Harley Davidson officially began in 1903 when it manufactured its first motorcycle. Two years prior in 1901 William S. Harley drew up plans for a small engine that had 4-inch flywheels. He was twenty one years old when he designed this engine to be used on a regular bike frame.
William Harley had a boyhood friend named Arthur Davidson, and the two of them, along with Arthur’s brother Walter borrowed the machine shop of their friend Henry Melk to produce a prototype of an engine-powered bike. However, the engine was not quite powerful enough to successfully propel the motored-bike up Milwaukee’s small hills without the rider resorting to using the pedals.
Another Davidson brother named William helped them to complete the first “real” Harley Davidson Motorcycle. A larger engine of 24.74 cubic inches was paired with 9-3/4 inch flywheels that weighed 28 pounds. The new bike made its first appearance in a Milwaukee motorcycle race in September 1904.
Harley Davidson manufactured three motorcycles in 1903, and then three more in 1904. In 1905, their production rose to 8 motorcycles, and Walt Davidson was able to quit his job with the railroad. He became the company’s first full-time employee. His aunt, Janice Davidson, contributed her artistic gifts to letter and pinstripe the motorcycles, which were painted black and had gold trim.
In the year 1906, the first Harley Davidson Motor Company factory was built on Chestnut Street. It measured only 40 by 60 feet, and was a single story wooden building. Chestnut Street was later renamed Juneau Avenue, and though the original factory was replaced, the Motor Company’s corporate headquarters remains on this location. Harley Davidson built a total of 50 motorcycles in 1906.
The following year, 1907 brought about a lot of change for the young company. William S. Harley graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison with a degree in mechanical engineering. The partners enlarged the factory the company was officially incorporated. Production increased to 150 motorcycles in 1907.
Another huge change that occurred that year was the completion of a prototype of a 45-degree V-Twin engine. It displaced 53.68 cubic inches and had approximately 7 horsepower, just about doubling the hill-climbing power of the first singles. Harley Davidson continued to increase production, with 450 motorcycles in 1908 followed by 1,149 in 1909.
They enjoyed more success in the following years. Their original factory structure was torn down and replaced by a larger five story building made of reinforced concrete and red brick. It eventually took up two blocks along Juneau Avenue and around the corner on 38th Street. During this time, motorcycles produced by Harley Davidson began to take over the motorcycle racing arena and their production increased to 16,284 bikes in 1914.
The First World War brought about a demand for motorcycles in the military. The Harley Davidson company provided over 20,000 motorcycles to military forces during World War I. Improvements and expanded production continued when the war was over. The Harley Davidson Motor Company was in fact one of only two American motorcycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression. Harley Davidson continued to produce motorcycles for the military throughout World War II and the Korean War. The Jeep then replaced it in popularity. However, the Harley Davidson Motor Company is still going strong today. Look for it on the Stock Exchange, trading under the symbol HOG.