In order to become the biggest and most popular motorcycling manufacturer in the USA you have to have decades of experience, success, and innovation. That exactly describes the motorcycle company Harley Davidson. Ever since starting in 1903, Harley Davidson has grown rapidly and has been able to stay on top of the American motorcycle scene with its loyal following that continues to this day. Despite over a century of success, Harley has started faltering with the rise of imports from Japan and Europe, an aging demographic, and the great recession.
In 1901, William Harley had plans for a small engine that’s purpose was made to be attached to a bicycle frame for a new product called the motor bicycle. He worked with his friend Arthur Davidson and his brother Walter Davidson and finished it in 1903. While more of a prototype than anything it was a good base to quickly refine on. Limited sales continued until a factory was built in 1906 and Harley Davidson became incorporated in 1907. Many liked Harley’s for its reliable and powerful V-twin engine that beat every other engine on the market. From there production would only increase to where they built over 16,000 machines in 1914. And with USA’s inclement in WWI contracts for Harley Davidson motorcycles came in from Uncle Sam and Harley Davidson was more than happy to oblige, selling over 20,000 motorcycles for the war effort.
The Golden Era & Great Depression (1920-1965)
By 1920, Harley Davidson produced the most motorcycles out of any company in the world with almost 30,000 machines produced for sale in 67 countries. Everything was going well until the Great Depression devastated the US economy. While sales were cut by almost 75% Harley managed to survive by manufacturing power plants and simple motorcycle designs. In 1936, the legendary Knucklehead engine was introduced with overhead valves and a dry sump oil systems, both revolutions at the time. Harley Davidson and Indian were the only two motorcycle companies to survive the Great Depression. With the rise of WWII orders from the government came rolling in again and Harley Davidson ended up producing around 30,000 motorcycles. Once they started producing more civilian motorcycles they started growing again with young adults coming home from war wanting to purchase something that offered fun and freedom. And that’s exactly what the Harley Davidson motorcycle resembled. In fact, in 1953 Indian motorcycles closed its doors giving Harley a monopoly on domestic produced motorcycles. And Harley Davidson even took its company public in 1965.
Once Japan’s and Great Britain’s economies got back on track after WWII, they started challenging the all-American brand for motorcycling supremacy. Harley was able to push through until the mid 1960s where it saw lower profits and decided to merge with American Machine and Foundry (AMF) in 1969. Once the gas crisis hit in the early 1970s, people started to buy these expensive toys less and instead had their attention drawn by the small and economical cars from Japan and Germany. In fact, in 1981 things were going so badly that Harley executives bought the company back from AMF.
Harley today continues to struggle with attracting young drivers as young people are more drawn to Japanese and European sport bikes rather than the ancient and rattly Harley Davidson cruisers. Just surviving the great recession and with a growing demographic Harley has started introducing more cafe racer style bikes. Along with this they have just released an all electric bike called the Livewire. Only time will tell if the motorcycle manufacture can capture that freedom that caused so many to buy them before, or if motorcycles are a dying machine in the age of growing safety and more technological based vehicles.