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The Harley Davidson Story: Two Men And A Dream

Nov 15, 2007
It was a decisive day in the history of American automobile culture in 1902, when two young friends left their stable jobs at a Milwaukee engineering firm to embark upon a venture that would irrevocably shape the course of motorcycle history forever.

This was the day when William S Harley and Arthur Davidson designed and built the first single-cylinder engine (400CC) right out of a toolshed in Davidson's backyard.

Although though the first motor was reliable, it was enlarged because it was underpowered. The initial frame was too weak to hold the new engine so it was replaced with a stronger, more substantial structure that was built similar to the prototype. In 1903 they produced two more bikes and three the following year. By 1907, Harley Davidson's growing reputation for their reliable product helped to push their annual production rate to over 150. The year was also 1907 when Harley Davidson decided it was time to raise money for expansion. They became a corporation and divided the shares among seventeen employees. They moved themselves out of the Davidson's shed and into a much bigger premise which is still their location - Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee.

The early models of Harley-Davidson motorbikes had no lights and no suspension. Within a few years after production began, Harley's soon had fitted leading link forks a magneto ignition and a carbide gas headlamp. The model 5 produced in 1909 had about 4bhp from its 494cc inlet over exhaust engine, with a speed of 45mph. Bicycle petals were used to start the engine. Once the bike was in motion the leather drive belt was tightened using a hand lever. (To have a more contemporary view of what harley davidson parts now look like, please visit our website).

The first V-twin Harley was built in 1909. It was the model 5D but was not an immediate success. The V-twin produced close to 7bhp, which was almost twice as much as the single engine but it was difficult to start and suffered from a slipping drive belt. Two years later, in 1911, they introduced the 45-degree V-twin with a revised valve gear, new frame and had been fitted with a full floating seat and chain drive. These new improvements made a huge difference which caused the V-twin's popularity to grow. By the year 1913 the model 9E's 1000cc power plant was producing 10bhp which gave the bike a top speed of 60mph.

Initially Harley-Davidson was reluctant to get themselves involved in racing, such as reliability runs however, by 1914 they changed their minds and entered a factory team. The firm's Milwaukee crew, the "Wrecking Crew" rode powerful 8-valve V-twins which were very competitive against the rival Merkel and Excelsior, and Indian. This became a great period for Harley-Davidson as production rose to more than 22,000 bikes and 16,000 sidecars in 1919. These numbers were cut in half in the upcoming 2 years mainly because of the Model T Ford, which put the majority of American motorcycle companies out of business.

Harley-Davidson is known for its large capacity V-twins but the smaller 45ci Forty Five played a vital part in the history of the company. The Forty Five, produced in 1928, was the first machine with a total loss oil system. It was restyled and updated 9 years later to create the W series. It was the simple and strong Forty Five that kept Harley-Davidson in business through the Depression of the 1930's. The WLA model proved to be a useful military machine in which close to 80,000 were being used in the Second World War. These "war bikes" were converted for civilian use after the war was over which helped to popularize Harley-Davidson worldwide.

In 1936, while still suffering the effects of the Depression, Harley-Davidson introduced the Model 61E. This model's 61cc V-twin engine was a huge advancement over other models due to its overhead valve design and recirculating oil system. The neat style of the 61E helped it become a huge success. It became known as the knucklehead because of the shape of the engines rocker covers. It gave it a technical advantage over its rival Indian and became the ancestor to modern Harley's.

Harley-Davidson will forever be synonymous with producing great bikes. What started as a dream, survived the Depression, and is still going strong today. There is nothing quite like hearing the rumble of a Harley as you're heading for the highway.
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