The Rise of Harley Davidson

Jade Jesser | March 2, 2020 | 0 | Harley Davidson , History

“There he was, wind in his hair, sun on his face, and the vastness of the open road before him. The engine made the familiar growl known to him all too well, as he began to downshift in preparation for the upcoming intersection. 


The delicate hands of his passenger loosened up their hold around his waist as they came to a stop, just short of the crossroads. The two got off the bike to stretch their legs and face each other in a ritual they had done so many times before. He reached into his pocket, and pulled out the old silver dollar his mother had given him. 


The Morgan had belonged to his grandaddy, who had the 1921 ‘buzzard’ made into a choker he wore on special occasions.  His granddad had kept the thing with him on his big boat through Tare Runs and shooting down Zekes in the Pacific during the Second World War. It was one of the most important hunks of metal in his life, right along side of the ring on his finger, and the horse they rode on. 


“Heads or tails?” He asked her. In all those years, she could melt him with those baby blues looking up at him. 


“Tails.” She replied with a smile that only he could give her. He smiled back, and with a flick of his thumb, the Silver Dollar danced into the air…”


Call it foolish if you want, but the day my mother gave me my grandfather’s coin, I knew I would someday meet that special lady, put her on the back of my bike, and flip a coin at any intersection we came to. The adventure of a lifetime. I didn’t know where I wanted to go, or who she would be, but I did know one thing: I would be on a Harley. 


I kept the whole fantasy to myself for a long time too, until one day I shared it with a rough looking fella over a warm glass of whiskey. I thought the leather-wearing stranger would laugh me out of the bar, but that wasn’t the case at all. Turns out, I wasn’t the only guy in the world that thought that way! In fact, that daydream of mine was shared by hundreds of thousands of people: including this guy next to me. It’s the lure of the open road. It’s the wanderlust.


Over the years, I chatted with more and more people about this hopeful future me, and I noticed one detail that we all had in common: the bike was ALWAYS a Harley Davidson. Now for the most part, a rider is a rider, is a rider; and there is a brotherhood that gets attached to anyone that catches the fever of seeing the open road on two or three wheels. 


Yet there’s just something about a Harley Davidson that makes the fantasy complete, and I never did really ask myself: “Why?”


The question seems so simple to answer, I mean after all, the phrase “Because it’s a Harley” is an actual logical answer for most, and might just be a plausible defense in a court of law (though I cannot confirm or deny the latter.) 


The rider in me accepted this answer, but the social scientist in me had to know more. Why do people love Harley Davidsons so much, that the name itself carries a mystique of freedom, and a manifestation of the American way of life? So I did what I enjoy almost as much as the open road: I researched the origins of this iconic motorcycle in order to shut up my inner toddler that had to have more than just “because” as an answer.


The Origins of Harley


This opinion article won’t bore you with historic timelines, or repetitious dates you’ve read over and over again. We all know that William Harley drew up a motor that could mount on a bicycle in 1901, and that his friend Arthur helped him build it a couple years later. Arthur and the other Davidson brothers joined forces with William and created one of the many companies that signified the American dream from start to finish. 


Right away, Harley Davidson Motor Company seemed destined for success because it only took 9 years from the point Henry Meyer bought the first bike in 1903, to the point where they were being exported to Japan in 1912. At this point, Harley Davidson motorcycles were already insanely popular, and company growth was hard to keep up with. They soon opened up a shop, sold a few bikes to the Detroit Police, and introduced the iconic V-twin Motor. 


So they were off to a great start, but was that what made them the most sought after motorcycle in the world, or a household name that continues to endure (and best) its competition for over 117 years?  No. You got to have a little more than just a great start to last that long, and still be known among the best.


Military Service


As I mentioned before, Harley Davidson Motor Company sold some bikes to the Detroit Police department when the company was at its infancy, and while other police departments in other cities, for the most part, people still relied on the hay-fed horses of the time. That was until a famous general went after an infamous Mexican outlaw named Pancho Villa in 1916.


This famous general was the predecessor of Patten, and the only active 6-Star General in U.S. History. His name was Jack Pershing. Now “Black Jack,” as he was called due to prior military accomplishments, was incredibly popular, went on to do some amazing things, including shooting Pancho in the leg after chasing him around on…you guessed it… Harley Davidsons. 


