HARLEY-DAVIDSON | AMERICAN IRON, INGENUITY & PERSEVERANCE

The folks at Harley-Davidson were kind enough to invite me down to Milwaukee, WI for a tour of the museum, and their storied archives. This trip had deep, personal significance for me, as I grew up on the rumble and roar of Harley. There is no other sound or feel like it. It quickens the pulse, raises the hair on your arms, and brings a pie-eating grin to one’s face. The distinctive “potato-potato” idle of the v-twin is iconic to the brand, and resonates deeply within many loyal riders who have made their lives one with Harley-Davidson. It’s the personal stories of these cultural icons who forged their destiny with Harley-Davidson, evolving together through the decades, that I love– and that are a source of inspiration and pride to this day.

In my mind, there is no other brand that better epitomizes the American spirit of Independence, ingenuity, and perseverance than Harley-Davidson. Hands-down. The cultural impact they’ve had on America (and around the world) is undeniable and evident all around us. It didn’t start with Easy Rider either, it goes back much further in time.

My mind immediately races back to the early days and the numerous innovations H-D had on franchising and branding. The following success of their notorious and ballsy “Wrecking Crew” racing team (that risked life & limb for victory on hostile dirt tracks and battered, oil-soaked wooden board tracks with dubious, improvised safety gear) further cemented Harley as the one to follow. I think of the soldiers returning from WWI & WWII–  maybe they rode a motorcycle in wartime, or were pilots looking to replace the thrill of flying, and coming home they bought a Harley-Davidson because they yearned for an intense, physical experience of freedom and speed that only a Harley could give them. A lot of those same servicemen who fell between the cracks of what society or themselves deemed “normal” formed the first motorcycle clubs that would inspire Hollywood films, fashion, music, art and attitude to this day. And yes, 1969′s Easy Rider which became the iconic counter-culture biker film that drove the chopper / Harley customization craze for decades to come, and created a look and lifestyle that many would influence for generations to come. Hell, my stepdad was nicknamed “Hopper” after his character “Billy” in the film because of his dark looks, and that suede vest with fringe that would whip in the wind as he roared down the road on his ’79 Low Rider. Two things he impressed upon me– never ride a Sportster (chick bike), and never use your electric start (for pussies).

The point is, Harley-Davidson and those who ride them are a breed apart. There is a profound connection between man and machine that is beyond words. It’s more than a motorcycle— a Harley has a soul. A mighty soul born in a crude wooden shed over 100 years ago.

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ca. 1903 —  William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson built their first motorcycles in this simple structure. Harley-Davidson’s very first “factory” (if you can call it that)– a wooden 10′ x 15′ shed that sat in the back yard of the Davidson family home. In 1907 Harley-Davidson was incorporated and the company was valued at $14,200. (Rewind– Harley-Davidson was started in a freaking 10′ x 15′ shed?! That’s the American “can-do” spirit in a nutshell, people. When I first heard that, I realized there are no excuses for anyone to not get out there and make it happen.) — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives
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1939 — The original shed was later transplanted to the new Juneau Avenue factory (built in 1906, and still the site of  Harley-Davidson’s corporate headquarters) as a symbolic reminder of the company’s humble beginnings. (The lesson– Never get so big that you don’t remember where you came from, folks. And never start acting like a big company– especially when you are one.) Tragically, the original shed was accidentally destroyed in the early ’70s by a careless crew doing clean-up at the H-D factory. — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives
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Above is the Holy Grail of the Harley-Davidson Museum– Serial Number One. It’s not the first Harley motorcycle, but it is the earliest known in existence today– with the engine dating back to 1906. (I’ve always wondered why they are called “motor” cycles, when technically they are powered by engines, not motors…WTF) I love the cool graphicness of the stark white tires. The original tires from back in the day actually were white, as natural rubber is white– not black.  It was in the 1910s or so that companies started adding carbon to make tires black as we know them today. And check out the leather strap that drives the rear wheel– sort of like the original ’80s belt-drive Sturgis model. I remember seeing that bike when it first came out in an H-D dealership in Avon, NY as a kid and thinking it was pretty damn cool. — Image by © The Selvedge Yard

