designed for the job. The first motorcycle sale is believed to have been to Davidson friend Henry Meyer in 1903. A new motorcycle manufacturer was born.   

Relaxing at Lake Ripley (1915)Harley-Davidson Museum

Not long after they built the first production motorcycle, William Harley enrolled in the School of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He graduated in 1907 and promptly returned to the rapidly growing Harley-Davidson Motor Company. His training as an engineer would prove to be one of the key factors in the successes the company would enjoy in the coming years.

As head of Harley-Davidson product development, evidence shows Harley’s tireless passion and forward-thinking ideas, even in the lean years of the Great Depression. He had a hands-on approach with his team members and projects, making sure to test ride new motorcycles himself. All of the most important motorcycles in the first four decades of H-D history were developed with William Harley’s oversight. William S. Harley died of natural causes in Milwaukee Sept. 16, 1943. He was survived by his wife, Anna, and their children John, William J. and Ann. His direct descendants William J. Harley (son), John Harley (son) and John Harley Jr. (grandson) also worked at Harley-Davidson.

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

Arthur Davidson

Arthur Davidson, born in Milwaukee, Wis. on February 11, 1881, was only twenty years old when he and his childhood friend William S. Harley teamed up to work on their idea for a motor-driven bicycle structured for personal use. In the beginning stages of their partnership they brought their respective designs and skill sets to the table, Arthur, with his own pattern for a small, air-cooled gasoline engine, and William, with his previous experience building bicycles. The Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated in 1907, with Arthur as its secretary and general sales manager. Arthur’s outgoing personality, good sense of humor, and passionate belief in the Harley-Davidson® product made him a natural to take charge of sales at the new company. He tirelessly traveled the country recruiting dealers and establishing a strong dealer network, while also advocating for expanding global presence and foreign business. In the process of developing the dealer network, he foresaw the need for skilled mechanics who understood the specific needs of Harley-Davidson® motorcycle owners; the subsequent development of the Harley-Davidson Service School serves as one of his legacies. After the company’s incorporation, Arthur embarked, with a single cylinder Harley-Davidson® motorcycle, no doubt, on a dealer recruitment mission to New England. Due to the success of his trip, dealerships were established in numerous major cities by the end of 1908, including New York, Chicago, Philadelphia, Atlanta, and Newark. His activism within the company’s dealer network proved even more successful by 1912, when over 200 Harley-Davidson dealers were fully operating in the United States, and the first overseas distributorship was established in Japan. He connected to dealers even further through the impassioned articles that he wrote for the Harley-Davidson Dealer magazine about the benefits of high-quality retail displays and service.

Photo of Arthur Davidson (1920)Harley-Davidson Museum

In his professional career, Arthur remained consistently active. In the 1940s he served as president of the American Motorcyclist Association and the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association. Because of his keen business sense, he served as director for organizations such as the Koehring Company and the Kellogg Seed Company.

His personal interest in youth activities and outdoor sports led to earnest involvement with the Milwaukee Boys’ Club, the YMCA, the Izaak Walton League, and the Boy Scouts of America, from which he received scouting’s highest award for distinguished service. Arthur Davidson was the last surviving member of the four founders when he and his wife were tragically killed in an automobile accident in Milwaukee, Wis., Dec. 30, 1950.

Photo of Walter Davidson (1915)Harley-Davidson Museum

Walter Davidson

Walter Davidson was born on September 30, 1876 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, to William C. Davidson and his wife Margaret. In his youth, Walter raced bicycles and often did his repairs and maintenance in the family kitchen. In his teen years, he became a talented self-taught electrician, and knew how to make his own batteries. Possibly, his first paid job was working for an electrical contractor. Later, he learned a trade as a machinist working for the Milwaukee Railroad. In early adulthood, Walter also worked in Parsons, Kansas for the “Katy Road,” known more formally as the Missouri-Kansas-Texas railroad. In 1903, he received a letter from his brother Arthur, who had teamed up with their longtime friend William Harley. They made it clear that Walter’s machining experience would come in handy in completing a new motorcycle they were building. Walter quit his position and relocated back to Milwaukee. Together, the three finished the first production motorcycles sold to the public. William Harley and Arthur Davidson later credited Walter with the actual building of the first production motorcycle. They worked first in a ten foot by fifteen foot wooden shed. Within ten years, they had built a red brick factory site of over 300,000 square feet and HDMC was already one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world.

