Harley-Davidson—you can’t talk road bikes without mentioning the king of the road. The American tradition has survived two world wars, the Great Depression, and a buyout, and through it all, they’ve continued to make some of the best motorcycles to ever cruise the highways and byways of the world.
The exploration of the icon started with the company’s founders: William S. Harley and Arthur P. Davidson. Their first bike, the Model O, didn’t offer much outside of a lot of fun. Soon, they moved out of the backyard shed and into a production facility—the same facility they are still in today. After receiving an engineering degree, William Harley came back to the company with a revolutionary idea, the V-twin.
In 1909, Harley-Davidson released the first bike to feature the V-twin. The Model 5D wasn’t a great success, but it was the first time that the Harley-Davidson sound was made.
The Model 70 was released in 1911 and finally found some success for the company. At the time, Harley-Davidson was marketing their bikes as being quiet, and the target audience was businessmen. Rather than racing on the popular board track racing courses, Harley-Davidson opted for flat tracks, where they dominated. Harley-Davidson’s real success was when they started selling to the U.S. Army.
The Knucklehead soon came on scene, offering even more power. With the beginning of WWII, Harley-Davidson focused on the WLA—a stripped-down version of their bikes. After the war, there were so many bikes left over that it lead to the practice of customising bikes, and even led to the formation of bike gangs, like the Hell’s Angels. That outlaw reputation helped boost sales, which would soon suffer as European models came into the market. Harley-Davidson adapted, bringing out their own race bike.
That’s when Honda hit. Marketing to families and “respectable” members of society, they started dominating the market. Harley-Davidson doubled down, and by the 1960s, they were in need of capital. AMF injected money into the company, but quality dropped. Still, their bikes won more races, and even propelled Evel Kneivel into infamy. Harley-Davidson eventually got out of the deal, but still needed help. President Reagan imposed tariffs on foreign bikes, which helped the company come back.
Today, Harley-Davidson is still around, though the competition is tough. They’re marketing to a younger crowd, but with their survivor mentality, they’re not giving up anytime soon.