Harley-Davidson, Inc. is the parent company of Harley-Davidson Motor Company,
Buell Motorcycle Company and Harley-Davidson Financial Services. Harley-Davidson
Motor Company produces heavyweight motorcycles and offers a complete line of
motorcycle parts, accessories, apparel, and general merchandise. Buell
Motorcycle Company produces a line of sport motorcycles.
1870 Birth of William A. Davidson, Milwaukee, WI.
1876 Birth of Walter Davidson, Milwaukee, WI.
1880 Birth of William S. Harley, Milwaukee, WI. As he was born just after
Christmas, his parents gave him the middle name “Sylvester.”
1881 Birth of Arthur Davidson, Milwaukee, WI.
1901 William S. Harley, aged 21, completes a blueprint for an engine designed
to fit into a bicycle.
1903 Harley and Arthur Davidson build the first production Harley-Davidson in
1903. It features a 3-1/8-inch bore and a 3-1/2-inch stroke yielding 7.07 cubic
inches (116cc). They make a more powerful motor with the assistance of Ole
Evinrude – better known as the inventor of the outboard motor. It is designed
for use on the wooden velodromes where popular bicycle races are held.
Harley and Davidson work in a 10 x 15-foot shed on Chestnut Street (later
renamed Juneau Avenue) which is still the address of Harley-Davidson’s head
1904 The first Harley-Davidson dealer, C.H. Lang of Chicago, opens for
1906 A new 28 by 80-foot factory is built on Chestnut Street. The company has
grown to have six employees. It produces its first catalogue, and coins the
nickname “Silent Gray Fellows.” It’s a reference to the fact that the bikes were
painted dove grey, and that they were quietly reliable. (Evidently, the
company’s founders were unaware that loud pipes save lives.)
1907 William A. Davidson joins the firm. Harley-Davidson Motor Company is
incorporated, with stock shared by the Harley and the three Davidson brothers.
1908 Walter Davidson scores a perfect 1,000 points at the 7th Annual
Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability Contest. Three
days after the contest, Walter sets the FAM economy record at 188.234 miles
per gallon. Perhaps impressed with that reliability, Detroit becomes the first city
to buy a H-D motorcycle for police use.
1909 “The Motor Company” makes its first V-Twin. It has a displacement of
49.5 cubic inches and produces seven horsepower.
1910 The ‘Bar & Shield’ logo is used for the first time in 1910 and was
trademarked one year later.
1911 The ‘F-head’ single-cylinder engine is introduced and will remain in use
until 1929. (This is not a reference to “Hey, f-head!” it’s a reference to the
shape of the valve ports.) It is an inlet-over-exhaust design, with an overhead
intake valve (in the head like a modern motor) but a “side” exhaust valve which
is in the cylinder.
1912 Harley-Davidson begins exporting motorcycles to Japan. Construction
begins on a six-storey headquarters. The Parts and Accessories Dept. is
The company has more than 200 dealers across America.
1913 The Racing Department is formed, under the control of Bill Harley.
1914 Side-cars are made available. Some models are briefly available with a
two-speed transmission in the rear hub. Also, belts go out of fashion – for the
moment. Harley-Davidson is one of the last motorcycle manufacturers to
switch from leather drive belts to chains. The leather belts slipped, stretched
and rotted, so chains are a big improvement.
1915 H-D motorcycles become available with three-speed sliding-gear
transmissions with final and primary drive on the same side.
1916 The Enthusiast magazine is published for the first time.
1917 About a third of the company’s production is purchased by the Army. To
train Army mechanics, the company starts the Quartermasters School. After the
war, it will be retained as the Service School, providing factory-trained
mechanics for dealers.
1918 Almost half of all H-D motorcycles produced are sold for use by the U.S.
military in World War I. After Armistice is signed, Corporal Roy Holtz becomes
the first American soldier to enter Germany. He does so on a Harley-Davidson
1919 The 37-cubic-inch Sport model is introduced. It’s a horizontally-
opposed, fore-and-aft V-Twin.
1920 Now the largest motorcycle manufacturer, H-D boasts over 2,000 dealers
in 67 countries. The factory racing team, already known as “The Wrecking
Crew” because it’s become so dominant in American racing, has a small pig as
a mascot. The bikes are nicknamed “hogs” as a result.
1925 The company adopts teardrop-shaped gas tanks (previously they were
flat-topped) that give its machines a very distinct look. Joe Petrali becomes
one of the first salaried “factory racers.”
1926 Single-cylinder motorcycles are sold first time since 1918. Models A,
AA, B and BA are available in side-valve and overhead-valve engine
1928 The first two-cam engine is made available on the JD series motorcycles.
The bike can reach a top speed between 85 and 100 mph. Luckily, this year all
H-D models are also available with a brake on the front wheel. Surprisingly few
Harley-Davidson riders use them, even to this day.
