Once, the aunt of one of them jokingly wrote in red paint on the door of the tiny shed, where enthusiastic young designers were assembling their first motorcycle: Harley-Davidson Motor Company. At that time she hardly imagined that the production would give the world a biker subculture.

How it all began

At the beginning of the last century, motorcycles were mainly in the Old World. In America, companies producing two-wheeled vehicles were units – for example, back in 1901 there was the Indian Motorcycle Company. As for the brand Harley-Davidson, which will be discussed below, it was created two years later.

In 1903, brothers Walter and Arthur Davidson, along with William Harley, assembled their first motorcycle. It was still very far from the image we are accustomed to of the overseas iron horse: powerful, sparkling with chrome, able to move at high speed over considerable distances. The first Harley looked more than funny. It was small, with a single-cylinder engine, and had bicycle pedals, which were needed to accelerate the bike to the speed at which the engine could be started and to overcome long climbs. However, “to accelerate up to speed” is a strong word, because for one hour this vehicle could pass no more than 7-8 kilometers.

Motorcycle from a tin can: the history of the company “Harley-Davidson”.

The example for the first model of Harley-Davidson was the French motorcycle De Dion-Bouton. Passionate friends Davidsons and Harley, who, by the way, were a little over twenty at the time, assembled all mechanisms by hand, using any improvised means. For example, they made the carburetor from an old tin can, and bought gasoline by the pint at a nearby drugstore. The second model was more powerful and they started selling it – a few motorcycles a year at first.

The prototype of the next Harley-Davidson motorcycle was built in a shed measuring three by five meters. Some parts were also built in the workshop of the railroad depot where William Davidson worked. And even after a very decent performance of this prototype at the races and the official start of sales motorcycles continued to be assembled in the same barn. Later, when the first factory was built, the shed was placed in the center of the production facility as a memorial to the humble origins of the iconic company. Years later, in the early 1970s, contractors hired to clean the factory yard inadvertently demolished the legendary wooden structure.

In 1907, the company managed to capture an important part of the market: an agreement was made whereby “Harleys” were purchased for the local police. Ironically, in 1916, the same motorcycles, “Harley-Davidson”, were used by the opponents of the guard of law and order – at that time guerrillas of the Mexican rebel Pancho Villa, who raided the U.S. border towns. They were opposed by General Pershing’s troops on Indian motorcycles, which was how the brand became the main competitor to the Harleys.

A motorcycle from a tin can: the history of Harley-Davidson
Modern American police officers in New York on Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Meanwhile, more and more motorcycles were produced every year. The design was not outstanding, for example only two colors were available – black and gray. At the same time, it was necessary to increase the maximum speed, for which the powerful engine called V-Twin was created. By the 1920s, its volume increases to 1200 cubic centimeters. At the same time, Harley-Davidson has its own gearbox. The engine had only one drawback: the valves were constantly clogged and wore out quickly, and were difficult to operate and maintain. Competitors used a different design.

In the service of the country and the world

In 1920, 27,000 Harleys were sold in the world. The advertising of the brand was everywhere: the famous logo was printed on sweaters, T-shirts, even on women’s suits. However, in 1929, the Great Depression began, which lasted almost ten years. Many companies suffered bankruptcy, and the motorcycle industry was also virtually destroyed. Only two manufacturers, Harley-Davidson and Indian, remained in all America. They managed to stay afloat, because their customers were government agencies – army and police. In fact, demand exceeded supply.

For the same reason, the development of both companies was aided by World War II. American authorities signed multi-million dollar contracts with both manufacturers to supply motorcycles to the Allies. Nearly 30,000 WLA model Harleys were sent to the Soviet Union. We had them equipped with a sidecar from the M-72 motorcycle and a back seat. Soviet soldiers had a good reputation for their unpretentiousness and reliability. After the war, the Moscow militia rode them for quite a long time.

A motorcycle out of a tin can: the history of Harley-Davidson
Harley-Davidson military model WLA, 1941
One must understand how great the needs of the army were. Two-wheelers had practically disappeared from the domestic market: it was simply impossible to buy a motorcycle in a store! Then William Harley made a little trickery: having connections in the Pentagon, he agreed that a certain part of production would be sold in the country. The main competitor, the Indian company, in the pursuit of profit sent to the front everything it produced, and as a result, during the war the brand was forgotten, while Harley-Davidson remained a recognizable brand in the country.

In the right place at the right time

After World War II, production of civilian motorcycles “Harley-Davidson” is restored. The first post-war model becomes sports WR with 750 cc engine. A new plant is opened in Wisconsin, and in 1949, the first motorcycle with hydraulic fork appears. A few years later, in 1952, American bikers experienced a mini-revolution in the layout of their vehicles: henceforth the clutch of their “horse” is manual, and the gear shift – foot. People quickly get used to it, and the innovation becomes ubiquitous.

Motorcycle from a tin can: the history of “Harley-Davidson” company
Model WR Daytona, 1948.
And after the war, a completely unexpected image of a Harley owner is born. Young soldiers returning home feel disappointment in former ideals and look at their homeland with different eyes, feeling unwanted by the country. Many cannot find a peaceful life or a suitable job. Half-drunk youths, dressed in black leather jackets with stripes, race army “Harleys”, bringing terror to all America. Pogroms, initiated by the rioters, began, as well as persecution of those who rode other brands of motorcycles: the equipment could be taken away, roped through the streets (like a horse), suspended from a tree and even burned. Locals would hide as soon as they heard the roar of a motorcycle engine, and the rampaging bikers would be pacified by the National Guard and firefighters with water cannons.

The company “Harley-Davidson” itself is shocked by this “hooligan” image of its products and fears for its reputation, but cannot refuse its main consumers, who also gave many valuable ideas, modifying their bikes. For example, they were the ones who invented the color metallic by adding metallic powder to the ordinary paint…

But journalists and filmmakers were extremely fond of the new image of biker bandits. Thus, for example, the cult film “Savage” with Marlon Brando in the title role appeared. Of course, all the characters of the tape rode only Harleys.

New twist

The largest motorcycle club, Harley-Davidson, appeared in 1983 and immediately became the largest motorcycle club in the world. In the first ten years, 90,000 people were in its ranks. By the two thousandth year – half a million, and by the current, 2018-m, – a million.

In the 1990s, there is a model Softtail Fat Boy, which became widely known not only because of its funny name (literal translation from English – “fat boy” or “fat baby”), but also because of the unusual shape, as well as thanks to the movie “Terminator” and “Terminator 2” with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who, incidentally, and outside the set was a big fan of motorized vehicles. Then an assembly plant opens in Brazil, the first Harley-Davidson plant outside the USA.

There are seven main lines of motorcycles in the brand’s lineup today. Some are more affordable and more oriented to the classics, while others are aimed at young consumers who are not so close to the classic American motorcycle image and want something more modern and stylish. And, for example, the Touring family is a serious heavy equipment for long trips and travel, with wind protection and voluminous luggage cases.

In addition, Harley-Davidson produces tricycles, and a separate factory division is engaged in customizing, that is individualization of motorcycles. It is closer to car tuning, only the result of work looks even more colorful and exclusive.

The whole second half of the last century in the USA is called “the era of “Harley”. And, perhaps, this is one of the few companies in the world which became a legend without making any special efforts. In today’s provocative advertising, the company declares that in the rating of the most popular words for tattoos, “Harley-Davidson” takes the honorable second place – of course, after the word “mother”.

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