Harley Davidson is a worldwide renowned business and they were one of the very first bike manufactures. On their journey to achieve this, they encountered so many problems on the road to building their iconic brand.
Harley Davidson was founded in 1903 by Arthur Davidson and his friend Bill Harley. They made the first engine in their shed from parts that Harley had stolen from a factory that he had worked in. However, when they assembled the engine it only ran for a minute because the parts didn’t fit perfectly, and the chain would break. Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson, then suggested they should use a belt drive instead. They got the engine working and put it into a bicycle frame. Walter saw a future in this project and invested everything he had into it, which enabled them to afford better parts for the bike.
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This is first bike that was made by Harley Davidson, the model no.1.
The first model was single speed, 405cc, with a top speed of 40mph. It also had pedal power which was often required when the engine could not give out enough power; a problem with a lot of the bikes at that time.
The first race that they did was organised by George M. Hendee, the founder of Indian Motorcycles. George put out a challenge that if anyone beat his lap time, he would take them on to be his partner. In the line-up for the race he realised that the Harley Davidson was the superior bike with its three-horsepower engine and would win. At the last minute Hendee claimed the bike was too heavy to compete in the race. However just before they were about to start the race, Walter Davidson managed to sneak on to the track, and he won. Hendee didn’t keep his word but it was good publicity for Harley Davidson. CH Lang who had been at the race sponsored them for $1000 which would translate to about $29,156 in today’s money. They used the money to open their first factory and start mass production.
In the early 1900’s racing was really important for bike manufacturers to promote their brand. There were about 100 important tracks called Motordromes throughout America. However, racing was extremely dangerous with 60-degree incline on the tracks. The bikes didn’t have any brakes or throttle, so when kick-started, they would go flat out up to about 90 miles per hour. This was very fast in those days. Since the bikes would constantly go as fast as they could, and the bends were at 60-degree incline this caused a lot of deaths including Eddie Hasha, a friend of Harley and the Davidson’s. As a result, they stopped entering in any future races. This obviously didn’t help sales, because that’s how manufacturers would advertise their bikes.
In order to promote sales, Walter wanted to start doing flat track racing because he thought that they would blow Indian out of the water in this sector. However, Arthur wanted to work in the service industry with the Police and Fire department. They ended up doing the Savana Dirt Bike Race because they were at a retirement party for George M. Hendee. At the party they introduced the new president of Indian Motorcycles, Randel James. Randel called Harley Davidson out for not entering in any races. Walter lied and said that they had just made a new bike for the Savana Dirt Bike Race and offered a bet of $1000 which Randel accepted through gritted teeth. They didn’t have a bike, but Bill Harley managed to construct one in time for the race.
When Harley Davidson won the race Randel didn’t pay out, and Harley didn’t chase him up for the money. After that race, Harley Davidson decided that they would take up racing again and as such assembled a racing team. In the first race with the new team, there was a bit of conflict between the racers. It ended up being an aggressive race amongst the teammates and left the other racers behind.
1914. The war was here; all fuel was restricted. No fuel, no sales. Harley Davidson had to do something quickly or the company would go under. In order to keep the money coming in they made rugged army bikes. The only problem was that they were competing with Indian Motorcycles. Harley Davidson offered a free bike maintenance training to all military personnel that would be using the bikes. This way they would not have to wait for maintenance teams to come and fix the bikes for them, like the French and the British. This was also the birth of the Hells Angels as after the war ended ex-army personnel purchased bikes for themselves, they also knew the bike inside and out because they had been trained on how to repair them.
After the war Indian Motorcycles were falling behind Harley. They wanted to see what made the engines better than theirs. Randel bought every Harley Davidson model and got a team of people to reverse engineer all the bikes. They found that the clutches that they used hadn’t been patented. This was the same for every single Harley Davidson model. Indian got a patent for the clutch and sued Harley Davidson $300,000 ($4,567,872 in today’s money) for using ‘their’ clutch. They also feared that they would be sued again because Harley thought that he had made other parts over the years that hadn’t been patented. This would result in bankruptcy. Bill Harley wanted to leave the company because it was his job to get a patent for the clutch. However, Arthur and Walter wanted to maintain the original team and find another way.
Harley Davidson were forced to start again-back to the shed, but they didn’t care about money. This didn’t matter too much for them. They were just passionate about making bikes, the rest is history and the brand today is testament to the hard work, perseverance and innovation of Harley and the Davidsons!