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In the early years of the 20th century there were dozens of motorcycle makers. Most lasted only a few years before succumbing to competition, although a few managed to endure long enough to become going concerns. But only one of those brands ultimately survived to thrive in the present day – Harley-Davidson. Recently there have been a few nameplates from the early days that have resurfaced, but if you look at their company histories it’s obvious that the name alone is the common thread - the original motorcycle business failed years ago. Slapping a famous brand name from the past on the gas tank of a new motorcycle doesn’t automatically impart a heritage of quality. Reputations are earned over the long haul, and only Harley-Davidson has been in continuous operation building motorcycles since 1903. The journey through those many years often wasn’t easy, and the company had to weather an economic depression, intense foreign competition, a takeover, periods of poor quality and bad management decisions, and even near bankruptcy along the way. Nevertheless, Harley-Davidson outlasted the adversity to become one of the largest and most successful motorcycle companies in the world.

In 1903 William Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson built their first prototype, based on Harley’s designs, in a 10 x 15 ft. shed in the Davidson family’s backyard. There were problems with that initial design, but with the knowledge that was gained, a second, and better motorcycle, with a larger engine and loop frame design, was constructed the following year. That bike, which survived and is on display at the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, became the first Harley entered in a racing event. In 1905, the company hired its first full-time employee and C.H. Lang of Chicago, Illinois became the first dealer to sell a Harley-Davidson motorcycle. A new 28 x 80 ft. factory was built in 1906 on Juneau Avenue, on what is today the site of Harley-Davidson corporate headquarters, and the staff was increased to 6 full-time employees, enabling the production of 50 motorcycles that year. In 1907, the remaining Davidson brother, William, quit his railroad job and joined the company. Harley-Davidson was incorporated that year, with William Harley, who had just graduated from engineering school, becoming chief engineer, and Walter Davidson named company president. The production output of the previous year was tripled to 150 machines.

By 1909 Harley-Davidson motorcycle production was approaching 1000 bikes per year, but until that time all had been powered by single-cylinder engines. That year the company introduced its first 45 degree V-twin engine, a design that would become as much a Harley-Davidson trademark as the Bar & Shield logo that would be used for the first time the following year. That first 54 cu. in. (880cc) engine only produced 7 horsepower, but output was increased with a new V-twin engine design in 1911 that used a mechanically operated intake valve instead of the earlier engine’s atmospheric intake. By 1913 most Harley-Davidsons were V-twin powered. By this time production volume had increased to the point it exceeded the capacity of the existing facilities, and a new 6-story factory and headquarters were constructed on Juneau Avenue, which included a separate Parts & Accessories Department. In 1914 Harley-Davidson produced over 16,000 motorcycles, surpassing Indian to become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the U.S., and by 1920 they had become the largest motorcycle maker in the world, building over 28,000 machines.

At the end of the 1920s there were only 3 major motorcycle manufacturers left in the U.S., Harley-Davidson, Indian, and Excelsior-Henderson. While many motorcycle companies went under because they couldn’t compete with those three, most of the attrition in the motorcycle business was caused by competition from inexpensive cars like the Model T Ford, which offered protection from the elements and room for more passengers, all at a cheaper price. There were a number of reasons why Harley-Davidson succeeded while other makes failed. From the very beginning they raced, winning endurance and reliability contests as early as 1908, and then forming an official racing department in 1914. From the dirt to the board tracks, Harley-Davidson was so dominant their racing team was referred to as the “Wrecking Crew”. These victories not only created publicity, the company used what they learned winning races to improve their production machines. Harley-Davidson also aggressively recruited dealers. They realized very early that the size and strength of a company’s dealer network could mean the difference between success and failure, and by 1920 they had built an extensive dealer network that numbered 2000 in 67 countries. In World War I, Harley supplied over 20,000 motorcycles to the American military, and a soldier aboard a Harley-Davidson was the first American to enter Germany after the armistice. American servicemen learned first-hand what Harley-Davidson motorcycles were capable of, and many became Harley customers when they returned home.