1929 The D model is introduced with a rugged, 45-cubic-inch flathead V-Twin
engine. The “Flathead” motor will be sold in various guises for over 40 years.
The stock-market crash heralds the Great Depression. In 1929, the company
sells 21,000 motorcycles. It’s the strongest of the dozens – if not hundreds –
of motorcycle brands that were launched in the first three decades of the
century; only a handful will survive into the fourth.
1932 The three-wheeled Servi-car begins its 41-year run. (Sure they were used
to deliver great corned-beef sandwiches, but they were also used by the guys
who wrote 410,000,000 parking tickets, too.)
In racing, Joe Petrali begins a string of five consecutive national
championships in dirt track, as well as four consecutive hill-climb titles. (In
those years, the championship was decided in a single race.)
1933 The company sells only 4,000 motorcycles this year. To reduce costs for
competitors, the AMA creates a new racing class, Class C, based on
production equipment and allowing for limited modifications. Although the
original, prototype-based Class A persists, the AMA emphasizes the new
class. Purists resent the change.
1935 Alfred Child, the company’s agent in Asia, realizes that currency
exchange rates are killing sales in Japan. He convinces the company to license
production of its motorcycles in Japan. The Sankyo Seiyakyo Corporation
purchases tooling and begins producing Harley “clones”. They are sold under
the name Rikuo, which means “King of the Road.”
1936 Introduction of the EL, an overhead valve, 61-cubic-inch-powered bike,
which earns the nickname of ‘Knucklehead’ because of the shape of its rocker-
boxes. The company also introduces an 80-cubic-inch side-valve engine.
1937 Petrali sets a land-speed record of over 136 mph with a streamlined
Knucklehead. The first WL models are produced.
William A. Davidson dies, two days after signing an agreement that makes the
company a union shop.
1938 Ben Campanale wins the Daytona 200 on a 45 cubic-inch WLDR. The race
was run on the 3.2-mile beach course.
The Jackpine Gypsies hold the first Black Hills rally in Sturgis.
1941 United States enters World War II. The production of civilian motorcycles is
almost entirely stopped.
1942 When U.S. soldiers capture their first “Wehrmacht”-issue motorcycles in
North Africa, they find that the BMW's and Zundapps are better suited to tough
military duty. Harley-Davidson and Indian each develop about 1,000 machines
for evaluation, with shaft drives and Flat-Twin motors copied from the Germans.
They are never widely issued, though the machines cost Uncle Sam a
whopping $35,000 each.
Walter Davidson dies.
1943 William S. Harley dies.
1945 The war finally ends. Between 1941-45 the company produced almost 90,000
WLA models for military use.
1946 The 45 cubic-inch, flathead, WR production racer is made. It conforms
to stricter Class C AMA rules, which are intended to reduce costs for
competitors. It’s a flathead, because in Class C, flatheads are allowed to
displace 750cc, while OHV motors are limited to 500cc.
1948 The company’s 61 and 74 c.i. OHV engines are updated with aluminium
heads and hydraulic valve lifters. Also new are the one-piece rocker covers,
which resemble cake pans, earning the motor the nickname ‘Panhead.’
As part of Germany’s war reparations, the Allies loot German patents. The fine,
small two-stroke motors built by DKW (seen in that company’s popular RT125)
are copied by BSA (the Bantam) and Harley-Davidson, which produces the
model S that will come to be known as the Hummer.
1949 Hydraulic front forks make their first appearance on the new Hydra-Glide
1950 Arthur Davidson dies.
1952 Returning servicemen seem to favour the lighter British Twins they saw
"over there.” In response, Harley-Davidson creates the 45 c.i. side-valve K
model. It’s a unit-construction motor – the crankcases and gearbox are one set
1953 Indian goes into its long, painful death throes. H-D, which celebrates
its 50th anniversary this year will be only real motorcycle manufacturer in the
U.S. for the rest of the century.
The ageing WR and WRTT production racers are no match for the British 500s
now invading the dirt tracks (and few road courses) of America. The H-D racing
department counters with a new racer, the KR. Like the WR, it is a 750cc flat-
1955 The new KR begins a run of seven consecutive Daytona 200 victories,
which will include the last race run on the old beach course and first one run
at the new Daytona International Speedway.
