Kings of the Road: The Beginnings of the Harley-Davidson Empire

They were simply two young boys fooling around with motors in their garage; William Harley and Arthur Davidson were childhood friends who loved fishing, but hated the amount of time it took to get to their favourite fishing spots. And so, they decided to create a motorized bicycle that would help them get to where they wanted to go faster. Their youthful experiments laid the foundation for what would later become one of the largest and last remaining mass producers of motorcycles in the U.S. Today, with over $1.5 billion in annual sales last year, Harley-Davidson remains an American icon and an example of entrepreneurship at its finest.

William S. Harley was born on December 29, 1880 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. When he was 15 years old, he went to work in a bicycle factory, learning as much as he could about bicycles and motorized bikes. The only one of the founders to have a college degree, Harley went to work as a draftsman after graduating from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in mechanical engineering. However, after finding it hard to leave behind his hands-on learning, he became increasingly interested in experimenting with bikes, specifically how to rig them with gasoline engines.

Arthur Davidson was born in 1881 and was the youngest of the three Davidson brothers, Walter and William. Davidson had been close friends with Harley since they were little boys. Now, at ages 20 and 21 respectively, Davidson and Harley began spending a lot of time together trying to figure out how to build their ultimate dream – a single cylinder motorcycle. Over the next two years, the pair of friends devoted themselves to drawing up plans for a small engine that could be placed in the frame of a regular bicycle. They had created all the parts they thought were necessary but still couldn’t figure out how to assemble them.

Finally, after two years of hard work, Davidson decided to bring in the help of his older brother, Walter. At the time, Walter was working a railroad job in the southwest. In 1903, the three young friends had built their first prototype. Walter was so inspired by the possibilities of what they had done that he immediately quit his job and found work as a machinist in Milwaukee, closer to the family so that he could continue assembling bikes.

The first bike the trio created had worked, but not well enough for the hills of Milwaukee. They wrote it off as a learning experience and soon after, began working on a second machine. Oldest Davidson brother William was also brought in to help this time around. Like his brother, Walter, William was also working at a well-paying job with the Milwaukee Road railroad company. It wasn’t long before William had also quit this job.

The second bike that these four friends created is now considered the first ‘real’ Harley-Davidson motorcycle. With a larger engine and a loop-frame, the machine was up and running by September 1904. After a strong performance at a local motorcycle race, the boys were convinced there was a future for their bikes. They built an 8 x 10 shed in the backyard of the Davidson house and hung a sign that read, “HARLEY DAVIDSON MOTOR CO.”, which one of their sister’s had painted. That year, they produced and sold three more motorbikes. They were on top of the world and would only keep going up from there.

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