There were several significant firsts for Harley-Davidson in the 20s. The first 74 cu. in. (1200cc) V-twin was introduced in 1922, and this remained the most common engine displacement through 5 decades and 4 engine designs. The first teardrop gas tank shape debuted 3 years later in 1925 and this became the basic style for all Harley tanks thereafter. In 1929 the company introduced the D model with a 45 cu. in. (750cc) “flathead” (side-valve) engine, which was designed to compete with the Indian Scout. Variations of this engine would be used until 1973, most notably in the Servi-Car, a 3-wheeled utility motorcycle that was used by auto dealers for car delivery, mobile vendors, and police departments. The Great Depression claimed one of Harley’s last 2 American competitors when Ignaz Schwinn closed Excelsior-Henderson in 1931. Although Harley-Davidson sales fell from 21,000 in 1929 to 3700 in 1933, the company persevered with new models like the Servi-Car in 1932, and art-deco graphic designs on gas tanks in 1933. But the most important model in the 1930s was the 1936 EL, with its OHV (Over Head Valve) V-twin engine. This 61 cu. in. (1000cc) engine, which became known as the “Knucklehead” because the rocker box ends resembled the knuckles of a fist, was Harley’s first production OHV engine. All previous V-twins had been flatheads or F-head, IOE (Intake Over Exhaust) engines. The new engine also featured a pressurized, dry sump, recirculating oil system, instead of the total loss systems used by previous engines.

Manufacturing of motorcycles for civilian use was suspended during World War II so Harley could concentrate on military production. Over 60,000 military-spec WLA 45 cu. in. engine motorcycles were supplied to the American armed forces, but this model’s significance would be much larger in civilian hands. During WW II, the Jeep had eclipsed the motorcycle for most military uses, and large numbers of WLAs remained after the conflict, which were sold cheaply as war surplus. Many riders, including a lot of returning GIs, bought these inexpensive machines and turned them into the choppers and bobbers that became the genesis of custom bikes and biker culture, and in so doing cemented Harley’s association with a genre and lifestyle. In 1948 new versions of the 61 cu. in. and 74 cu. in. V-twins were introduced to replace the Knucklehead. Nicknamed “Panheads” because the rocker covers were shaped like inverted cake pans, these new engines featured aluminum heads and hydraulic valve lifters. 1949 saw the debut of the Hydra-Glide, the first Harley-Davidson with hydraulic, telescoping front forks, which provided a vast improvement in riding comfort over the previous girder forks.

In 1953 Indian, Harley-Davidson’s last American competitor, went out of business, but there were new contenders in the motorcycle market. After WW II, British motorcycle makers like BSA, Triumph and Norton stepped up motorcycle exports to the U.S. These lightweight, single-cylinder and vertical-twin machines were very different from the big Harleys and appealed to many returning servicemen who had been exposed to them while stationed in the UK. In response Harley-Davidson launched their own lightweight bikes, beginning with the 2-stroke single-cylinder S-125 in 1948, followed by the K Model in 1952. The S-125 was based on the DKW RT 125, the blueprints for which were taken from Germany as war reparations. The 125cc engine in the S-125 was enlarged to 165cc in the 1953 Model 165, although a model called the “Hummer” that still used the 125cc engine was later added in 1955. All of the single-cylinder 2-strokes Harley produced from 1948 to 1966 ended up being referred to as Hummers. The K Model was the most advanced Harley to date and designed to take the British bikes head-on. Although it still used the basic 45 cu. in. side-valve design, the all new engine was integrated with the 4-speed transmission, and featured larger cams and higher compression than the previous W Model 45. The frame had hydraulic suspension front and rear, foot shift and hand-operated clutch. In 1957 the K Model was superseded by the Sportster and its 55 cu. in. (883cc) OHV engine. In 1958, the first hydraulic rear shocks on the FL series big twins appeared on the Duo-Glide.

