By Tim Kessel
It’s a big year for Harley-Davidson … a very big year. The iconic American motorcycle company is celebrating an amazing 110 years of producing two-wheeled excitement. In typical Harley-Davidson style, the party will involve hundreds of dealers, millions of enthusiasts and even six continents.
The first Harley-Davidson was assembled in 1903. Now, 110 years later, the company offers models in nearly 40 different variations. In 2013, in celebration of this milestone, 10 anniversary models are being offered. Here’s a look at the ingredients that have been brewed in that Milwaukee plant to create such longevity and international superstar status.
The first Harley-Davidson rolled out of a tiny, 10- by 15-foot wooden shed in 1903. That motorcycle was designed as a racer by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. By 1906, Harley-Davidsons were being produced in a bigger facility built on what is now Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee; to this day, the company’s corporate headquarters are located on that original site.
In the 11 decades since those unassuming beginnings, Harley-Davidson has proven to be a progressive innovator as well as an acutely astute marketer in the motor sports industry. All the while, the company retained a nostalgic aura about it, never abandoning the V-twin engine format. Over the years, the company has designed and built hundreds of models that are among the most sought-after motorized archetypes in the world.
Bill Jackson, archives manager for the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, speaks with both knowledge and passion when asked about the most significant models over the last 110 years. His list starts with the first of the breed, the 1903 – 1904 Serial Number One. “That first model began it all with a level of competence and reliability that was unheard of for a debut model by any manufacturer,” he says. Jackson’s list also includes the 1936 model EL: “This motorcycle was all-new, with upgrades in power and comfort. It is likely the motorcycle that put Harley ahead of its main competition, Indian [Motorcycle], for good,” he comments.
The 1957 Sportster has to be on any Harley-Davidson enthusiast’s shortlist, Jackson adds. “The Sportster has been in the model line since its introduction in ’57. While it has undergone important changes, its basic architecture is the same as that first model.”
The Sportster is one of the models offered in an anniversary edition. The 110th anniversary models are numbered limited editions with solid bronze gas tank medallions and “living art” finishes. Some of the company’s other legendary models like the Fat Boy, Road King and Electra-Glide are also offered in this celebratory trim. (See “Iconic Harley-Davidsons of the Last 110 Years” for Jackson’s full list.)
Jean Davidson, granddaughter of Harley-Davidson co-founder and first president Walter Davidson, has authored six books on the familial nature of the brand, most recently one with her son Jon Davidson Oeflein entitled “The Harley-Davidson Family Scrapbook,” released in spring of 2013.
“The strong personalities of the four founders (William, Arthur and Walter Davidson and William Harley) is what made H-D successful right from the beginning,” Davidson says. “What I love the most is that they never tried to step into each other’s role. My grandfather Walter was an electrician, mechanic and a machinist. He was an avid reader and before his workers would learn a new skill, he would first learn it himself and then teach them. He was a leader in the business sense, and that is why they made him the president. He stayed the president until the day he died in 1942.”
The family nature of the company is a key ingredient in its longevity. Oeflein reflects, “Many people don’t realize that before my great-grandfather Walter Davidson and his brothers and Harley got started, there were already numerous motorcycles on the market. Indian was in full swing on the East Coast; the Mitchell was being built in Racine, Wis., and the Merkel was operating right out of Milwaukee. It always makes me feel proud when I think that Harley-Davidson is the only one that is still in business today.”
Millions of devotees of Harley-Davidson have an almost surreal reverence for the brand, but what is its origin? More than a century of continuous influence is impressive, but there has to be more. Part of this intrigue lies in the dichotomy of the brand’s wholesome, patriotic image and its irresistibly alluring rebellious side.
On the heroic, “good” side of Harley-Davidson, olive drab motorcycles have been put to dutiful service in both World Wars as well as many other patriotic endeavors. On the homefront, they have been a staple in police departments nationwide for decades. For the common man, the Harley-Davidson V-twin’s rumble is the song of freedom. More than anything, there is the knowledge that the Harley-Davidson is a product of America’s Heartland.