 

The founders incorporated Harley-Davidson on September 17th of 1907 and named Walter the company’s first President and General Manager. The remainder of his life would be spent with the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Among his responsibilities was addressing the stockholders at the annual meeting. These speeches often outlined the successes, challenges and strategic direction of H-D through key periods of the Motor Company’s first four decades. Those speeches and other written evidence indicate that Walter was a man with a direct and honest approach. 

Walter Davidson on motorcycle (1909) by L. C. RosenkransHarley-Davidson Museum

Walter Davidson quickly became a great motorcycle enthusiast and accomplished competition rider. The Chicago Motorcycle Club awarded to Walter Davidson the first prize trophy for its “Ten Mile Open” on July 4, 1905. In 1907, Davidson won at least three more competition events in southern Wisconsin. But, his winning of the Federation of American Motorcyclists endurance run in the Catskill Mountains of New York in 1908 vaulted the name Harley-Davidson into the motorcycling world. Earning a perfect possible 1,000 points, Walter competed without any support from a repair crew. As both an accomplished rider and machinist, Walter demanded the highest quality of the Motor Company’s products. His experience also developed his reputation as a business expert. His service as a trustee of the Northwestern Mutual Life Insurance Company and as a director of the Milwaukee Gas Light Company was among his business accomplishments outside of Harley-Davidson.

In a 1919 speech given to a local Rotary club, Walter stressed that “personal service is really the keynote of our [Harley-Davidson] organization, and that ... service has proven a good investment as evidenced by the fact that the company has been successful from the start.” According to his brother William, Walter gave disproportionately large amounts to charity and was a great believer in complete honesty. As with other founders of H-D he was known to visit with motorcyclists and other guests who stopped to visit the factory. His favorite past times included fishing and running the H-D bowling club, but he was never far from building motorcycles, even in his free time. He died on February 7, 1942, still serving as President. He was survived by his wife, Emma (who he married in 1910) and three sons, Gordon, Walter Jr. and Robert. To date, no one has served as President (or CEO) of Harley-Davidson for a longer tenure than Walter Davidson.

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

William A. Davidson

When William A. Davidson joined with his two brothers Arthur and Walter, and with family friend William Harley in their efforts to design and build a new and better motorcycle, he completed the quartet that would go on to found the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Although the automotive industry at the time was new and highly unstable, William was intrigued by the work his brothers and Harley were doing. He was already a skilled mechanic, and had been the tool room foreman at the West Milwaukee shops of what was at the time the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad.  His experience brought a wealth of knowledge to the budding company, and his efforts went far to assuring its future success.

When the company was incorporated in 1907, William Davidson, who preferred being called “Bill,” became the works manager. As a tool maker, he was ideally suited to identify and purchase the presses and other equipment needed to refine the manufacturing process. His desk was always covered with parts from various stages of the manufacturing process: a semi-finished hub, bearing, shaft or rod. He knew the steel from which it was made, the processes it had undergone and those which were necessary for completion. He used this knowledge to continually improve factory operations, since the demand for Harley-Davidson® motorcycles was rapidly growing.

His expertise in the manufacturing process kept William Davidson in close contact with Harley-Davidson’s factory employees, whose insight he relied on to keep continually informed about any problems or possible improvements in factory operations. Among them he was known for his compassion, generosity, and willingness to listen to even the smallest problem. Remembering the days when he, himself, was pounding a hammer, it was his pleasure on Christmas to pack baskets for people, some of whom he had never seen.  Sometimes it was to buy coal for the needy or lend an overcoat to a friend who had none. Never were these deeds publicized. This affability extended to everyone he encountered; with everyone from machinists to dealers, bankers to politicians, he was willing to share his time. 

William A. Davidson photo (1914) by L. C. RosenkransHarley-Davidson Museum

Well respected throughout the business community when he passed away April 21, 1937, at the age of 66, William A. Davidson probably did not realize how far his legacy would extend. His son William H. Davidson would serve as President, as would his son John. William H.’s other son William G. Davidson, known more affectionately as Willie G., now serves as Chief Styling Officer Emeritus and Brand Ambassador for the Motor Company after an illustrious career spanning almost five decades, and is perhaps the most familiar face of the Harley-Davidson family.

Willie’s G.’s children, Bill and Karen, make the fourth generation to contribute to the legacy of Harley-Davidson that William A. started 110 years ago. Typical of the tributes paid “Bill” Davidson is the following from one of his co-workers: “To have known Mr. Davidson, to have worked with him, to have been associated with him, was indeed a rare privilege. His example, his precepts, his deeds, have left their influence on all those with whom he came in contact. The world is happier, a cheerier, a better place for his having been among us.”

Hill Climber statue (2008) by Jeff DeckerHarley-Davidson Museum

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