1957 The Sportster is introduced. It is basically a larger-displacement
version of the K motor, fitted with an OHV head. At 55 c.i., it offers
performance to rival anything coming out of England (at least, anything coming
out of England without a “Vincent” tank badge.) has a 55 cubic-inch overhead-
1958 Hydraulic rear suspensions appear on the Duo-Glide.
1960 Harley-Davidson acknowledges the market potential of smaller machines.
The company makes its first and only scooter, the Topper. It also purchases a
half-interest in the Italian company Aermacchi, which produces fast and stylish
single-cylinder machines of up to 350cc.
Brad Andres wins the last Daytona 200 run on the sand. 2nd through 13th (no,
not 3rd, 13th) places all go to riders on KRs.
1961 The first Aermacchi design to reach America is the Harley-Davidson
Sprint. Short-track racers are quick to realize that its good power and low
center of gravity make it a winner.
1962 Harley-Davidson acquires the Tomahawk boat company and starts to learn
about the uses of fibreglass.
1964 The humble Servi-Car is the first of the company’s machines to be fitted
with an electric starter.
1965 The Duo-Glide and is fitted with an electric starter, and thus becomes
1966 Riders clamouring for more power cause the company to update the old
The new engine has rocker boxes that resemble coal shovels. Hence, the new
mill gets the nickname “Shovelhead.” This basic motor will remain in production
for 20 years.
1968 After years of increasingly vociferous lobbying, the import manufacturers
convince the AMA rules committee that the 250cc displacement advantage given
to flathead motors is unfair. The AMA declares that, in future, bikes with
overhead valves (all the British and Japanese models) can also displace up to
750cc. Harley-Davidson lobbies to delay the implementation of the new rule for
one more season.
1969 Although Harley-Davidson stock is publicly traded, it is still a relatively closely
held corporation. The shareholders – perhaps sensing that the “Japanese
invasion” is about to open a new front in the heavyweight category, with the
Honda CB750 Four – sell the company to the American Machine and
Foundry Company. AMF has hitherto been known to the American consumer as
a maker of bowling balls, but it is in fact a large, diversified manufacturer.
AMF could have risen to the challenge presented by the sophisticated and
comparatively affordable Honda. Instead, AMF’s managers roll a real gutter-ball.
Harley-Davidson quality plummets. Before long, dealers are forced to rebuild
motors under warranty and magazines are brutally critical of test bikes.
Used Harleys are described as “pre-AMF” in classified ads.
1970 The racing department creates a new production racer, the XR-750. The
motor is basically a destroked Sportster unit. It gets off to an inauspicious
start; none of the factory entries reach the finish in the Daytona 200. The
first Harley across the line is an ancient KRTT, ridden by Walt Fulton III.
1971 By mating the spare front end of the XL series with the frame and motor
of the FL series, the company creates the first cruiser – the FX 1200 Super
1973 A new assembly plant is opened in York, PA.
1977 Although most Harley fans would rather forget the years in which the
company was owned by AMF, there is one AMF-era bike that’s highly sought-
after by collectors: the 1977 XLCR. That “CR” stands for Café Racer and the
bike was only the second major project for Willie G. Davidson (the grandson of
one of the founders.) While the model is prized now, it was rejected by Harley
customers in 1977. Only 3,100 were sold and the model was dropped a year later
although dealers still had unsold XLCRs cluttering their showroom floors well
into the ’80s.The FXS Low Rider is also introduced this year.
1979 The FXEF “Fat Bob” is introduced. It’s called fat because of its dual gas tanks,
and bob on account of its bobbed fenders.
1980 The FLT is introduced. It has rubber-isolated drive train and an engine
and five-speed transmission which are hard bolted together.
Belts come back into fashion: a Kevlar belt replaces the chain as the final
drive on some models.
The FXB Sturgis, featuring an 80 cubic-inch engine, and FXWB Wide Glide are
1981 After years of AMF mismanagement, Harley-Davidson has lost almost all
customer loyalty and profits are in free-fall. When a group of company
executives led by Vaughan Beals offers to buy the division for $75 million, AMF
Beals leads an amazing corporate turnaround. He funds new product
development and implements world-class quality control. It’s impossible to know
what would have happened to the H-D brand if Beals had not risen up to save it,
but it’s certain that no one else could have done a better job at rehabilitating it.
1982 The FXR/FXRS Super Glide II are introduced, featuring a rubber-isolated,
five-speed power train.
The company adopts a just-in-time inventory system on the manufacturing side,
which helps to lower cost and improve quality.
1983 The Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) is formed.
The company petitions the International Trade Commission (a branch of the U.S.
federal government) to impose a tariff on Japanese motorcycles of over 700cc.
As a result, many Japanese motorcycles that are sold as 750cc models in the
rest of the world are sleeved-down to 700cc for the U.S. market.
