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The History of Harley-Davidson

May 28, 2021 ·

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Few motorcycle brands command the same name recognition as Harley-Davidson. The iconic American company established in the early 1900s has developed a huge following and remains one of the world’s largest manufacturers in the industry.

Childhood friends William Harley and Arthur Davidson are the ones to credit for the creation of the brand. Both had an early fascination with bicycles and worked on prototypes for motorcycles in their spare time.

This led to the creation of their first motorcycle in 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and resulted in an upward trajectory that got them through a range of changes and struggles through the years.

In 1983, Motorcycle Mechanics Institute (MMI) and Harley-Davidson developed a relationship that led to the creation of several specialized elective programs available to students interested in working with the brand.

Keep reading to learn more about this relationship as well as more on the history of Harley-Davidson.

Harley-Davidson Early Days

Harley-Davidson founders William Harley and Arthur Davidson worked together on the prototype for their company’s first motorcycle in a 10-by-15-foot shed. It was completed in 1903, but they immediately began working on a newer and more modern bike.

A new prototype featuring a bigger engine was completed in 1904. This model participated in motorcycle racing at State Fair Park in Milwaukee. The first production bike, the Harley-Davidson Model No. 1®, was released in 1905 and was very similar to the first two bikes produced.

The company was producing complete bikes on a limited basis, however. The first Harley-Davidson dealer was Carl H. Lang of Chicago, who sold three of the five bikes that had been built in the backyard shed.

The first Harley-Davidson factory was built in 1906 on Chestnut Street in Milwaukee, where the company produced 50 bikes that year. The company was officially incorporated in 1907. By this time, Arthur’s two brothers, Walter and William Davidson, had joined the initiative.

In 1917, about 50% of Harley’s sales went to the U.S. armed forces for use in World War I. The first service school was operated in Milwaukee to train Army mechanics.

Harley-Davidson completed its facility on Juneau Avenue in 1920. It was seven stories high — and still exists today for use as the corporate office center.

From 1941 to 1945, Harley-Davidson was informing dealers that, due to commitments with the Army, dealers were guaranteed one new bike per model year for the duration of World War II. An estimated 88,000 motorcycles were built for the military at this time, along with a huge supply of repair parts.

Production increased through the years with the brand thriving through a range of historical events. To this day, Harley-Davidson remains an iconic American motorcycle brand.

Models by Decade

While it would take awhile to list all the different Harley-Davidson® models by year, breaking it down by decades helps highlight some of the milestones the brand has had.

Following up the first production bike in 1905, the company introduced its first V-twin powered motorcycle in 1909. This led to a jump in production and more innovations as the decades went on.

1910s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1911 7D®: The first successful V-twin produced by Harley-Davidson, the 7D® helped champion an engine configuration that has been used consistently in years since.

1914 10-F®: This V-twin was the first bike to feature two speeds, which was an advancement for the brand. It also featured a “step-starter” similar to the modern-day kick-starter.

1920s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1925 JD®: The introduction of this model helped the company make an impact in the industry as far as styling, with the fuel tank sporting a rounded, teardrop shape.

1929 D-Series®: To compete with the Scout being produced by Indian Motorcycle, Harley-Davidson released the D-Series®, which introduced the side-valve, 45ci, V-twin engine known as the “45” or flathead.

1930s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1932 R-Series®: To replace the D-Series®, the R-Series® was introduced with new styling that helped shape Harley-Davidson as a staple of Americana. It also helped the company through the Great Depression.

1937 UL®: As the company made a comeback from the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson released the UL®, which was a Sport Solo® model featuring a recirculating oil system and four-speed transmission.

1940s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1942 WLA®: The WLA® was produced for the Army during World War II. It had a V-twin engine and was fitted with special features and equipment for the war.

1948 FL®: There were several changes introduced to Harley-Davidson designs with the 1948 FL, which featured a new “Panhead” V-twin engine.

1950s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1952 K-Model®: The K-Model® was designed with the image of a race bike in mind, and Harley-Davidson wanted something lighter than some of its previous models.

1957 Sportster® XL: The Sportster® was introduced with the hopes of getting bikes to customers across the country. The model was produced to be economical and easy to maneuver.

1960s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1961 Super 10®: The Super 10® was touted as a smaller, entry-level motorcycle. The vehicle featured a two-stroke, air-cooled engine.

1965 FL Electra Glide®: This model featured the last of the Panhead engines. It was also the first Harley-Davidson with an electric start. Due to this combination, it has become a popular collector’s bike.

1970s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1971 Factory Experimental FX Super Glide®: This model was marketed as the first custom in the chopper movement from Harley-Davidson. It was part of a midrange line that offered the handling of a Sportster® with the power of a big-twin engine.

1977 FXS Low Rider®: A variation of the FX Super Glide®, the Low Rider® motorcycle was introduced and featured extended forks. It was an instant hit and outsold other models during its first production year.

1980s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1980 FXB Sturgis®: Harley-Davidson released this model to honor the historic Sturgis motorcycle rally held annually in South Dakota. It featured classic black paint with red trim and was a limited-edition model, with only about 1,500 made.

1984 FX/FL Softail®: A revelation came in the ’80s with the introduction of the Softail® platform, which was designed to look like Harley-Davidsons from the ’40s and ’50s. The suspension featured hidden shocks.

