This article highlights that the world is now celebrating the centennial of three internal combustion engine-driven milestones. Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved controllable and powered flight at Kitty Hawk, with a barely adequate 16-horsepower gas engine they had made in their bicycle shop. Henry Ford in Detroit founded his motor company that rapidly made the horse obsolete and revolutionized our way of life. And in Milwaukee, the 22-year-old William Harley and 21-year-old Arthur Davidson sold their first motorcycle to schoolyard pal Henry Meyer. There is a unique uneven rhythm to a Harley-Davidson engine. In 1994, the company filed a widely publicized application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to register the sound as a trademark. Management decided to withdraw the application in 2000. The motorcycle is fuel-efficient, easy to park, and can maneuver through congestion. It can enhance the quality of life by providing the rider with a unique form of relaxation and enjoyment.
The 1890s were the decade of improved machining. Low-friction ball bearings led to a practical bicycle, for instance. It was also the decade in which the internal combustion engine that had been invented 20 years earlier by Nikolaus Otto would demonstrate its usefulness.
The world is now celebrating the centennial of three internal combustion engine-driven milestones. Wilbur and Orville Wright achieved controllable and powered flight at Kitty Hawk, with a barely adequate 16-horsepower gas engine they had made in their bicycle shop. Henry Ford in Detroit founded his motor company that rapidly made the horse obsolete and revolutionized our way of life. And in Milwaukee, the 22-year-old William Harley and 21-year-old Arthur Davidson sold their first motorcycle to schoolyard pal Henry Meyer.
While the two-wheel motorized vehicle did not have as much cultural influence as the automobile and the airplane, it remains an important form of transportation, and more: It’s also an icon.
The motorcycle is displayed along with the eagle and flag as symbols of freedom and independence. It is even widely recognized as a work of art.
Frank Wicks is a professor o f mechanical engineering at Union College in Schenectady, N.Y., a frequent contributor to Mechanical Engineering, and a Harley-Davidson rider.
The bicycle is the seminal platform for the motorcycle. Understanding the subtleties of how a two-wheeled vehicle remains upright has challenged scientists and engineers ever since Baron Von Drais caused a sensation in 1817 with a steerable two-wheeled wooden walking machine that would be called a hobby horse. It had a seat and was propelled by walking.
The first metal bicycle would be the treacherous high wheel. The rider directly pedaled a large-diameter front wheel. The effect of the high center of gravity gave us the phrase “taking a header.”
Chain and Sprocket
The introduction of a chain and sprocket allowed a lower seat and a smaller wheel, and led to the safety bicycle. Improved ball bearings, lightweight construction, and pneumatic tires provided additional ease and comfort.
Nikolaus Otto is credited with inventing the four-stroke internal combustion engine in 1876. His assistant, Gottlieb Daimler, would build his own engine for the world’s first motorcycle in 1885. Further engine development requirements were electric spark ignition to replace the original flame tube, timing mechanisms and valves, a method to vaporize a liquid fuel with the right air-to-fuel ratio, cylinder cooling, and lubrication.
The Harley-Davidson was not the first American motorcycle. The bicycle racers George Hendee and Oscar Hedstrom started making the Indian Motorcycle in Springfield, Mass., in 1901. Until its demise in 1953, Indian would be a worthy rival to Harley-Davidson. The bicycle maker and racer Glenn Curtiss began making motorcycles in 1901. By 1907, he would travel 136 mph on a motorcycle with a 40-hp V8 engine.
Curtiss would be celebrated as the fastest man alive. With the help of his superior engines, he became a highly successful aviation pioneer and a bitter rival of Wilbur and Orville Wright. Curtiss stopped making motorcycles in 1913.
The Indian and Curtiss can be counted among more than 50 American companies that once made motorcycles with some success. Out of that league, only the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. has continued without interruption. It provides a poignant and inspiring case study about how generations of friends and family, and the extended family of dealers, customers, and admirers, have worked and played together in good times and bad times and remained passionately devoted to the product.
How It Started
Much of the inside story is described in Growing Up Harley-Davidson by Jean Davidson, the granddaughter of co-founder Walter Davidson and the daughter of company executive Gordon Davidson. She has known three generations of the motorcycle dynasty and managed a dealership.
The founders were first-generation Americans. William Harley, the father of William S. Harley, immigrated from Littleport, England, in 1859. He was soon serving in the Union Army. Bikers from around the world will converge on the English town this summer. They will be joined by Civil War re-enactors, who will wear the uniform of William Harley’s regiment.
His son, William S., born in 1880, started by making bicycles. He was a draftsman with a passion for engines. While starting the motorcycle company in Milwaukee, he was also traveling 80 miles to study engineering at the University of Wisconsin in Madison.
