An abridged history of Harley Davidson

The history of Harley Davidson Motor Company ® is filled with many ups and downs. Everything from financial crises involving brushes with bankruptcy, to lawsuits regarding stock price manipulation, to strikes and large product recalls, are events that have scarred the company's reputation.

If Harley Davidson spent as much on engineers as they have spent on attorneys, they would have a better motorcycle.

While a more comprehensive history can be found elsewhere, here are some highlights from their 110 year history. Enjoy...

Problems In The Beginning

Garage-tinkering progressed into motorcycle production for William Harley and the Davidson brothers in 1903. Their first motorcycle differed very little from other manufacturers' bikes of the time. "Motorcycles" really were just motorized-bicycles having pedals that helped the engine transmit power to the rear wheel via a leather belt. Engines were very weak and only propelled the rider to the speed of a brisk walk. Even a slight incline required the rider to pedal in order to help the engine move the bike. Harley Davidson's bikes were no different. Their single-cylinder engines were considered relatively quiet and with the only paint options for their motorcycles being black and grey, they earned the nickname "silent grey fellows"; a nickname that certainly wouldn't stand today. Harley's first production model of a V-twin engine came in 1909 and problems surfaced right away causing them to pull the engine from production. The V-twin wouldn't be seen by Harley Davidson again until 1911. A chain final-drive didn't appear until 1913 and a multi-gear transmission wasn't available until 1915! Improvments were made over the next decade but by the late 1920s, their engines still had exposed valvetrain. They were messy, difficult to maintain, and highly susceptible to wear.

Bankruptcy And The Trade Commission

Harley Davidson has been using using bad business practices and bullying tactics to promote an inferior product from the the very early days. For example, in 1954, they were charged with restrictive business practices after requesting that the United States Tariff Commission place a 40% tax on all imported motorcycles. This pathetic legal effort backfired on them badly and drove the company close to bankruptcy. Approaching death in 1969, after 62 years of being a family-owned private company, they were forced to sell out to AMF who ran them even closer to death!

The AMF Years

AMF - American Machine and Foundry... more details coming soon.

Bankruptcy And The Trade Commission... Again

In 1981 a group of 13 private investors (including Willie Davidson) bought the company back from AMF at a very low price given its badly diminished value. After being recovered from AMF, Harley Davidson still could not compete with their Japanese competitors. In 1911, there had already been more than 150 different motorcycle manufacturers in the United States. By 1978, there were only three, and two of them were Japanese-owned (Honda® and Kawasaki®)! US-owned Harley Davidson still could not make and sell a motorcycle for a profit in the United States. Harley was facing a rapidly dwindling domestic market share. In 1980, imported motorcycles accounted for 60% of the heavyweight motorcycle market. Compounding the issue, Harley Davidson was suffering from both quality problems as well as internal-friction problems as labor and management teams fought each other. By 1982 there was zero domestic growth in the heavywheight market and the import market share was 69%! Harley Davidson was in severe trouble. Rather than attempt to match the quality, price, and performance of the Japanese, they complained to the US International Trade Commission again. This time their efforts were somewhat successful.

On September 1st, 1982 Harley Davidson filed a petition with the US International Trade Commission. It was a request for an "escape clause"; relief from the damaging imports of heavyweight motorcycles into the US. This legal action was widely considered to be "a last desperate act for survival" by those in the industry. It resulted in a landmark case and even spawned what is now known as "The Harley Law". Harley Davidson's petitions prompted the ITC to recommend to President Ronald Regan that import duties be raised for a period of five years. There were some who strongly opposed the tariff however. The CATO institute (an organization promoting individual liberties, limited government, free markets, and peaceful international relations) published an article warning that the new tariff will unambiguously prove to be a setback for the American economy. ITC officials acknowledged that, "even with the tariff hike, there was a good chance that Harley-Davidson would fold." Paula Stern, one of the ITC commissioners went so far as to say "No amount of import relief will rectify the poor financial performance of the petitioner in this case . . . . since the causes of Harley's problems lie elsewhere."

Recovery And Rebranding

In addition to relying upon the government for help, Harley Davidson took a new approach to making a profit... well, "new" is not the right word. Since Harley Davidson could not successfully create nor market a motorcycle that matched their competitors' quality, price, and performance, they decided to embrace the "retro" design. What really takes the cake is that many components were outsourced from foreign suppliers such as electronics, wheels, brakes, forks, shocks, carbs. It wasn't until these non-Harley-produced components were used that profitability went up, reliability improved, and the customer base began to grow.

The Infamous Trademark Litigation

In 1994, Harley Davidson filed one of the most interesting Intellectual Property claims in history. They attempted to trademark the distinctive sound of their exhaust. While this may sound silly (no pun intended), there are a number of factors that make this a legitimate effort for them to pursue. Their engine is quite unique within the motorcycle industry. While there are many V-twin engines, it is the combination of their under-square bore-to-stroke ratio, the 45-degree angle between air-cooled cylinders, and the single-pin crankshaft that give them their distinct exhaust sound. (Note that these are only a few of the factors involved. Please see the tech-specs page for more information about their engine design.) In fact, the Patent and Trademark Office agreed that the sound, by itslef, identified Harley Davidson motorcycles and distinguished them from other motorcycles! There were some oppositions to this trademark application however which resulted in significant delays and costly litigation for Harley. After six years and tens-of-thousands of dollars Harley Davidson decided that it wasn't a practical business decision to pursue this effort any farther. This issue isn't completely dead however as lawyers and motorcycle enthusiasts alike continue to debate the topic.

The Evo® Engine

Produced from 1984 to 2000, many analysts believe that this engine is partially responsible for saving Harley Davidson Motor Company ® from bankruptcy. While the name "Evolution' was most likely an homage to the evolution of the company's reformed image following the employee-led buyback from AMF in 1981, the engine did incorporate some advancements. The Evo-engine finally had aluminum heads. This is but a meager step in the right direction towards a modern engine using modern materials and is something that should have happened LONG ago! It also boasted better "oil tightness", an eight-decade problem for Harley Davidson! Perpetual oil loss was the result of poor design, bad engineering, and terrible craftsmanship. As a case in point, consider the external final-drive-chain oiler that put countless gallons of contaminated oil onto the ground. Even with the improvements that came with the Evo® engine, it remained an antiquated air-cooled, 45-degree, V-twin, single-crankpin, pushrod engine made mostly of iron. Many of the major problems plaguing their early engines exist today.

The V-Rod

The V-Rod was a huge step in the right direction and is where they started to get things right. Overhead cams and liquid cooling finally made their way into Harley's production line for the first time in the company's history. This engine was developed in conjunction with Porsche and used a 60-degree cylinder spacing.

Links to a more complete history of Harley Davidson Motorcycle Co.

One excellent resource as always is (Harley-Davidson)

Visit their own webpage with more information about Harley-Davidson's history