The Man Behind the Brand: Who is Harley Davidson?

The Man Behind the Brand: Who is Harley Davidson?

Written by Pierce Bryant
February 27, 2023

Harley Davidson, the man, the myth, the legend, or more like four men. Actually, Harley Davidson was not named after one person. It was named after one man with the last name Harley and three men with the last name Davidson. The four of them are responsible for the iconic motorcycle brand that we know today, Harley Davidson. 

Harley Davidson has been an American company for well over a century. It was originally founded in 1903 in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. William Harley and Arthur Davidson were childhood best friends who grew up in the same neighborhood in Milwaukee. They both had an undying love for bicycles, mechanics, and engineering, which led William to eventually take a job at a bicycle factory during his teenage years. He soon became a draftsman for Barth Manufacturing, along with Arthur, where William successfully designed his own internal combustion engine, which was based off of the French de Dion-Bouton engine. 

Arthur and William then decided that they wanted to build their own motorcycle as a dream project, however, were unsuccessful, which led them to realize that they needed more people in their team that knew a little more about motorcycles and machines to help them create their vision. They then contacted Arthur’s older brothers Walter and William (Bill), who decided to help them create their motorcycle. The four of them then were able to create a working and successful prototype, which was the first ever working Harley Davidson motorcycle created. 

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The first motorcycle models that were created in 1903 were with a buckle crank, but eventually turned into two-cylinder engines, which they were able to successfully make in only six years (1909). These two-cylinder engines were called the V-Twin and go up to 60 miles per hour. The V-Twin engine was patented and helped the company grow to making over 3,000 bikes per year. During this time, William Harley went to college and earned a mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in. Harley Davidson eventually incorporated in 1907, where Walter became the first President and General Manager for the company until he died in 1942. 

Arthur Davidson was the secretary and sales manager of the company, in which he succeeded in getting the military, United States Postal Service, and police nationwide to all use their bikes. Before 1920, Arthur already had the United States Postal Service using over 4,500 motorcycles to deliver mail. Along with this, he began the Harley Davidson Service School, which trained mechanics to become qualified to work on their motorcycles. 

William Harley would go on to be the company’s chief engineer and treasurer until he died of heart failure on September 18th, 1943 at the age of 62. Their first “factory”, was a wooden shed in the Davidson family’s backyard, and is actually the same location of the current headquarters of Harley Davidson today. 

Walter Davidson is the man who is responsible for the Harley Davidson clothing and accessories that we all know today. Although they have changed and developed over the years, his idea of branding their company on wearable items has become a prominent piece of the brand. 

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During World War I, half of the company’s production were used for the war. Then, during World War II, the United States Military placed an order for over 50,000 bikes for use during the war. This was huge for the company and led to them being on the global market. Today, the brand that started out being just a few friends in their backyard working on their dream is now a billion dollar company and American powerhouse. 

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