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There are few material objects that hold the degree of mystique that envelops the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The very name conjures a warehouse of connotations: the loud rumble of a Harley engine; black leather riding apparel; and, of course, the Hell's Angels and other stereotypically unsavory, grizzled, bearded, beer-swilling, tattoo-covered biker gangs. Over the years, the "hog," as the bike is affectionately known by its riders, developed a reputation as the preferred transportation of outlaws; a gritty subculture grew up around the motorcycle and established it as an iconic badge in America and abroad. Though remaining the ride of choice for hard core bikers, by the end of the 1990s the Harley—once feared and despised by law-abiding middle and upper-class Americans—had been gradually transformed into well-polished, sporty recreational vehicles for "weekend warriors." Ironically, possession of a Harley—with its rich history and lore—was becoming a status symbol.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles neither set out to target the fringe element of the market, nor consciously to create the wild image that developed around their products. Soon after the dawning of the twentieth century, draftsman William Harley and his pattern-maker friend Arthur Davidson, set out simply to design and manufacture a motorized bicycle that would eliminate the need for pedals. They were helped along by Ole Evinrude, a German draftsman who later became known for his superior outboard boat motors. Evinrude had worked in a French factory and provided the duo with De Dion engine drawings to get them started. Davidson made the patterns for a small air-cooled engine while Harley designed the bicycle. In need of an experienced mechanic, they called upon Davidson's brother Walter, a machinist for a Kansas railroad, to come home to Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Another brother, William, later joined the operation as well.

The Davidsons' father, a cabinet maker named William C. Davidson, assisted the entrepreneurs by fixing up a ten-by-fifteen-foot shed in the backyard as the first factory with "Harley-Davidson Motor Company" painted on the door. The "factory" was officially opened in Milwaukee in 1903, and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was incorporated in 1907. The Harley-Davidson company web site (http://www.harley-davidson.com) proposes two reasons why Harley's name comes first: because he built the actual bicycle, or, perhaps, thanks to a gentlemanly gesture by the Davidsons, who outnumbered Harley three to one. Harley became the company's chief engineer and treasurer, while Arthur Davidson was secretary and general sales manager. Walter Davidson was appointed company president, and William Davidson held the position of works manager.

Nicknamed the "Silent Gray Fellow," the original Harley-Davidson motorcycle was a far cry from the thundering, macho vehicle it later became. Initially, the company installed large mufflers to subdue the noise, and tried to sell the bikes as practical family transportation, provided a sidecar was purchased. The product, however, instead caught on with fun-loving sportsmen.

Into regular production of their bikes by 1905, the Harley-Davidson firm moved their factory to Chestnut Street, now called Juneau Avenue, in Milwaukee, where the corporate offices still stand. Their uncle, James McLay, a beekeeper, loaned them money to build the 2,380-square-foot shop. In 1907, they produced 150 motorcycles, and in 1909, the number had increased to 1,149. By 1912, Harley-Davidson cranked out over 9,500 vehicles in one year. The company's sales and their reputation were growing due to the rugged strength and reliability of the bikes, but the firm really started to make its mark in racing competitions. By mid-1910s Harley-Davidson was the third largest motorcycle manufacturer in the country, and by 1920 held the number one position, with dealers in 67 countries.

With Arthur Davidson concentrating on sales strategy and Bill Harley focusing on testing and development, the company ensured its staying power. By 1953, when its main competitor, Indian, closed its doors, Harley-Davidson became the sole remaining American motorcycle company, and by 1995 it boasted a production of over 105,000 bikes, with demand continuing to grow. Its legendary Sportster model was first released in 1957. Part of Harley-Davidson's success was due to Davidson's initiative in setting up a network of dealers that would sell only Harley-Davidson motorcycles, with an accompanying dedication to those dealers that their profits would come first. In addition, the company boasted a strong product guarantee. Harley-Davidson even survived during difficult economic times, thanks to its foreign sales, and the fact that it supplied the U.S. Postal Service and police departments.