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1913 — Harley-Davidson founders and childhood chums Walter Davidson & William Harley. So it turns out that Walter Davidson was a prolific world traveler, preferably by motorcycle and train. In fact, it was his love for travel that probably saved Harley-Davidson from early financial devastation. By the 1920s, Harley-Davidson had already established a dealer network in 67 different countries around the world. Had Davidson not had this initiative, foresight and wanderlust H-D may have fallen prey to the Great Depression– like many of their US competitors. Harley-Davidson was also innovative in supporting their dealer network with some pretty cool tools to help them prosper and grow. They developed extensive corporate signage, manuals, schools of instruction for training repairmen, and guidelines in accounting practices. They truly believed that in order to be a successful dealer you needed 2 important qualities– you had to be a true-blue motorcycle enthusiast, and you had to have a business sense. Damn sound thinking. — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives

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READ PART II HERE:

HARLEY-DAVIDSON | AMERICAN IRON, INGENUITY & PERSEVERANCE, PT. II

FOR THE HARLEY-DAVIDSON RIDEBOOK

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22 thoughts on “HARLEY-DAVIDSON | AMERICAN IRON, INGENUITY & PERSEVERANCE

  1. I was born in Milwaukee and my Father and his brothers lived across the street from the factory as boys in the 30s and 40s. They all worked at the factory for a spell, and instilled
    in me the love of motorcycles that I have today. I have owned at least 40 Harleys dating from the 40s to the 60s, and love riding to this day. Harley Davidsons have been a way of life for me, and I cannot imagine how it could ever have been otherwise. Great article, Thanks for summing up what so many of us know!
    “Panhead” Greg Lew

      • Please check out my Harley Davidson Panheads Page on FB. There are many pictures of the bikes I have owned over the years. I am not a collector, I ride them, fix them, sell them and keep a couple around all the time. Look forward to seeing your post! I love THE SELVEDGE YARD! Thanks JP.

  2. I’m fortunate to know the three guys who did the last resto on the ” #1 ” H-D you pictured – “Chicago Ray” Schlee did the mechanical on it, John Rank ( who’s family auto dealership had been in Milwaukee since 1910 – his grandfather went to school with William H., his father went to school with Willie G., and John went to school with Bill and Karen Davidson) did the paint and sheetmetal resto, and Butch Brinza did the pinstriping and lettering by hand.

    The engine is definately the first production engine that H-D made, although it’s displacement is bigger than the other two engines/motorcycles they made in ’03. When Ray disassembled the engine, it had “1″ stamped on it’s flywheels. The frame however, is a combination of 1905 and ’06 tubing. Schlee thinks ” #1 ” was originally built for racing, and it was modified several times, and the fenders it used to have (with the original 1903-1904 tag on the front one) were added to “civilian it” for H-D’s display in the Pan-Pacific Exposition in San Francisco in 1915, to fill out the display area.

    • JP, it’s not really “my knowledge”, I’m just fortunate over the years to have actually meet and become friends with those that have the real “knowledge”. I just remember what people have passed on to me, and I in turn pass on what I have been told.

      This motorcycle world isn’t as big as you would think, and after 40-odd years of working on and riding Harleys, you meet an awful lot of people…….

      • Irish Rich, well known and obviously modest legend yourself, even out here in the Antipodes some of us know who you are and what cracking work you do . . . . keep it coming !! By the way JP, another gem, ta muchly.

  3. Well I’ll play Devils advocate here .

    I’ve had H-D in the family since 1926 . Been thru the Ups & Downs of the Company as an owner and shareholder .

    What Harley “Was ” and what Harley ” Is ” today are two entirely different things

    They used to be Motorcycles . Now they’re fashion accessories . They used to be the innovators . Now they’re a Sad Parody/Pastiche of their former selves . They used to be about selling Motorcycles . Now they’re about selling a ” Lifestyle ” that doesn’t exist along with T-Shirts , Leather and God know what else they’ll come up with before its all over

    And they USED to be all built in the good ol’ USA ( albeit with overseas sourced parts here and there ) Now Harley -Davidson has committed the Ultimate Treason , building complete Motorcycles in India of all places .

    Toss that last fact in along with ” The Company ” screwing Eric Buell , the last of the true American M/C innovators and Geniuses , and I’m sorry to say that as an American there isn’t a Hell of a lot to be proud of or bragging about the Harley -Davidson of today .

    To sum it up ” The Company ” will never see another Thin Dime from myself or anyone else in my family either . 85 years of Family History w/Harley -Davidson having been shot to pieces in Fiver Years or Less .

    Nice job H-D . Especially knowing I’m not alone in my opinion .

