If anyone was asked to name the world’s most iconic motorcycle manufacturer, there’s a strong chance their reply would be ‘Harley-Davidson.’ With a rich history that stretches over a century, Harley-Davidson has established itself as one of the most successful and reputable brands in the motorcycle industry.
Now, over 100 years on, Harley-Davidson remains at the pinnacle of motorcycling culture. The company was one of the two major American manufacturers to survive the Great Depression of the 1930s, and has faced numerous challenges throughout its journey. At one point, the brand’s reputation was significantly tarnished and its future was brought into question; but, in typical Harley-style, the brand returned stronger than ever, affirming itself as an invincible, cultural phenomenon.
A brief history
In 1901 and aged just 21 years old, Milwaukee-born William S. Harley sketched a blueprint of a standard bicycle fitted with a small engine. Harley had a vision of what motorised cycling should look like; just three years later, and with the assistance of childhood friend Arthur Davidson, the first-ever Harley-Davidson motorbike was made available to the public.
The first bike was built as a racer and featured a 3-1/8 inch bore and 3-1/2 inch stroke fitted within a loop frame. Arthur’s brother Walter later joined the pair, and the group of three went to work in their workshop, which was nothing more than a 10 x 15 ft wooden shed. By the end of 1903, the trio had manufactured a total of three bikes; by 1907, they had manufactured 150.
In 1908, the company employed 18 staff and expanded into a 2,380 sq ft production facility, and by 1920 Harley-Davidson was the world’s largest manufacturer with traders in 67 countries. Otto Walker took the brand to national victory in 1921 as the first ever rider to top 100mph on a motorcycle.
During the First World War, Harley-Davidson provided over 15,000 machines to the armed forces. It was shortly before WWII when the company was acquired by Japanese firm Rikuo (Rikuo Internal Combustion Company).
Production continued in Japan until 1958, and over a decade later in 1969, the company was bought by American Machine and Foundry (AMF) – a decision that was soon regretted. Shortly after the acquisition, production was streamlined and workforce numbers were slashed, which resulted in a labour force strike. The new bikes were found to be particularly low-quality, with poor handling and ever poorer performance. Sales dropped drastically and the company was close to becoming bankrupt.
With AMF nearly running Harley-Davidson into the ground, it was time for the brand to resurrect itself and regain the status it once had. A total of 13 investors bought the company from AMF in 1981. At this time, the company faced fresh competition from Japanese manufacturers, who Harley-Davidson said were importing so many bikes to the US that it was threatening the work of home producers. The International Trade commission launched an investigation into the matter and in 1983 President Reagan imposed a 45% duty on imported bikes over 700cc. At the time this was happening, Harley-Davidson rejected numerous offers from Japanese firms to help with its production.
Perhaps this is why the brand is still so relevant today: instead of attempting to match the bikes of Japanese manufacturers, Harley-Davidson decided to exploit the classic look of their older machines. Thus, they began to produce bikes that had the essence of earlier models, hoping to evoke a sense of nostalgia of bygone eras. Harley-Davidson began to outsource a lot of its production work, and a number of foreign manufacturers were responsible for producing the wheels, electronics, shocks, forks and other parts. As a result of this, the overall quality of the bikes started to improve.
To this day, Harley-Davidson’s philosophy more or less remains the same, which helps it to stand out amidst today’s Japanese-dominated motorcycle market. Each new bike has an element that reflects the styles of classic Harleys (with the exception of the VRSC models), demonstrating that the company’s past plays a prominent part in its future.
From 1977 up until the start of this year, all bikes produced have been heavyweights with engine displacements of 700cc or greater. However, this year the firm has decided to enter the middleweight market with its Street range of bikes.
Its decision to enter into a different market may be due to the brand attracting a new generation of riders; in an interview for Reuters back in 2012, a company executive noted that for the first time in ten years the average buyers of Harley-Davidson bikes were not white baby-boomers – the generation responsible for embracing the bikes as symbols of rebellion in the 60s and 70s.
Recent research from RL Polk revealed that since 2008, Harley-Davidson has led the market among riders aged between 18 and 34, African-Americans, Hispanics and women. The company itself stopped releasing buyer figures in 2009 after it claimed that the data did not adequately measure its outreach efforts.
Even if the target audience appears to be shifting, the latest figures from the company’s earnings report confirm that it’s making the right decisions. Last year, worldwide retail sales of new bikes grew by 5.7% in the fourth quarter and by 4.4% in the year compared with 2012.
It was also recently revealed that Harley-Davidson is trying its luck in the three-wheeled market by selling its Tri Glide “trikes” in Japan. This is the company’s first venture into this market, and it will be interesting to see the results.
Nevertheless, Harley-Davidson remains a renowned motorcycling brand that shows no signs of slowing down. The brand name is kept alive with regular releases, events, clubs, meetings and exhibitions. Harley-Davidson has the largest brand community of all manufacturers, made up of people who value and respect the company for what it does best: producing fine-quality custom, cruiser and touring motorcycles and selling them to Harley-lovers across the globe.