August 4 2010 by Jason Fogelson
Have you ever wondered who Harley was? And just who was Davidson, anyway?
William Sylvester Harley and Arthur Davidson sold their first motorcycle out of a shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1903. The Harley-Davidson motorcycle grew out of Harley's efforts to fit an engine into a bicycle frame, and indeed, the first Harleys looked a lot like motorized bicycles. The first examples were single-cylinder models, with the first production V-Twins turning up around 1909.
(A neat piece of trivia: Henry Meyer, a childhood friend of William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, was the first customer for the fledgling company, buying a 1903 model.)
Davidson's brother Walter, joined the Motor Company late in 1903. Davidson's other brother, William A. Davidson, joined up in 1907, and the company incorporated on September 17th in that year. The three Davidson brothers (Arthur, Walter and William A.) and William S. Harley each owned equal shares of the company stock.
William Sylvester Harley was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin on December 29, 1880. Harley's English immigrant father was a railway engineer, a solid middle class profession in the late 19th century.
The Davidson family lived on the same block in Milwaukee as the Harleys, and William and Arthur were lifelong friends from childhood on.
Harley went to work at the age of 15 in a bicycle factory, where he learned the ins and outs of bicycle manufacturing and construction. In 1901, Harley began planning and constructing his first gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, which he intended to fit into a bicycle. Technology quickly advanced, and Harley realized that he needed to create a motorcycle, rather than grafting an engine onto a bicycle, and by 1903 the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was born.
Harley continued to work as H-D's Chief Engineer right until his death by coronary in 1943 at the age of 62. He had never missed a day at work before his untimely demise.
Arthur Davidson was born in Milwaukee in 1881. He was the youngest of the Davidson brothers, and encouraged his two older brothers to get involved in the motorcycle business. Davidson was the business mind behind Harley-Davidson, and helped the company grow by signing on a network of dealers as early as 1910. Davidson's business innovations included founding a finance company to help buyers purchase their motorcycles on installment plans, and creating a service school to train H-D mechanics to work at dealerships. Arthur Davidson worked with Harley-Davidson until his death in an auto accident in 1950.
William A. Davidson was the oldest Davidson brother, born in 1870. Among the young employees of the Motor Company, he was known as "Old Bill," even before he earned the nickname by virtue of his age. Bill was a natural manager, and was responsible for hiring and firing on the line. His easygoing, approachable personality led to improvements in manufacturing, because he listened to the workers, and used their input to figure out better ways of building bikes. William A. Davidson died in 1937, soon after signing the first union agreement for workers at the Harley-Davidson plant.
Walter Davidson was a hands-on guy, and the first president of Harley-Davidson. He was born in 1876, the middle Davidson brother. Walter worked as a machinist, and hand-assembled the very first motorcycle that Harley and Arthur Davidson built. Walter was famous for his attention to detail and for his demand for quality. He enjoyed an excellent reputation as a businessman, and served as President of Harley-Davidson until his death in 1942.
The Davidson family is still involved in running the Motor Company. Most famously, William G. Davidson, William A. Davidson's grandson, still oversees motorcycle design. Willie G., as he's known, joined the design department of H-D in 1963, and has left his mark on every significant bike that has worn the Harley-Davidson name since.
So, now when you look at your gas tank and see that "Harley-Davidson" emblem, you'll know a little more about the men behind the names. We have just skimmed the surface here -- the Motor Company employs historians and archivists who have treasure troves of information about each of the founders and their descendants.
If you want to know even more about the men and the machines, why not visit the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee?