Harley-Davidson is celebrating its 110th anniversary this year with a variety of celebrations. Writer Bob Gates recapped Harley’s history in motorsports in the July issue of SPEED SPORT Magazine.
Here’s an excerpt from that story:
By Bob Gates
In 1903, William Harley and his bicycling buddy, Arthur Davidson, both in their early 20s, successfully mounted a simple one-cylinder engine of their own design on what was essentially a reinforced bicycle frame with the intention of racing it.
Their efforts were so successful that before the year was out, two competitors impressed by Harley and Davidson’s creation, prevailed upon the men to build motorcycles for them as well. The Harley-Davidson Motor Co. was off and running.
Racing motorcycles evolved into street bikes and the demand increased dramatically. They built eight motorcycles in 1904 and 16 in 1905 when they hired their first five employees. By 1906 they had outgrown the little tool shed with Harley-Davidson Motor Co. scrawled on the door.
It was in 1906 that Harley-Davidson’s pioneering marketing acumen was initially demonstrated with the introduction of the first motorcycle sales catalog. Within a half-dozen years they’d increased their marketing efforts with a powerful American dealer network of 200 branches and were already exporting motorcycles to Japan.
World War I interrupted the production growth of many American manufacturers, but not Harley-Davidson’s. The company’s production actually increased. This was the world’s first mechanized war and the motorcycle was in huge demand. More than 15,000 Harley-Davidsons were sold to the U.S. military.
Harley-Davidson’s incredible accomplishments during its first 20 years were an early indicator of the tenacity, creativity and ingenuity that have made it one of the world’s most respected and revered companies.
Through two world wars, the Great Depression, multiple economic downturns and an onslaught of Japanese competition in the 1970s, Harley-Davidson has not only survived, but excelled.
Perhaps the biggest challenge came during the late 1960s when the company was purchased by sporting goods manufacturer AMF. What appeared to be an ideal corporate marriage quickly deteriorated into a spate of quality, production efficiency and resource problems that nearly put the proud company out of business.
In 1981, however, 13 Harley-Davidson senior executives purchased Harley- Davidson from AMF, with “The Eagle Soars Alone” becoming their rallying cry.
The Eagle, indeed, has soared, leaving those who follow its majestic flight wondering just what the next 110 years will bring.