“Lindbergh would leave Engineering School to explore the Country on a Harley-Davidson before learning to fly”
Arthur Davidson was the youngest son of William C. Davidson, an immigrant Scottish carpenter. A childhood friend was the Norwegian-born Ole Evinrude, who was also studying engines. Evinrude and Davidson worked as pattern makers in a railroad shop, and made a pledge never to compete against each other. Ole Evinrude would help his friends with the carburetor and lubrication for their first motorcycle engines, and then achieve his own fame by building the first successful outboard motors and powered lawnmowers.
The Davidson basement was the original shop until the father built them a shed in the back yard. Arthur’s sister Janet was a talented artist who designed monograms for fine linens for her uncle’s store. She playfully painted “Harley-Davidson Motor Co.” on the shed door. She designed a logo that she painted in red on the gray gas tanks, and she pinstriped the fenders of their first motorcycles.
Arthur soon recruited one of his brothers, Walter, from his job as a railroad machinist in Kansas. Another brother, William Davidson, who was a railroad tool foreman, would join the company when it incorporated in 1907.
Money was needed. A door-to-door solicitation produced only limited results. An 80-year-old hermit uncle, James MacLay, who raised honey bees, donated his life’s savings. Elizabeth Davidson, who was three years younger than Arthur, did the accounting. In gratitude, the brothers would pay for her to go to college.
Electric motors were not yet available for small machine tools. A lathe with an erratic gas engine had to be used to machine the parts for a motorcycle. Some parts were machined in the railroad shops.
William Harley and Arthur Davidson defined the niche for their first single-cylinder motorcycles as an alternative to a horse for those who could not afford a car. The price was $200. After their first motorcycle was sold to their friend Henry Meyer, it would have a sequence of owners between 1903 and 1913. Later research estimated that this first Harley-Davidson traveled 100,000 miles—during an era when there were virtually no paved roads.
The ruggedness and efficiency of their motorcycle was demonstrated to the world in 1908. Walter Davidson entered an endurance competition sponsored by the Federation of American Motorcyclists. The two-day event was routed through the Catskill Mountains and ended in Brooklyn. He achieved a perfect score. The Harley-Davidson motorcycle also got 188 miles per gallon of gasoline, a world record for motorcycle efficiency.
The motorcycle was also a utility vehicle. It could be used for delivery and police patrol. Dealerships were established around the country. The first 45-degree V-twin engine was introduced in 1909. This remains the signature Harley-Davidson engine configuration. By 1914, the company was producing 1,600 motorcycles a year.
The motorcycle was being used for racing and various stunts. An Indian would race a cowboy, one on a horse and the other on a motorcycle. The horse would start faster, but the motorcycle would catch up and win. “Iron Horse” became a moniker for a motorcycle.
Going to War
In 1916, General “Blackjack” Pershing ordered a dozen Harley-Davidson cycles with machine guns mounted on sidecars. The mission was to drive the raiding parties of the Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa out of Texas. The next year, the United States entered World War I. The cavalry transitioned from horses to 20,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
The company published a magazine named The Enthusiast, which provided a forum for the founders and riders to share their experiences. A not-yet-famous son of a Congressman, Charles Lindbergh, would leave engineering school and explore the country on a Harley-Davidson before learning to fly.
Following World War I, the company’s annual production dropped to 11,000 units in 1921, after exceeding 20,000 a year from 1918 through 1920. Sales climbed back to 24,000 machines by 1929. The stock market crash and subsequent depression were devastating. Production dropped to 3,600 motorcycles in 1933.
Despite the depression, the company continued to develop and introduce classic motorcycles. By 1936, six of the sons of the founders were working for the company.
The second-generation William H. Davidson was named president and Gordon Davidson became vice president in 1942. World War II provided new military orders that peaked at 30,000 units in 1943.
The post-World War II years brought new opportunities and problems. The company continued to produce classic motorcycles, but it was competing with an influx of lower-priced European and then Japanese motorcycles. The competition had been partly subsidized by the United States’ Marshall Plan, which was designed to help war-ravaged countries rebuild. The famous Indian motorcycle company could not survive. It ended production in 1953.
Harley-Davidson, struggling to remain the only surviving American motorcycle manufacturer, was further damaged by image problems connected with its product. It started in 1947 with reports of disturbances during a Fourth of July celebration in Hollister, Calif. The cover of Life magazine showed the spectacle of a rider with a beer in each hand posing on a Harley-Davidson that was parked on a street of broken bottles.
Hollister would inspire the 1953 movie, “The Wild One,” with Marlon Brando as an outlaw rider. The 1969 classic, “Easy Rider,” had an American Civil Liberties Union lawyer played by Jack Nicholson joining the pot-smoking Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, who were riding their customized long-fork Harley-Davidson choppers on a cross-country odyssey to a tragic end.
The Harley-Davidson was also becoming famous as a symbol of popular culture and daring feats. Brigitte Bardot posed on one for her hit song, “Harley-Davidson.” Elvis Presley showed off a new model each year. Evel Knievel became a folk hero by jumping over 13 Mack trucks on a Harley-Davidson Sportster. He followed with a nationally televised attempt to leap across the Snake River Canyon, which ended with a parachute landing.
