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What is a Harley-Davidson®?

R. Kayne
R. Kayne

Harley-Davidson® is an American company that has manufactured motorcycles for over a century. It began from humble roots, founded by childhood friends William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. The friends built a motorized bicycle in 1901, which led to an evolution that resulted in the heart-thumping classic motorcycles we know today.

Harley-Davidson® has an interesting history, supplying motorcycles to the military in World War I, World War II and the Korean War. Harley-Davidsons® were also reportedly used in “border skirmishes” with Doroteo Arango Arambula (1878-1923), better known as the infamous Pancho Villa.

Harley-Davidson was founded by William Harley and Arthur Davidson.
Harley-Davidson was founded by William Harley and Arthur Davidson.

By the 1950s, the reputation of Harley-Davidson® started to take a rebellious turn, as popular culture began associating the motorcycle with outlaw gangs like the Hells Angels. Anti-hero actors like James Dean (1931-1955) and Steve McQueen (1930-1980) epitomized Hollywood’s idealized image of the motorcycle rogue, with McQueen a Harley-Davidson® owner and enthusiast who raced automobiles and motorcycles for pleasure.

Outlaw gangs embraced the Harley-Davidson® to the exclusion of nearly all others, cementing the public's image and adding to the “stigmatic appeal” of the bike. However, growing violence throughout the 60s associated with these gangs might have ultimately hurt Harley-Davidson® sales. On 6 December 1969, at the Altamont Free Concert hosted at the Altamont Speedway, Hells Angles were involved in the deaths of concert goers who crowded the stage to see the Rolling Stones, an event memorialized in the movie, Gimme Shelter.

The counterculture movie Easy Rider was also released in 1969, starring Dennis Hopper, Peter Fonda and Jack Nicholson. The action follows Hopper and Fonda as two bikers who travel the American Southwest on Harley-Davidson® choppers; modified bikes with extended front forks and ape hanger handlebars. The movie explores the freedom-loving attitudes of the 60s, but has a violent ending that resonated with the trying social climate, as one of the characters is mortally shot while riding his Harley.

It seemed almost fitting that in that same year, Harley-Davidson® was sold. The new owners, American Machinery and Foundry (AMF), cut the workforce and lowered quality standards to produce a more cost-effective product. The plan resulted in plummeting sales and near bankruptcy. Happily for Harley-Davidson® fans, the company was bought back in 1981 by a group of investors that included Willie G. Davidson, grandson to original co-founder, William S. Harley.

By the time Harley-Davidson® was re-purchased, Japanese bikes had taken a strong hold on the market. Harley-Davidson® responded by drawing on their rich history, designing bikes with a retro feel that hearkened back to classic Harley-Davidson® designs. To compete in the marketplace many parts were outsourced overseas and continue to be, while the company strives to maintain its American-made image.

The Harley-Davidson® is known for its distinctive sound, a result of the V-Twin engine design that uses a single crankshaft pin connected to the piston rods, causing them to fire at uneven intervals. In 1994, Harley-Davidson® went so far as to try to trademark the sound.

The adage among Harley enthusiasts is that you haven’t ridden a motorcycle until you’ve ridden a Harley. You’ll pay handsomely for the privilege to own one, but if maintained they hold their value quite well. If purchasing an older model, avoid bikes manufactured during the AMF years (1969-1981) for the best resell value and quality. Whether looking for a small, fast cruiser like the Sportster®, a classic cruiser like the Dyna®, a full-dresser like the Road King®, or a racing bike like the V-Rod®, Harley has you covered. Just slip in the key, prepare to be wowed, and don't forget to keep the sticky side down.

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    • Harley-Davidson was founded by William Harley and Arthur Davidson.
      By: Craig Hosterman
      Harley-Davidson was founded by William Harley and Arthur Davidson.