Welcome to the second edition of Garage Greatness, the weekly blog where we examine famous inventions and companies that can be traced back to the garage! The garage is a natural place for entrepreneurs and tinkerers to explore their passions, and many of the world’s greatest companies found the start within the humble walls of a garage. If you’ve got a garage on your property, you are only steps away from this level of greatness, so why not learn about the stories behind these household names? Today, we’ll be examining the Harley-Davidson brand of motorcycles, one of the oldest brands on the market and one of the most iconic companies in the world.
Welcome to Garage Greatness.
Garages are notoriously loud, since hobbyist mechanics and garage bands tend to use the garage specifically for making noise. With a private workshop sectioned off from the rest of the house, these backyard innovators had all the space (and muffling walls) they needed to practice their craft without disturbing their family. Of course, some garage inventors want to make noise, like the Davidson brothers and their friend William S. Harvey. These four inventors, all born before 1882, tinkered in a shed behind their friend’s property and ended up inventing a product that would revolutionize American roads and become one of the most iconic examples of any industry – The Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Their collective labor began in 1901, when 20-year-old Harley designed a tiny engine with only 7.07 cubic inches of displacement, a measure of the cylinder’s volume. This initial engine was built to fit into a bike’s frame and provided a modest motorized accompaniment to pedaling, but once Harley partnered with the Davidson brothers, Arthur and Walter, the three young men set their sights on something much greater.
In short order, the trio developed a larger and more efficient engine, with over three times the displacement and flywheels over twice as large. They performed this work in the garage shed behind their friend Henry Melk’s home, in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, but once they finished their new engine, they moved into the 10×15 ft shed in the Davidson’s backyard. There, they started the construction of loop-frame bikes that could accommodate a much larger engine.
William Davidson, the third member of the Davidson family to join Harley in his mad venture, was working as a toolroom foreman at a local railshop, and during this period some of the larger pieces of the bike were likely fabricated in his railshop, since they required specialized tools. It only took the four inventors three years after their first engine prototypes to field their first racing machine, a Harley-Davidson motocycle that competed in a race at the State Fair Park. Motorcycles were booming in popularity, and this fourth-place finish in the first historical record of a Harley-Davidson machine. The team would not be satisfied with a fourth-place finish again.
In 1905, Harley-Davidson sold their engines without the corresponding bike frame to do-it-yourself tinkerers. Later in the same year, they made five complete motorcycles in the same tiny shed and the very first Harley-Davidson dealer, Carl H. Lang, sold three of them to buyers in Chicago. That original shed was transferred to the first Harley-Davidson factory, built on Juneau Avenue, where it remained as a reminder of the company’s humble origins until its accidental destruction in the 1970s. Harley-Davidson’s current corporate headquarters are built at the same location as that original factory.
The company continued to grow in to 1906, when they produced around fifty motorcycles and moved into their first factory. In both ’05 and ’06, production was focused on the single-cylinder model they had previously had some success with, but by early 1907 the team was hard at work designing a V-Twin engine model that produced roughly twice the power of the older model. Very few of this design were built for several years, with only 450 made in 1908 and fewer than 1200 in 1909.
This period of history saw huge growth in the motorcycle industry, with over 150 different motorcycle makers in the United States alone. Very few of these companies would survive to see the 1920’s, but Harley-Davidson would be one of them. Throughout the decade, they debuted an improved V-Twin design and the patented Ful-Floteing Seat, which remained in use until 1958. By 1913, the old Harley factory had been torn down and replaced with a newer, five-story tall monument that helped Harley-Davidson pull ahead of the competition, including Indian, their fiercest competitors. This was also reflected when Harley-Davidson surpassed Indian in motorcycle racing, after 1914.
America entered World War I in 1917, and Harley-Davidson produced over fifteen thousand motorcycles for the U.S. military, helping to find the company’s ongoing expansion. By the time that 1920 rolled around, Harley-Davidson was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world and sold their machines through dealers in 67 countries. Otto Walker won a motorcycle race atop a Harley in 1921, the first time that a winner had averaged over 100 mph along the course of the race. Harley-Davidson continued to innovate with an improved engine, front break, and teardrop-shaped gas tank. Indian continued to compete with Harley, and the two companies repeatedly tried to one-up each other to produce the best product.
The Great Depression hit around the turn of the decade, and many motorcycle manufacturers went out of business. Harley-Davidson saw their sales fall from 21000 in 1929 to a mere 3700 in 1933, and unveiled a new lineup of motorcycles in 1934 to a lukewarm market. Through diversifying their production to include the manufacture of power plants and beginning to sell under the Rikuo name in Japan, Harley survived The Great Depression – one of two major manufacturers to do so.
Sales leapt again as the market recovered and World War II led to a healthy stream of sales to Allied powers. More than 90,000 military motorcycles were produced during the war, and Harley received two Army-Navy ‘E’ Awards for Excellence in Production. This trend was continued years later in the Korean War, although eventually the Jeep became the army’s go-to choice for a general purpose vehicle.
Harley-Davidson faced a range of opportunities and controversies in the years to come. They acquired a German manufacturer’s blueprints for a small motorcycle and produced a line of smaller motorcycles, collectively referred to as Hummers, which saw continuing change and production until 1978. More disastrous for the company’s reputation was the 1969 acquisition by American Machine and Foundry, who immediately initiated large-scale layoffs and a streamlining of production that led to worker strikes and a lower-quality of bike. The company drew further negative press when they released a Confederate Edition bike in 1977, a recolored stock Harley commemorating The Confederate States of America.
The company continued to be mis-managed and acquired several negative nicknames (Hardly Abelson, Hardly Driveable, and Hogly Ferguson, among them) until AMF sold Harley back to 13 investors, including a member of the Davidson family – a family that still remains connected to their legacy to this day. After the re-aquisition, the quality and style of all Harley motorcycles returned to their roots, with technical innovations but a stylistic return to their roots. The retro appeal of the Harley motorcycles remains a major selling point of the company to this day. Despite their temporary decline, Harley returned to peak levels of sales, and the 1990’s saw the highest demand for Harley-Davidson motorcycles in history.
Harley-Davidson motorcycles continue to be the most recognizable and iconic motorcycles on the road, and the loyal company following keeps the brand in the forefront of the public mind. Harley has always been an example of American innovation and success, and they got their start in a simple garage!
Do you or anyone in your family own a motorcycle? Would you ever consider riding one if you don’t? Let us know in the comments below, and come back next week for our discussion of Nike, one of the leading shoe manufacturers in the world, and another great example of how a company can succeed out of the garage!