Honda entered the American market in the 1960s, and its ad, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” showed that motorcyclists could be mainstream and respectable. Former President Jimmy Carter rode an imported motorcycle while campaigning for state office in Georgia. His brother, Billy Carter, would amuse the nation by asserting he was the only normal member of the family: His elderly mother joined the Peace Corps, his brother was trying to be president, one sister was an evangelist, and the other sister rode a Harley-Davidson.
By 1965, the third-generation heirs wanted to divest. The company was soon acquired by American Machine and Foundry. Sales rose steadily from 13,000 motorcycles in 1965 to 47,000 in 1980, but development lagged.
In 1981, motorcycle designer Willie G. Davidson, grandson of William A. Davidson, was among the investors who purchased Harley-Davidson. It soon looked like a bad deal as sales plunged to 28,000 units in 1982. High-quality, low-cost imports were again threatening the company’s survival.
In April 1983, with Harley-Davidson rapidly skidding toward bankruptcy, Ronald Reagan would become the company’s improbable savior. Reagan, who had been elected president in 1980, had criticized the Carter administration for the loan guarantee that had saved the Chrysler Corp. from bankruptcy. Unlike Carter, President Reagan had never ridden a motorcycle. His personal preference was a horse.
Following the recommendation of the U.S. International Trade Commission, a temporary tariff was imposed on imported Japanese motorcycles with engines larger than 700 cc. The tariff initially increased the cost of Japanese imports by 40 percent and would gradually decrease to 10 percent over a five-year period.
In 1987, Harley-Davidson announced that it was profitable again and that protection was no longer needed. President Reagan made a highly publicized visit to the company and posed on a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
The recovery was presented as a great American success story. The company moved up to the New York Stock Exchange. It suddenly had profits, along with a recast image. This time, it was a popular president of the United States sitting on a Harley-Davidson.
Total production at the time of President Reagan’s 1987 visit was 36,000 motorcycles. Production for 2003 is expected to be 295,000 units.
The company now produces the engines and transmissions in Milwaukee. Final assembly and shipping are done in York, Pa., and at a new plant in Kansas City.
The 45-degree V-twin has been the company’s signature engine since 1909. It has had regular improvements in valve configuration and materials. Since the Knucklehead was introduced in 1935, each engine has been given a name that roughly describes the head appearance. These include the Panhead in 1948, the Flathead in 1952, the Ironhead for the 1957 Sportster, the Shovelhead in 1966, the Blockhead for the aluminum Evolution engine in 1984, and the Fathead for the twin-cam 1,450 cc engine in 1999.
In the ’90s, with the company’s rebound, foreign competitors tried to copy the look and sound of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
There is a unique uneven rhythm to a Harley-Davidson engine. In 1994, the company filed a widely publicized application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to register the sound as a trademark. Management decided to withdraw the application in 2000.
The sound is characteristic of Harley-Davidson’s V-twin engines with carburetors. It has been a challenge to preserve that sound in new, fuel-injected engines.
Traditional Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been designed for upright riding. It is the posture of a policeman mounted on a horse, although forward foot pegs can be added for comfort.
Erik Buell was a motorcycle racer and an apprentice Harley-Davidson engineer during the bleak period of the 1980s. He wanted to design a sport bike, where the rider is in a crouched position with his legs toward the back like a jockey on a racehorse. Buell left the company and designed a sport bike. It combined a unique frame and suspension with a Harley-Davidson Evolution engine. Harley-Davidson partnered by marketing the Buell through its dealerships and then by buying a major interest in the company, Buell Motorcycles.
In 2001, Harley-Davidson put its own name on a hybrid between a sport bike and a road cruiser. The radically new V-Rod was conceived to replace the traditional roar and shake with smooth power from a fuel-injected 115-hp Revolution engine, developed by Porsche, making it the first Harley-Davidson to be liquid cooled.
Jeffrey Bleustein, who is neither a Harley nor a Davidson descendant, is the chief executive officer. He has been appointed by President Bush to the Council on the 21st Century Workforce.
Willie G. Davidson, at the age of 70, remains the high-profile descendant of the founders. He is responsible for the styling of all products, and brings his own celebrity to the huge gatherings, such as Daytona Bike Week and the 60-year tradition of Sturgis in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
Much public policy is directed toward transportation options for the future. The motorcycle is not typically listed among them. Perhaps, it should be.
The motorcycle is fuel-efficient, easy to park, and can maneuver through congestion. It can enhance the quality of life by providing the rider with a unique form of relaxation and enjoyment.
The numbers of motorcycles in the United States remains small relative to cars, but this may change. As oil depletes and the price of gasoline increases, a modernized version of the first Harley-Davidson motorcycles that achieved 188 mpg may become a preferred vehicle in the future.