Harley Davidson: The American Motorcycle Essay, Research Paper
Harley Davidson, America’s number one and only motorcycle rests comfortably at the head of the pack, but it wasn’t always that way, and it wasn’t always just Harley.
It’s hard to say when the invention of the first motorcycle was thought of, plans for bikes go as far back as the 1700’s, of course they had no motors. In the 1860’s inventors finally got a bike that worked the next logical step was a motor. The first motorcycle came when the Johnson Motor Company strapped a steam engine to a bike, and it came from of all places, but France. Later in 1868 Leo Purrol hooked an engine to a “Velocipe” and on Dec 26,1868 had it patented, this day could very well be concidered the “birthday” of the motorcycle. Later the following year an American by the name of Roper made his own version but it was not practical.Finally in 1885 a German man named Gutty Damler built a bike around his own internal combustion motor, he only made the one bike and scrapped the entire idea after it caught his son’s pants on fire, saying there was “no future in two wheel vehicles” he later went on to start a car company and he call it Mercades Benz.
Inventors kept at it and by the turn of the century bike shops were turning out bikes left and right, but with little in the way of speed control or breaking these were not for the weak of heart, which was exactly part of their appeal. Daredevils were all over the place driving through flaming walls, crossing tight-ropes and even appearing on “Ripply’s Believe It or Not” when a daredevil jumped his motorcycle over 23 people! Of course all bikers had and still do have a daredevil in them, most don’t take it to the extreme, and why should they, there is no reason to you are in danger just being out there. Of course no one knew the potential of motorcycles at this point, they were only used commercially as pace cars for bike races.
Nations just as people have dates and events that stand out in mind. For America it was 1903, people called it the begining of “America’s Century” as it was the time that hundreds and thousands of immigrants were flocking to America, the Wright brothers finally achieved man’s dream of flight and Henry Ford came out with the first Model A which would be a sign of things to come.
Down in Milwaulke, Wisconson, William Harley, and the three Davidson brothers Walter, William, and Aurthor worked out of a small garage that the Davidson’s father built for them. They saw the need for personal and affordable transportation that could handle a road system that was non-existent, the answer would later be known as Harley Davidson, the first bike was small, only three horsepower. The following year in 1904 The partners made two motorcycles and sold both of them, Harley Davidson was underway.
In 1909 nations were begining to become known for the engines they put on their motorcycles. Britain came out with a vertical engine on their Triumphs and Nortons, while Germany had BMW’s being built with a horizontal engine. America made the Harley’s with a new design, the V-Twin, a perfect engine that fit the frame and left no extra space. It had the torque, power and sound that makes you come alive with a feeling that made it great to ride, and this was the begining of the Harley “Mystique”
The invention of the V-Twin engine wasn’t about “Mystique” to Harley, they were looking for power…double the power of the single engines everyone else was using. By then it was needed, and America was ready for it.
The demand for motorcycles grew, Harley rapidly became the workhorse of America, everything was being delivered on a Hog, it was dependable, 1/3 the cost of a car, and could go everywhere a car couldn’t. Budget minded families purchased them cause they just made better sense, and this is when women first became interested in bikes. It was the the “Golden Years of Motorcycles” a period unmatched in popularity. 86 thousand cycles were registered in the U.S. in 1910 alone, by 1913 more than that were being produced each year. There were manufacturers everyplace, even Sears had a motorcycle that you could order through the catalogues as you were ordering your clothes. Harley Davidson was no exception as they also expanding their sales.
Aurthor Davidson went coast to coast setting up the single best dealership network in the U.S. William Davidson concentrated on the labor force using German and Italian immigrants that were moving into the Wisconson area. Harley was the engineer of the group, he helped in keeping the edge with the first successful clutch and kickstarter system. Within 10 years the Harley Davidson Motor Company had gone from a handshake deal to a major motor company. Unfortunately even the innovative inventions coming out of Harley weren’t enough to prove the companies superiority. The way to be proven was in racing, and for Harley each race was a struggle to keep the company going and let the public know they were the best.
To do this President Walter Davidson entered a two day endurance run from the Catskills to Brooklyn, NY and while most of the motorcycles brokedown in the first day, Walter and his bike finished first place.
