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Harley Davidson - The American Legend

Updated on April 29, 2011
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The first thought of motorcycles as a means of transportation began in the year 1900. The pioneers' of this field were William S. Harley and his lifelong friend Arthur Davidson. They were both born and raised in Milwaukee, WI. It took them almost three years to build their first production ready motorcycle which was a single cylinder, 10 cubic inch engine. It was bolted directly to a bicycle chassis driven by a pulley system with a leather belt. We are going to look at the development, racing, and the people who made the Harley Davidson an American Legend.

In 1907 they were experimenting with a two-cylinder model, which was essentially the same engine they started with. The only difference was that they had bolted one more cylinder at a 45 degree angle to the first. There were only two configurations possible. The side-by side twin would have been too wide and bulky. The v-configuration was the necessary choice. According to Harry Sucher, author of "Harley Davidson; The Milwaukee marvel", engine power would nearly double while adding far less than double the weight.

Bill Harley engineered the engine. He figured that he would need to make the cylinders reach the top of their stroke near simultaneous to take advantage of low range torque, and make the engine more dependable according to Rand Leffingwell, "Harley-Davidson; History & Mystique." This created two lasting effects: The vibration and the exhaust sound for which Harley-Davidsons because famous.

After the first 15 years, Harley-Davidson had established themselves as a fore-runner in the motorcycle market. The other prominent companies were Indian, Thor, and Excelsior. At the beginning of WWI, they were overwhelmed with orders from governments around the globe for bikes for the war effort. This allowed Harley-Davidson to almost triple the size of their manufacturing plant, which is still located in the same place in Milwaukee. These orders brought greater economic prosperity to all the motorcycle companies of the time but especially Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson became very involved with racing between 1915 and 1925. They have continued to stay involved in racing ever since, but with much less success since they had to start competing with Japanese companies. The Harley-Davidson always placed in the top five at every event, and sometimes all five seats were taken by Harley-Davidsons. These early races were very well organized but usually very dangerous. This scared a majority of the public but the young were entranced by it and sought for sponsorship from major companies such as Harley-Davidson.

With the coming of World War Two the demand for Military bikes was running high. The United States and Allied forces were providing worldwide promotion for the company. The factory put the total number of bikes produced at ninety-thousand during the conflict. As a result Milwaukee came to be known as the Motorcycle Capital of the World according to Todd Rafferty, Harley Davidson; The Ultimate Machine.

During the Late forties and early fifties production for the company fell way back. The United States government was helping European companies by lowering import tariffs to Eight percent while Harley-Davidson had a forty percent tariff on all imported items to Europe. European companies that brought major competition to the United States were Triumph and Norton who were producing mid-size bikes. At the time Harley-Davidson was only producing large displacement motorcycles such as the 1200cc and the 1340cc models.

In 1953 Harley-Davidson produced their first mid-size which was a 750cc which was named the KR 750 whose main purpose was to compete in dirt-oval racing. The bike dominated the dirt-oval circuit from it's introduction and on for the next seventeen years. The KR750 was phased out in the early seventies and the XR750 was put into production. The XR750 has dominated dirt track racing all the way up to the present date.

During the sixties came the Rebel riders. Society as a whole looked on them as a mean, rough and untame group according to Jack Rosenblum a historian for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. These groups of men turned their bikes into "choppers". The bikes had high handlebars, raked front suspension forks, and flashy paint schemes such as flames. The most notable group was called the "Hells Angels" in California. They were known for their dealings in drugs, extortion and murders. These types of groups put a black-eye on the American motorcycle industry for the next decade to come.

In the mid eighties Harley-Davidson Motor company was taking a nose-dive. This was due to a stagnation of new ideas, no new products and a definite need to restyle their bikes. In the late eighties Willie G. Davidson became the engineering and design guru for the company. He redesigned the engine into what is now called the evolution motor.

The new engine was smoother, more powerful, and did not leak fluids which were all major improvements. It became part of a new era for Harley-Davidson and brought a renewed sense of enthusiasm from people all over the world.

Willie G. also redesigned the framework of the bikes as well as the over-all styling. He added more chrome, sleeker lines, and a much extended list of aftermarket racing accessories. Sales were also boosted in racing accessories due to the fact that Harleys' were becoming a more dominant force in racing again.

In the 1990s

Harley-Davidson Motor Company set out for a new look. They were still held to the stereotype that the "Hells Angels" had created for them. To change this they first went to their dealerships to create a new sales atmosphere. The shops were changed from dimly lit , dirty, and greasy salesman to well-lit, cleanly, and with professional sober salesman.

The company was now marketing more towards the blue-collar workers and sought for new entry-level affordable bikes to go with the rest of their line. This new marketing technique has seemed to work extremely well because in the decade that it has been in place they have tripled sales. Harley-Davidson again has gained the reputation for building quality, reliable, and performance tested motorcycles.

Harley-Davidson Motor Company has created a major following for itself. They promote rallies worldwide mainly by use of area H.O.G.(Harley Owners Group) Chapters. Some rallies gather together a couple of hundred riders while others bring together upwards of five-hundred-thousand riders. These enormous rallies are held in three places; Daytona, Fl. , Sturgis, SD., and Milwaukee, WI. These rallies are held once a year and attendance increases annually. The following for Harley-Davidson has vastly increased and will be continuing in and upward pattern for years to come. The American Legend continues.


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