In both World War I and II, Harley-Davidsons were used to run dispatch on the front lines; in fact, nearly all of the company's output during the World War II went to support the Allied forces. At that time, soldiers began the practice of chopping off parts—including headlights and fenders—to make the machine go faster. Thus, the word "chopper" came to refer to an altered Harley. Eventually it was expected that "hog" owners would personalize their bikes, not only by making them into choppers, but also with custom paint jobs or fenders and other unique touches. A couple of theories have evolved as to why Harleys were also dubbed "hogs." One story notes that a Harley racing enthusiast around 1920 used to do his victory laps with his pet pig accompanying him on the bike; the Harley-Davidson web site claims the term is an acronym for the Harley Owner's Group, the company-sponsored club that was formed in 1983.

In 1947, the image of the outlaw biker gained full momentum when an article in Life magazine detailed the horrors of a rebel motorcycle gang who terrorized a town in California. No longer seen as simply sporting enthusiasts, most riders were now lumped with those known as Hell's Angels, a group of criminal-element bikers who took their name from a 1930s Howard Hughes film about flying men. This was bad publicity for Harley-Davidson, but grist to the media mill, which continued to beef up the stereotype, with films like Marlon Brando's The Wild One (1954) portraying the biker subculture. Unfortunately, the stories surrounding biker gangs—rape, robbery, beatings, looting—were often more truth than fiction. In the 1960s, journalist Hunter S. Thompson infiltrated the ranks of the Hell's Angels, posing as a member, and wrote a full-length book on his experiences called Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. After his exposé was published, he was mercilessly beaten up by a group of members.

During the 1960s and 1970s, the preferred vehicle for a mainstream motorcycle enthusiast was usually a lower-priced Japanese model, derogatorily nicknamed a "rice burner" and denounced by Harley riders as watered-down imitations of "true" motorcycles. However, foreign bikes were more accepted in polite society because they were free of the stigma of the Harley, which had come to symbolize low-class, dirty deviants. Magazines like Easy Rider, featuring half-naked cover models, contributed to the bike's sleazy connotations. However, during the 1980s the image of the Harley rider began to change again. Though the leather-clad anti-social bike gang members still existed, more and more "yuppie" bikers began to take to the open road. In addition to the appeal of Harleys as well-made American vehicles, a new class of men was undoubtedly also intrigued by the outlaw image.

Harley-Davidsons soon became a recreational vehicle for successful businessmen, much like a boat or Jet-Ski. The bikes could be seen lined up outside hip nightspots in major cities on weekends, and streaming down highways headed out of town. Harley accessory boutiques mushroomed in upscale shopping districts around the country. The company set up a slick web site, and appropriated events like Daytona Bike Week in Florida and the annual motorcycle rally and races in Sturgis, South Dakota, for generating corporate publicity. In 1994 Turner Original Productions produced a television special titled Harley-Davidson: The American Motorcycle, narrated by actor James Caan and featuring celebrities such as David Crosby, Peter Fonda, Wynonna Judd, and a leather-clad Larry Hagman touting their love of the bike and its accompanying aura. The Tonight Show host Jay Leno became another well-known aficionado. As the Harley-Davidson approached its hundredth anniversary, it seemed to be regaining its originally intended use as a vehicle for genteel sportsmen and women, while its continuing popularity remains a tribute to American entrepreneurship and hard work.

—Geri Speace

Further Reading:

Bolfert, Thomas C. The Big Book of Harley Davidson: Official Publication. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, Harley Davidson, Inc., 1991.

"Harley-Davidson Motor Company." http://www.harley-davidson.com. March 1999.

Johnson, David. "Family Affair: Four Men, One Dream." Cycle World. September 1993, 60.

Leffingwell, Randy. Harley-Davidson: Myth & Mystique. Osceola, Wisconsin, Motorbooks Publishers & Wholesalers, 1995.

Norris, Martin. Rolling Thunder: The Harley-Davidson Legend. London, Quintet Publishing, Ltd., 1992.

Thompson, Hunter S. Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs. New York, Ballantine Books, 1966.

Wagner, Herbert. Harley-Davidson 1930-1941: Revolutionary Motorcycles & Those Who Rode Them. Atglen, Pennsylvania, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., 1996.