1990s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

1990 FLSTF Fat Boy®: The Fat Boy® was a cruiser motorcycle designed for Daytona Bike Week in 1988 and 1989. The production model went on the market in 1990.

Harley-Davidson Fat Boy®

1992 FXDB Daytona®: A tribute was made to Daytona Beach with the production of the FXDB Daytona® motorcycle. It featured chrome trim and a pearl paint job. Only 1,700 were built.

2000s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

2002 FXDWG3®: This model featured a factory-custom look that was designed for those who wanted something a bit different. It featured custom mirror stalks and grips, as well as paint accented with flames.

2007 FXDB Dyna Street Bob®: The design of the Street Bob® was inspired by minimalist styling. It ditched a passenger seat and pegs for a more streamlined look and appealed to the solo rider.

2010s Harley-Davidson® Motorcycles

2014 XG Street®: This sporty displacement bike was introduced to capture a younger market. It mimicked the K-Model® in that it was marketed as an inexpensive and fun option.

2019 Livewire™: The Livewire™ was the first electric vehicle designed by Harley-Davidson, featuring a battery that provides 146 miles of city range.

These are just a handful of Harley-Davidson® models produced over its long history. Students have the opportunity to work on both late- and early-model bikes when they enroll in manufacturer-specific electives at MMI.

Harley-Davidson Electives at MMI

The relationship between Harley-Davidson and MMI was established in 1983 and led to the development of several elective options for students wanting to gain specialized experience with the brand.

A student works on a Harley-Davidson® motorcycle engine in an MMI lab.

Once students complete the core Motorcycle Technician Training program, they are able to continue their training in the Harley-Davidson Late Model elective, which is 24 weeks long. Courses include:

  • H-D Tech 1: Introduction to Vehicle Service: Topics covered include dealer management systems, hands-on servicing of steering head assemblies and suspensions, and the option to complete pre-assessments needed for the Harley-Davidson PHD program.
  • H-D Tech 2: Introduction to Powertrain: Harley-Davidson engine history, transmissions and fuel-injection systems are covered during this course.
  • H-D Vehicle Maintenance: Students are tested on their service literature skills as they work on motorcycles and learn about brake services, rear-wheel services and more.
  • H-D Electrical Diagnostics: Systems covered include charging, starting and engine management.
  • H-D Chassis Service: Service procedures for suspension and chassis components are covered, as well as information on brake systems, including anti-lock braking (ABS) systems.
  • H-D Powertrain Service: The focus on powertrains has students performing in-depth services and repairs on all parts, including the engine and wheel assemblies.
  • H-D Dealer Service Operations 1: This is a capstone course focused on service procedures that students learned throughout the Late Model program, with tasks aligned with the Vehicle and Chassis Service (VCS) course.
  • H-D Dealer Service Operations 2: This second capstone course has a focus on electrical diagnostic procedures learned in the Late Model program.

After graduating from Late Model training, students can expand their knowledge further by enrolling in the Screamin’ Eagle® performance training, which is three weeks long. This elective is split up into two focuses, which are:

  • Powertrain Performance: Students become familiar with the Screamin’ Eagle® line of performance options from the brand.
  • Dynamometer Operations: Students learn how to use the Dynojet® dynamometer to diagnose drivability issues.

Finally, the Harley-Davidson Early Model elective is also available to graduates of Late Model training. Over the course of six weeks, the Early Model elective helps students expand their knowledge on Harley-Davidson® bikes dating to 1936. It’s split into two sections:

  • H-D Early Model 1: The first half of the elective covers big-twin engines, side-valve and iron XL engines, and transmissions and clutches.
  • H-D Early Model 2: The second half covers carburetion, early chassis maintenance and early electrical systems. A final review is also conducted.

Program Benefits

The Harley-Davidson specialized training program is offered at two MMI campuses. The elective options offer a number of benefits for those who choose to enroll, including:

  • Harley-Davidson PHD assessments: Students have the opportunity to choose to learn the PHD assessment process, which is important for the Technician Recognition program. PHD course credits can be earned for VCS as well as electrical diagnostics.
  • Options: The Late Model elective is available for those who have completed the core Motorcycle Technician program, and Screamin’ Eagle® and Early Model electives are available for those who have completed the Late Model elective.
  • Current technology: Courses and topics covered in the Harley-Davidson electives are aligned with Harley-Davidson University™.
  • Credentials: Graduates receive 12 months of work experience they can apply toward Harley-Davidson’s field recognition program, and they are also qualified for employment in dealerships.

Get Advanced Harley-Davidson Training

If you have a passion for Harley-Davidson® motorcycles with a desire to work as a motorcycle technician, there’s no better way to get prepared than with specialized training at MMI. Earn credentials and feel confident after graduation knowing you’re prepared for an entry-level career at a Harley-Davidson® dealership.1

Learn more about the program by requesting information here or by calling 1-800-834-7308.

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1) MMI is an educational institution and cannot guarantee employment or salary.

2) For program outcome information and other disclosures, visit

Universal Technical Institute of Illinois, Inc. is approved by the Division of Private Business and Vocational Schools of the Illinois Board of Higher Education.


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