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Harley-Davidson is perhaps the world’s most recognizable motorcycle manufacturer. Throughout their 115 years of operation, they’ve contributed greatly to American history and culture.
Here are ten cool factoids about H-D that you may not have been aware of.
Many businesses start small, but most didn’t start in a 10‘ x 15’ shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, back in 1903.
The door to that shed read “Harley-Davidson Motor Co.,” and that’s where William Harley and Arthur Davidson constructed their first motorcycle. It wasn’t much more than a bicycle with a small, gas-powered motor, but a former classmate of theirs bought one.
A year later, C.H. Lang sold one of the first H-D motorcycles ever made, making him the brand’s first dealer. Three years later they built a new factory, this one 20’ x 80’, on Chestnut St. (now Juneau Avenue).
The original shed in Milwaukee was torn down by accident in 1972, though there are replicas that still exist.
Since the first prototype had the dimensions of a bicycle, Harley-Davidson’s founder thought that it wouldn’t be too far a stretch to manufacture and sell bicycles.
The company began constructing bicycles in 1916 using components made by the David Sewing Machine Co. in Dayton, Ohio. But even though their bikes were considered stylish, the high prices mixed with a saturated marketplace forced them to shut down the program just five years after it began.
There was bright side, though. H-D learned a lot about marketing. They targeted adolescent boys and painted the bikes olive drab in support of the troops; acquainting young children with the brand would benefit the company down the line.
Many motorcycle manufacturers were already active in the U.S. by the time Harley-Davidson was up and running.
The market leader, Indian, had been producing motorcycles for five years. And in 1910, it’s estimated that Indian produced double the 3,000 motorcycles that H-D produced that year.
Then H-D had an idea. They had lifted a policy against racing competitions between factories after they noticed how well that strategy was working for Indian’s sales. That’s when they formed an internal race department, and in 1914 their team was given the name “The Wrecking Crew.
Their success showed to the world the quality and spirit behind Harley-Davidson’s machines, and as a result, H-D vaulted into the lead as the world’s biggest motorcycle maker. Soon after, over 2,000 dealers across 67 countries sold their motorcycles.
World War I saw the introduction of motorcycles in the field for several countries. Once the U.S. joined the war in 1917, the military ordered more than 15,000 motorcycles and over half of them were produced by H-D. That relationship with the military helped improve Harley-Davidson’s reputation and recognition both domestically and abroad.
Because motorcycles in WWI were on the front lines, they were outfitted with machine guns mounted on their sidecars. They were also used as ambulances where sidecars were used as stretchers to carry one or two wounded soldiers.
In World War II, H-D suspended the production of civilian bikes as part of the war effort. The U.S. Army also needed a more advanced motorcycle to stand up to the German BMW R71.
H-D produced the XA (Experiment Army) model, a shaft-driven bike with a direct four-speed shift and left-handed throttle for firing a gun while riding. It also had two gas tanks and a sealed beam headlight, which were all new features.
The most prominent model manufactured for the war was the WLA, which shared a lot in common with civilian models. H-D produced around 60,000 to contribute to the war effort.
Due to the company’s prominent role in military aid, they were granted four Army-Navy ‘E’ Awards.
While it’s reasonable to assume that calling a motorcycle a “hog” originates from the snort-like roar of their engines, it actually dates back to Harley-Davidson’s Wrecking Crew.
Racing champion Ray Weishaar would carry around the Wrecking Crew’s mascot during his victory laps. And that mascot was a pig.
Although Harley-Davidson was unsuccessful in trademarking the term for their bikes, they were able to change their New York Stock Exchange abbreviation to HOG in 2006.
Evel Knievel retired in 1980, but the daredevil is still a household name.
In 1971, Knievel set the record by jumping 19 cars with his Harley-Davidson XR-750. He also set the record for longest jump (133 feet over 14 Greyhound buses) in 1975 on his XR-750.
Record were meant to be broken, and Knievel’s were. But the new record-holders also rode XR-750s.
Knievel’s historic bike, which was custom made with steel, aluminum, and fiberglass, is on display at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.
Harley-Davidson produced a scooter called The Topper from 1960 to 1965.
The use of Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the movies has no doubt influenced the outlaw image that’s often associated with the brand.
It’s believed that the first appearance of an H-D bike in a movie was in the 1953 film “The Wild One,” starring Marlon Brando. His nemesis in that film, played by Lee Marvin, rode a Harley-Davidson Hydra Glide.
H-D motorcycles also appeared in the 1969 road classic “Easy Rider,” and “Terminator 2: Judgment Day.”
In the early 1930s, Harley-Davidson struck a licensing deal with the Rikuo Internal Combustion Company in Japan (eventually shortened to Rikuo). Rikuo made around 18,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles between the years 1937 and 1942 for the Japanese police and military.
Today, there are Harley-Davidson factories in Brazil, India, Australia, and Thailand.
Anyone interested in learning more about H-D’s exciting history can take a trip to the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, for more great factoids and a chance to see the many different motorcycle models that have been created throughout the company’s rich history.
If you’re interested in preparing for a career as a motorcycle technician, you can find out more about our Harley-Davidson specialized training at Motorcycle Mechanics Institute.
Click here to learn all about carburetors and what they mean for your career as a technician.
Buddy Stubbs Harley-Davidson recently teamed up with Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (MMI) students to compete in Harley-Davidson’s Battle of the Kings.
John Maxwell graduated from Motorcycle Mechanics Institute in Orlando, Florida, but he's better known as, "The Harley Tech" on YouTube. This is his story.
It only takes a few minutes to learn about technician training opportunities.
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