The Little Shop out of Milwaukee Grows Into One of the Most Storied Brands in the World

Harley-Davidson is the iconic American motorcycle manufacturer that was founded by William S. Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson out of a small shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903. The Motor Company produces traditional cruiser motorcycles utilizing air-cooled V-Twin engines.

When Harley and Davidson produced and sold their first motorcycle in 1903, they were one of many small motorcycle marques springing up across the country. Flash forward more than a century and the Harley-Davidson brand is so rooted in American culture that the history of the company intertwines with the history of America itself.

Harley-Davidson incorporated in 1907, with William Davidson officially joining forces with his two brothers and Harley. Setting down roots in Milwaukee, Harley-Davidson began hiring employees and by the end of the decade were producing bikes using its signature 45-degree air-cooled V-Twin.

During the next decade H-D continued to expand. Many sales were generated by Uncle Sam, with the American military sourcing Harley motorcycles during the First World War.

The Bar and Shield continued to grow and by the early ‘30s, its only surviving domestic rival was Indian. Again H-D expanded in peacetime and found itself producing high quantities of bikes for the American military during World War II. Harley-Davidson press material cites its wartime motorcycle production at 90,000 units.

Post-war Harley-Davidson developments include the introduction of the Sportster in 1957, the oldest production model in the current H-D lineup, as well as other signature H-D models.

Harley experienced changes in ownership in the ‘60s, going public in 1965 and eventually merging with American Machine and Foundry (AMF) in 1969. A decline in fortunes saw AMF sell its stake back to current ownership, which included members of the founding families, in the early ‘80s. The Davidson family’s involvement in the day-to-day running of H-D continues, with direct descendant Willie G. Davidson serving as President of Styling.

The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the introduction of model families that continue to this day, like the Softail, FLT and Road King lines, joining classic models like the Electra Glide. In the ‘90s Harley-Davidson also solidified its hold over Buell motorcycles, taking a controlling stake in the American sportbike/street bike manufacturer and selling Buell motorcycles at many H-D dealers.

Since the turn of the century, Harley-Davidson has retained its image as a classic American icon. But The Motor Co is reaching out to other riders with the introduction of more performance-oriented models, like the V-Rod – significant as the first liquid-cooled production Harley. As the riding demographic ages, H-D is also realizing it must break into the younger market with the release of edgier makeovers of its classic models like the Cross Bones and other members of its Dark Custom line like the Iron 883.

Harley-Davidson has also been working hard to improve the riding quality of its touring bikes. In 2009, it did away with the stamped and welded single-piece frame that anchored Harley touring motorcycles for the last 30 years and replaced it with a cast, single-spar, rigid-backbone frame. It also went with a wider, longer swingarm. H-D also introduced a new three-wheel motorcycle called the Tri Glide that has the classic styling and popular touring features of its best-selling Ultra Classic Electra Glide.

Harley-Davidson also demonstrates what can be done with products from its vast Genuine Motor Accessories and Motor Parts catalog in the form of its CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations) line. The CVO motorcycles are models from Harley’s standard lineup that have received the royal treatment, like the Screamin’ Eagle Twin Cam 110 engine, show-topping custom paint and top-shelf H-D controls and components.


One constant of Harley-Davidson, since almost the very beginning, has been the use of 45-degree air-cooled V-Twins. Popular Harley powerplants and their service timelines are seen below, courtesy of the Harley-Davidson archives.

  • Twin Cam 103 1999-2006
  • Twin Cam 96 2007-Present
  • Twin Cam 88B (counter balanced version of the Twin Cam 88) 2000-2006
  • Twin Cam 88 2000-2006
  • Evolution 1340cc 1984-1999
  • Shovelhead 1966-1985
  • Panhead 1948-1965
  • Knucklehead 1936-1947
  • Flathead 1930 -1948
  • F-Head, aka JD, pocket valve and IOE (intake over exhaust) 1914-1929 (1000cc), and 1922-1929 (1200cc)
  • Revolution Engine 2001-Present
  • Evolution Sportster 1986-Present
  • Ironhead Sportster 1957-1985
  • Flathead K Model 1952-1956


The public best knows Harley-Davidson for is cruisers, but the American firm does have a storied racing past. Pre-WWII riders like Joe Petrali made a name for himself campaigning the Bar and Shield in AMA Hillclimb and Dirt Track races, with Petrali scoring numerous Grand National titles.

Post war, H-D continued to wreak havoc on dirt tracks and the American marque found success in road racing as well. One name forever linked with Harley-Davidson is Cal Rayborn. The AMA Hall of Famer won back-to-back Daytona 200s for Harley and also set the ultimate motorcycle land speed record at Bonneville with a 265.492 mph run in a Harley-Davidson-powered streamliner.

On the dirt track, the Harley-Davidson XR750 dominated the AMA series. The most successful dirt tracker in H-D history was Scott Parker, who tallied 93 wins and nine championship titles under the Bar and Shield banner. Another Flat Track racer linked to the Harley name and the XR750 is Chris Carr, a seven-time Flat Track champion.

Present racing success is focused in the NHRA drag and AMA Flat Track series. Andrew Hines and Eddie Krawiec lead the factory Vance & Hines NHRA squad. Krawiec won his first NHRA title in 2009, while factory rider and defending champion Kenny Coolbeth continues to be the rider to beat in the AMA Flat Track series.