In a further effort to expand their presence in the small displacement motorcycle market and contend with increased foreign competition that now included Japanese manufacturers, Harley-Davidson purchased 50% of Italy’s Aeronatica-Macchi, creating Aermacchi Harley-Davidson. The 4-stroke single-cylinder 250cc and then 350cc Sprints built by Aermacchi would remain in the Harley lineup until 1974. The Hummers were also replaced with Aermacchi-built 2-stroke engine bikes including the 125cc Rapido. The Electra-Glide, the first Harley-Davidson with an electric starter and the replacement for the Duo-Glide, debuted in 1965. The following year the “Shovelhead” engine replaced the Pan Head on the big FL series bikes. So called because the rocker boxes were reminiscent of inverted coal shovels, the Shovelhead featured shallower combustion chambers for better cooling and better port flow for more horsepower. Through the 1960s Harley continued to dominate American motorcycle racing with numerous dirt track wins, Daytona 200 victories, and AMA (American Motorcyclist Association) Grand National Championships.

In 1965 Harley-Davidson went from family ownership to being a publically held company. Four years later the company was purchased by recreational equipment conglomerate AMF (American Machine & Foundry Company), whose products included bowling equipment, golf clubs, bicycles, skis, and sailboats. At first this was a positive development for Harley-Davidson because the new parent company supplied badly needed funds to increase production so Harley could attempt to stay competitive in the face of the Japanese bikes that were flooding the market. However, management at AMF was not stable through the 1970s and this contributed to poor decisions. Aermacchi was sold to the Italian firm Cagiva, effectively ceding the small displacement, less expensive motorcycle market to the Japanese. AMF decided to concentrate on heavyweight motorcycles, despite the fact the Japanese had been building increasingly larger displacement bikes and steadily encroaching on this market. Plus they had begun building factory “custom” bikes, a genre that had previously been Harley’s exclusive domain. Ramping up production on old tooling only resulted in poor quality motorcycles and it wasn’t long before sales and market share fell and even loyal Harley customers were shopping elsewhere. AMF decided to get out of the motorcycle business and began looking for a buyer.

A team of Harley-Davidson executives led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson, grandson of company co-founder William Davidson, purchased the company from AMF in 1981 in a leveraged buyout. They immediately set upon improving manufacturing, adopting JIT (Just In Time) inventory control and establishing a new system of management-employee cooperation to improve the production process and monitor quality. They also got some needed relief from the ITC (International Trade Commission), who recommended a tariff on imported bikes over 700cc in response to Japanese manufacturers who had been flooding the market with low priced machines in an effort to gain market share. To solidify its relationship with Harley riders the company established HOG (the Harley Owners Group) in 1983, which included free admission to open houses and private receptions at motorcycle events, roadside assistance, and discounts on insurance, motels, and motorcycle shipping. Technology was also steadily improved, with better vibration dampening techniques, cleaner running Kevlar belts instead of chain final drive, and the all-new 80 cu. in. (1340cc) Evolution engine, that began replacing the Shovelhead in 1984. The “Evo”, which in continuing with Harley tradition was also nicknamed “Blockhead”, was more powerful, ran cooler, and perhaps most importantly, was oil-tight and reliable.

Largely through the efforts of styling director Willie G. Davidson, Harley had already begun building factory “customs” as far back as 1971, beginning with the FX Superglide, which combined the frame, rear suspension and running gear of the FL series big twin with the smaller telescopic forks from the Sportster. This continued with the FXS Low Rider, with its low seat and drag style handlebars, and Sportster-based Café Racer in 1977, and the Fat Bob, with its dual gas tanks and bobbed fenders in 1979. The development of special models and editions with retro looks and custom style accelerated in the 1980s. The company was able to draw on heritage the Japanese brands didn’t have, and with the new emphasis on quality, provide reliable cruisers that were the genuine article. The Softail achieved the classic look of a hardtail by concealing the rear suspension under the transmission. The initial Heritage Softail was followed by the Springer Softail, with its old-school girder front suspension, in 1988, and the Fat Boy in 1990. The FX Superglide was upgraded with a new chassis to become the FXR series in 1982, and this in turn was upgraded with another new chassis creating the Dyna series in 1991. In 1994 the FL series touring line was expanded with the FLHR Road King, featuring styling reminiscent of the Touring bikes of the 40s and 50s. Instead of the Electra-Glide’s “batwing” fairing, the Road King was fitted with a removable clear plastic fairing.