      • Well actually the ‘ Motor Company ‘ just announced that their new Buell Blast replacement ‘ Beginners ” Bike will be fully built in India and Imported here ….. so sadly ( for all of us ) your info and link is out of date ( no insult intended towards you JP , but rather at the recent announcement )

        Odds are , from some follow up ‘ On the Street ‘ news that if the ‘Blast’ replacement is successful the ‘ Motor Company ‘ will start Importing Twins from the India Plant as well .

        The H-D workers here in KC are up in arms about this , and I’ll bet at the other plants as well as this decision is taking jobs away from the US and sending them overseas by the so called and self proclaimed ” American Motorcycle Manufacture ” Heck even Victory hasn’t stooped this low !

      • I finally did my homework and checked the link..

        Levatich’s quote about the Indian CKD facility is probably very similar to what the Execs at Royal Enfield, in Redditch England were saying back in the late 40′s when they set up THEIR CKD facilitity in Madras, India (now called Mombai)……

        I wish them the same kind of success…at today’s sales levels.

  4. I agree with everything Gunslinger had to say. I will add my own two cents. In the old days you had dressers and sportsters. The dresser crowd went for long distance events and touring. The sportster crowd were the lunatics who drag raced,hill climbed,road raced and ran flat track. The sportster was the only bike that did it all. If you look at previous articles in the Selvedge Yard you will see this is true. When the superglide came out it was the posers bike of choice.(now it is the sluggish fatboy) They no longer had to chop a 74(with their inate lack of mechanical) ability and had a semi custom looking bike to profile on.. The Motor Company makes a killing on the big twins as the markup is so high. They like to boost the egos of the largely old and overweight crowd who ride them by calling sportsters girls bikes. The fact is the only big twin that ran and handled well was the FXR that the grey pony tailed brotherhood disliked as it didn’t look like a ’48 hog. Most Harley shops are boutiques for these chromosexuals who have to wear identical clothes,hats and tattoos to be”individuals and live the Harley Lifestyle”haha I hope Eric Buell does well with his new bike just to spite the yuppie beancounters that run HD

  5. !969 XLCH, magneto with a kick starter, girls bike? I doubt it. At any rate, the last real motorcycle they made was in 1964 and they stopped making engines in 1984.

  6. Great read (as usual) and share your appreciation for what the Harley museum offers other enthusiasts, many who would have a hard time telling the difference between an Ironhead Sportster and a flatside Shovelhead. This might help them learn the difference.

  7. Oh and I like the use of “American Iron” in your title for this piece. In addition to being a long term vintage Harley owner and rider (I rode my 1915 Harley twin across the US on last year’s Motorcycle Cannonball ride), I am also the Editor-in-Chief of American Iron Magazine.

    • Well there Buzz , as a man with I would assume a bit of ‘ influence ‘ how’s about you banging on the ‘Motor Company’s ‘ door and razing a bit of _____ before that ” American ” Iron becomes just another ” Made in ______ ” ( fill in the blank ) pile of imported dreck

      Top marks on your mag BTW .

  8. i ride my fxe for 36 years now and love it .
    and it is right – it might have had been an fx .. i never use the e start.
    and. with the end of the shovel a part of the original harley soul has been saved in history,the newer models tend to be too pittoresque and in the end are a fake of older styles.
    what i like are all newer tech models ,also buell ok, these show much future power.
    and that was what the shack stood for.

  9. re GuitarSlinger’s comment..I doesn’t matter what the Company has announced but making a bike in India and trying to import it here would be the kiss of death for that model
    –and maybe a kiss of death for the Harley Brand–one of the most valuable on the planet.
    So I’ll believe it when I see it. I’d suspect that any H-D. announcement of Indian-made Harleys coming to the USA is just an attempt to further intimidate the H.D. workers and their union.

    Remember that Harleys are proudly made and sold in Brasil now, but not , I believe, exported from that country. Certainly not to the USA, Australia, or to Europe.

    Joint development of an entry level bike in India/USA and subsequent manufacturing raises many interesting possibilities.. Downsized to 45 inch (750cc) version of the Sportster
    powerplant..in softail bikes, with the “luxury model” being a junior Crossbones having a springer front..and set up for folks that are 5’6″ not 6 feet tall.

    I’d certainly want one, if it was made in America, and priced like a Sportster.

  10. “Remember that Harleys are proudly made and sold in Brasil now, but not , I believe, exported from that country.”

    Except of course the ones that “leak across” the border to Paraguay :-)
    Your Brasilian readers will know what I am talking about. Some may have made the
    trip to recover their vehicles!

  11. While it may not be what it once was, I still smile when I hear and see one. Excellent read and thanks for those who continue to ride the best motorcycle in the world.

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