1984 The 1340cc V2 Evolution engine appears on five models. Although it’s
been in development since the AMF era, the motor proves the newly
independent company has turned the corner in terms of build quality. It is far
more reliable and oil-tight.
The Softail, which features concealed rear suspension and evokes the rigid-
framed hogs of 30 or 40 years ago, meets with commercial success.
1986 Harley-Davidson diversifies with the acquisition of the Holiday Rambler
1987 The company makes its Initial Public Offering. Stock is traded on the
NYSE, with the ticker symbol of HOG. The company petitions the ITC to relax the
tariff on imported motorcycles, a year before it was scheduled to lapse. The
move serves notice that Harley-Davidson is capable of competing on a level
playing field, despite the fact that the Japanese companies now all make V-Twin
cruisers that compete directly with the American offerings.
1988 Exploiting customers’ love of traditional styling, the Springer front end returns on
the FXSTS Springer Softail.
1990 Introduction of the FLSTF Fat Boy.
1991 Introduction of the first motorcycle in the Dyna line, the FXDB Dyna Glide Sturgis.
1992 Harley-Davidson is the first company to equip all its models (except for
a handful of racing motorcycles) with drive belts. Modern drive belts provide a
smoother ride than chains, last longer, and free riders from the drudgery of
chain lubrication and adjustment.
1993 H-D buys a minority interest in the Buell Motorcycle Company.
1994 The company enters the AMA Superbike Championship, fielding the water-
cooled, DOHC VR1000. AMA rules specified that the company had to also build
and sell 2,000 machines for road use, a process is called “homologation.” So,
you may wonder, why have you never seen a road-going VR1000 if 2000 were
sold? Because the model was homologated in Poland. By selling it there, Harley
avoided U.S. liability and Poland’s lax laws allowed the barely-modified race
bike to be legally licensed.
Despite being ably ridden by Miguel Duhamel, Pascal Picotte, Chris Carr and
Scott Russell, the VR1000 will never win an AMA race.
1995 Harley-Davidsons are equipped with fuel injection for the first time.
1996 Sales of parts and accessories are an increasingly important part of the
business – a fact reflected in the new, 250,000 sq. ft. facility the company
opens in Franklin, WI.
1997 A new 217,000 sq.-ft. design center opens in Milwaukee. FL engine
production moves to a newly purchased plant in Menomonee Falls. A new
330,000 sq. ft. plant in Kansas City takes over the production of Sportsters.
1998 The company opens its first foreign factory in Manaus, Brazil.
The remaining shares of Buell are also acquired.
1999 The Touring and Dyna lines receive the new Twin Cam 88.
2000 Despite spending tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees in the mid-’90s – and
having initial success in its efforts to trademark the “potato- potato” sound of
Harley motors – the company drops its U.S. Patent Office application. Harley-
Davidson’s vice president of marketing, Joanne Bischmann, tells reporters, “I've
personally spoken with Harley-Davidson owners from around the world and
they've told me repeatedly that there is nothing like the sound of a Harley-
Davidson motorcycle. If our customers know the sound cannot be imitated, that’s
good enough for me and for Harley-Davidson”
2001 The VRSCA V-Rod is introduced. The motor – which was designed with input
from Porsche – is fuel injected, has overhead cams, and liquid cooling.
2003 It is estimated that 250,000 people come to Milwaukee to celebrate The
Motor Company’s 100th anniversary.
2006 Fittingly, the ’06 model-year Dyna motorcycles come with six-speed
transmissions. The company announces a major new museum, scheduled to
open in Milwaukee in 2008.
2007 Harley upgrades its Big Twin motor, stroking it out to 96 cubic inches
and earning the moniker “Twin Cam 96.” The six-speed transmission from the
Dyna line is added across the board.
2008 The Motor Company opens its impressive new museum in time for Harley’s
Purchases MV Agusta for $109 million in an attempt to take advantage of MV’s
European distribution channels. Introduces the XR1200, inspired by the XR750
flat track machine used to win countless championships. The XR1200
represents the first time H-D designed and marketed a motorcycle exclusively for
the European market. Later, after demand from this side of the pond, the
XR1200 is then sold worldwide.
2009 Keith Wandell becomes the first person since 1981 to become CEO of
Harley-Davidson who hadn't had any previous connections to The Motor
Due to the economic recession, Harley-Davidson discontinues the Buell line and
puts up MV Agusta for sale to focus on core business. This after The Motor
Company declared profits dropped 84-percent since the previous year.
Announces plan to enter the rapidly expanding Indian market.
2010 In a throwback to the 883 series, AMA Pro Racing, along with title
sponsor Vance & Hines, debuts the inaugural XR1200 series. Modifications are
limited and place emphasis on rider talent. Danny Eslick wins the championship
in its first year.