Harley-Davidson gradually began the switch from carburetors to electronic fuel injection beginning in 1995 with the 30th Anniversary Ultra Classic Electra Glide. The successor to the Evolution engine was introduced in 1999, the 88 cu. in. (1450cc) Twin Cam. The Twin Cam design addressed strength weaknesses in the Evo engine crankcase, improved oiling, used chains instead of gears as cam drive to reduce noise, used air and oil cooling to reduce engine temperature, and used 2 cams instead of one to optimize pushrod/rocker arm alignment. In 2002 an all new Harley model was introduced, the VRSCA V-Rod. Based on the VR1000 road racer that the company had campaigned in the Superbike series, the 115 horsepower V-Rod was the first production Harley with liquid cooling and overhead cams. In 2003 the company celebrated its 100th anniversary, with models featuring special commemorative paint schemes and medallions. In 2004 the Sportster line was upgraded with rubber engine mounts, a new frame and restyled gas tank. The first 6-speed transmissions debuted in 2006 on the Dyna series. In 2007 the Twin Cam engine was enlarged to 96 cu. in. (1584cc), and later to 103 cu. in. (1690cc) and 110 cu. in. (1800cc). In 2006 the FLHX Street Glide joined the Touring line, and in 2008 ABS (Anti-lock Brake System) and cruise control became optional on all touring bikes. An all new frame for the Touring series was introduced in 2009, providing better handling and lower seating.

The current Harley-Davidson lineup starts with the entry level Street 500 and Street 750, powered by liquid-cooled, 60 degree, SOHC (Single Over Head Cam) V-twin engines. All Street series bikes for the American market are built in Kansas City, Missouri, while bikes for other markets are built in India. The Sportster series continues with the 883cc Superlow and Superlow 1200T, with their confidence-inspiring low seat heights; Iron 883 with its aggressive throwback styling; fat front-tired 1200 Custom; low slung Forty-Eight; and agile handling Roadster. The classically styled Low Rider and high-performance Low Rider S headline the Dyna series, accompanied by the stripped down, bobber style Street Bob; the Fat Bob with its dual bullet headlights; and the chopper style Wide Glide, with its wide, raked out forks and 21” front wheel. The one that started it all with the Softail line is back in the form of the Heritage Softail Classic, along with the bobber style Softail Slim and Softail Slim S; the iconic Fat Boy and blacked out Fat Boy S; the beautiful Softail Deluxe; and the drag bike inspired Breakout.

For raw horsepower and torque you can’t do better than the 120 horsepower V-Rod Muscle and its stable-mate, the blacked out Night Rod Special. The big news in the Touring line is the new Milwaukee-Eight engine with 4-valves per cylinder. Available in 107 cu. in. (1750cc) and 114 cu. in. (1870cc) displacements, they boast increased power for faster acceleration, yet with improved fuel economy. The Touring line starts with the nostalgic style and versatility of the Road King and aggressively styled Road King Special; the Street Glide and Street Glide Special, the baggers with the stripped down hot-rod look; the Road Glide and Road Glide Special, with their wind-cutting shark-nosed fairings; the Road Glide Ultra that adds the comfort of a large windscreen and the convenience of Tour-Pak luggage; the legendary Electra Glide Ultra Classic with linked Brembo ABS brakes, LED headlights and spot lights, and comfortable rider and passenger seating for long-haul comfort; and the top-of-the-line Ultra Limited and Ultra Limited Low, loaded with comfort and convenience features like cruise control, heated grips, and touchscreen infotainment and navigation system. And if you want to roll with 3 wheels there are the Freewheeler, with its stripped down, hot-rod looks, and the premium tourer Tri Glide Ultra. Harley’s CVO (Custom Vehicle Operations) creates custom versions of certain models every year with modifications like larger engines, custom paint and additional accessories. The current CVO machines include the Softail-based CVO Pro Street Breakout, and the Touring-based CVO Street Glide and CVO Limited.

Owning a car gives you comfort, owning a motorcycle gives you freedom. Your bike is your therapy, your passion, and your access to off-the-beaten-path places. In our selection of motorcycle accessories and parts, we have everything you need to keep your Harley Davidson running, show some love to your prized possession, and hit the road or trail with confidence. We take the hassle out of your motorcycle maintenance, repair, and tune-up experience.

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