However, the “dark side” of the company’s mystique is an equally important ingredient in its success. The indelible link between rebellion and the Harley-Davidson empire is evidenced in the virtually exclusive use of the machines in “outlaw” motorcycle clubs across the U.S. This link between Harley-Davidson and those on the fringe of society has existed for decades. Jackson reflects that much of this image dates back to the biker riots in Hollister, Calif., in 1947.
“The bad-boy image was fostered more by the Hollister event than anything,” he says. “Also, the biker film genre, which included ‘The Wild One’ (1953) and ‘Angel Unchained’ (1970), and also the Hells Angels violent actions at the [Rolling Stones] Altamont concert (1969) contributed to this perception. During that entire time, Harley-Davidsons were being purchased by people who had the money, but the bad boys were the ones getting the press. It even sparked Honda’s ad campaign of the mid-1960s with the tagline ‘You meet the nicest people on a Honda.’ That was a direct jab at Harley riders.”
In no small measure, this danger-laced image is a huge selling point for Harley-Davidson, even if it doesn’t appear in any ad copy. Jackson notes, “It’s not to say the bad-boy image does not have value. … Many riders like to look like [rebels] and then go back to their jobs on Monday. But there has always been room for the ‘good’ image because that is who we have always marketed to, without interruption. If you were to look at the history of H-D advertising, you’ll always find the ‘nice’ folks.”
While the vast majority of riders are completely respectable citizens—doctors, teachers, lawyers and the like—each one has a little outlaw in them when cruising to the pulsating V-twin rhythm.
The first Harley-Davidson racing victory was in 1905, in a 15-mile race in Chicago. Throughout the early years of the 20th century, motorcycles were raced on the wooden-planked board tracks of the East Coast and the dusty dirt tracks of the Midwest.
Harley-Davidsons have been staged successfully in all forms of racing over the years: road, drag, hill climb, dirt track and virtually any other competitive two-wheeled pursuit man has concocted. All Harley Drag Racing Association star Valerie Thompson holds an amazing five land speed records and cut her racing teeth on a Harley-Davidson drag racer.
“My first bike was a 1999 Harley-Davidson Sportster, and then three months later I got a Fat Boy,” she says. “I still have that bike, which is the first drag bike I used. Riding a Harley was a great way for me to build my confidence and courage. I became extremely passionate about biking and the brand. I lived, ate and slept Harley-Davidson. … I soon realized that riding was my passion. Six years later I found a racetrack and never looked back.”
Thompson has successfully raced several other motorcycle brands since that first Harley; however, Harley-Davidson has a lion’s share of her motorcycling heart. “I can sum up my feelings on Harley-Davidson in three words: quality, image and uniqueness,” she explains.
Thompson believes the brand has also built a thriving community of riders unlike any other: “Riding a Harley is a great way to meet people from all over the world. The rallies, the clubs, poker runs, the charitable rides and impromptu stops at biker bars are all part of the social life of being a biker.”
Within this community is a long list of celebrity riders as well. Among the Harley-Davidson faithful are the likes of Brad Pitt, Jay Leno and Bruce Springsteen. Jackson reveals that one of the most visited exhibits in the Harley-Davidson Museum is the 1956 model that Elvis owned.
So what is the source of the devotion to the Harley brand? “It’s the history, the look, the uniqueness, the freedom, the camaraderie, the reputation, the accessories, the culture, the name, the fashion and the sound of a Harley,” Thompson says. “When you own a Harley, you own a piece of history of the company. And that’s why they have been around for 110 years—with many more to come!”
A link with the past and a vision for the future is required for Harley-Davidson to continue to progress and grow without losing the “soul” that is so rooted in its history. “It starts with what the customers see as fundamentally H-D,” Jackson says. “The architecture of our current Twin Cam 103 engine shares a great deal with the engine of the 1936 EL. It produces a specific look, sound and feel that riders have come to think of as the Harley sound. Without it, there’s no telling where we’d be. But with the incorporation of better and better engineering and ‘voice of the customer’ research, many vintage elements of our bikes are far more comfortable, powerful and longer-lasting.”
Those are the ingredients that have led to a century-plus of legend building. The core of the success story is certainly milled in steel and rubber, but the brand has been elevated in the corporate boardroom and the movie screen. The machines and the mystique have combined to instill incredible brand loyalty, making Harley-Davidson a company worthy of a six-continent celebratory tour.