Shortly after Pershing’s endorsement of Harley Davidson, the motorcycle company produced military vehicles for the First World War. These bikes were used with great effect, right up on the front lines, and by field medics transporting the wounded to hospitals. Harley Davidson made excellent use of sidecars for this endeavor, either mounting machine guns on them, or stretchers. The mobility of these war bikes no doubt added to the success of the Allied victory.


World War II saw a lot of impact from manufacturers back home, and Harley Davidson was no exception. The motor company ceased nearly all of the residential production of motorcycles and put nearly 60,000 units on the battlefield. Basically, these bikes were just beefed-up versions of the civilian units, with the exception of some rather innovative bikes made with special filters for dessert operations in North Africa. 


Harley Davidson Motorcycles weren’t the only bikes in service during the World Wars, but they did earn a reputation for being durable, reliable, and getting the job done. Even still, the war efforts were not the only accomplishments being made by this remarkable company.


Harley Davidson Racing


With the first Harley Davidson being sold in 1903, the first Harley Davidson to win a race followed shortly after in 1905. As if to add insult to other manufacturers’ injury, in 1910 seven different types of races were won by Harley Davidson Motorcycles! So, just three years later, the Harley Davidson Racing Team was formed. Who was one of the main racing engineers? None other than William Harley himself! 


The wins for the motor company’s racing team just kept coming in, with the infamous Joe Petrali tearing up dirt tracks in 1925, and Larry Headrick following suit 25 years later. In 1950, Harley Davidson riders won 18 titles and broke six records, carrying on a tradition of wins that just couldn’t be stopped.


Harley Davidson bikes were so well made, and so well operated that they won races for 75 years, when they picked up the legendary Scott Parker that left his competition holding back tears for over a decade. This guy won 10 championships and over 90 races, earning him the best winning record in the history of the racing team. 


All of these wins proved the engineering might of Harley Davidson Motor Company, but even all these bragging rights were theirs by right, it still wasn’t the main reason why the motorcycles are still legendary today. 




Most Harley Davidson enthusiasts can tell if a motorcycle is a Harley or not just by the way it sounds. Some people even claim that the same brand of custom pipes on a rice burner sound differently than if they are mounted on the real thing. Whether this is true or not, you can definitely tell a Harley Davidson by its signature V-Twin motor that William Harley designed eleven decades ago. Heck, the bike is so unique in its style and sound, that many people believe that it made a certain small town in South Dakota very, very famous. 


Speaking of famous, Harley Davidson style has caught the eye of many famous celebrities over the years, forming a sort of symbiosis between rider and machine that added to the public appeal for both. Some of the famous Harley Davidson riders included Clark Gable, Buddy Holly, and Hunter S. Thompson. The King of rock and roll even owned the king of motorcycles! That’s right, Elvis had a Harley Davidson, and was a proud rider for years, paving the way for musicians like Cher, who also loved the open road.


Recently, famous Canadian actor Keanu Reeves bumped up modern interest in Harley Davidson by purchasing 12 custom bikes for a group of stuntmen that he spent nearly 7 months with on the set of the Matrix. Mr. Reeves’s love for motorcycling no doubt had an influence as to why he gifted bikes to each of his fellow actors, and with everything we’ve explored up till this point, it’s becoming less of a mystery as to why he chose Harley Davidson as the brand name of those gifts. After all, a legendary gift should only have a legendary name attached to it.


So Harley Davidsons have a style that is unique enough to be noticed from a distance, and attractive enough to get the attention of the rich and famous up close, but even that isn’t enough to be the sole reason why Harley Davidson motorcycles are so damn great… 


What Is the “Why?”


So if it isn’t the fact that Harley Davidson Motor Company is the literal embodiment of the American dream, the unique style and sound of the bikes, or the proven durability and engineering through military service and racing competition that makes a Harley a Harley, what is it? Why do people love Harley Davidsons? Why is this type of motorcycle a household name?


I mean the answer to such a simple question can be argued from a historical standpoint and a track record that has…well…literally been proven on the track. The answer can be proven for the hundreds of famous enthusiasts that will testify to their love for the bikes, or even by simply going down to your local Harley Davidson dealer and riding one for yourself. 


Yet after I got done researching all the very cool history of Harley Davidson, not only here in America, but all over the world, I think that there is only one REAL reason why Harley Davidson Motor Company makes such an amazing product that so many thousands of people revere, and that answer is very simple:


“Because it’s a Harley.” 

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