The History of Harley-Davidson

From humble beginnings to the iconic motorcycle maker


by Mike Strehlow

Milwaukee--The tens of thousands of riders visiting Milwaukee this weekend are not only familiar with their motorcycles, they're history buffs when it comes to the company that's been making Milwaukee Iron for 110 years.  

"There's no other motorcycle maker in the world that can boast the history that Harley-Davidson can," said Bill Jackson,  Harley-Davidson Archives Manager.

The archives building at the museum complex is filled with more than 300 vintage Harley-Davidson motorcyles, displayed in a floor to ceiling modular system on tracks that allows visitors on special tours access to a restricted and facinating area.

Jackson says  "It's really kind of a time machine when you think about it.  It's a great glimpse back."

The time machine goes back to 1903 when friends and next door neighbors William Harley and Arthur Davidson built a single cylinder motorcycle in a tiny shed.  Key moments on the company's timeline include the war years when the U.S. military accounted for almost all of Harley's output, and the sale of motorcycles to police departments around the country.

"Actually one of the things in the tough times that kept the company going was police sales" Jackson said.

American Machinery and Foundry, AMF, bought Harley-Davidson in 1969, the beginning of a 13-year period many hog lovers would rather forget.   However Jackson says unlike a competitor who wanted to buy Harley and piecemeal it out, AMF allowed Harley to survive.

Jackson said "Had AMF not purchased Harley-Davidson we would not be here today."

Unlike disco, Harley-Davidson survived the 70's, and in June of 1981, 13 executives purchased the company from AMF, and the phrase "The Eagle Soars Alone" became a rallying cry.

 "That's really a period of Harley's probably biggest comeback just in the space of 2 to 3 years went from near bankruptcy to not just profitability but dashing out in front of its competition," said Jackson.   









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