Harley Davidson never looked back from that race on, they raced everyone and won. Eventually Harley found a match in racing when put against the Indian motorcycles. Indian and Harley Davidson were arch-rivals for more than 50 years, on the race courses right into the showrooms and then some. While the rivalry is now muted Indian still has a cultural presence.
World War I. was in progress for 3 years before the United States entered it, but when they did Harley Davidsons were right at the front lines being used as communicators on the battlefields relaying information from the “no man’s land” areas to the command posts, infact the first general into Germany, Corpral Roy Hultz, was riding on a Hog.
In the 1920’s women gained the right to vote and were taking an assertive role in society which included riding motorcycles. The entire country was on a “spiritual high” and sports in general was at an all time high but motorcycles were starting to suffer. Henry Ford started using the moving belt to assmble the Model T and in doing so cut the cost of cars so that they were as cheap as motorcycles. Two wheel transportation was no longer competetive and many motorcycle manufacturers went under over night. Harley Davidson was only able to stay alive with strong sales to the U.S. Postal service. The real savior for Harley was the police departments. The first “bike cop” was put on duty in 1909 when Pittsburg sent out officers on Harley’s, but in the 1920’s over 2500 state and city police departments were using Harley Davidsons for patrol officers.This started the “cops and robbers” scene as both the law and the outlaws were driving Hog’s
Howard Hughs directed a film in 1930 which inspired the nickname of a bomber squad stationed in England in W.W.II. After the war several riders came back to California and started a motorcycle club using the same name as the film, and that club is as well known now as back then…Hell’s Angles. Of course the idea of a bike club was nothing new but for the first time motorcycles weren’t being bought for practical use, but for fun.
The motorcycle culture finally began to emerge, bikers could pick from an array of hats, gloves, and jackets among other things that were designed specifically for riding. This however was not enough to help the industry, sales were still low and the great depression didn’t help matters any.
The depression caused by the stockmarket crash crippled the worlds economy. 1/3 of Americans were out of work and had little or no help. By the time 1931 rolled around there were only two motorcycle companies that remained in America, Indian and Harley Davidson, but both were in bad shape and struggling. No one had money for gas, let alone a new motorcycle. Harley looked over seas for help in their financial situations. While the sales kept them alive it also started the international Harley Davidson cult following. Japan a country that now produces a good deal of motorcycles themselves became facinated by Harleys. When a major earthquake crippled the roadways of Japan motorcycles were needed to navigate the remains. Harley Davidson sent an entire factory of equipment to Japan and they began producing their own version of the motorcycles, it was the first motorcycle factory in Japan, and Harley Davidson started it.
In 1936 the U.S. was finally getting out of the depression, people were starting to feel a sense of relief and could afford the joys of riding. By 1942 the United States was in it’s second World War. Bill Harley along with millions of other civilians enlisted for service. Production bikes were converted to be used by the millitary, and G.I.’s were being used as motorcycle scouts. Harley’s were used in every aspect of the war, and afterwards Harley Davidson came out of the war more powerful than ever, and Indian, Harley’s last domestic competition, was about to go under. Unfortunately Harley’s good times would change with one inncident.
On July 4, 1937 a motorcycle rally got out of control. Young riders fed up with rules, disiplint, and authority get rowdy, start drag racing through town and spinning doughnuts outside of the local saloons. “Life” magazine covers the story and even stages photos that were later used in articles that exaggerated the entire event. The American public changed it’s views of cyclists from enthusiast to rebels. Some riders were being rebels just to be rebels, most going against the rights they had just faught to protect. Harleys and motorcycles in general became the symbol of rebellion, to counteract the negative effects Harley began making golf carts.
In the 60’s people were ready for something new, foreign companies brought in their bikes and the market exploded for them. Cycles such as BSA and Honda were cheaper and concidered more sporty, therefore they were accepted over the rough heavyweight Harleys which were stuck with an image it never wanted. Harley had nothing to compete with the foreign sales and it faced it’s worst time since the depression.
In 1966 America got into the war no one wanted and no one understood. Traditional values weren’t being challenged, but completely replaced. Youth culture became common culture and Harley was one of it’s symbols, again Harley became associated with crime and rebellion. Luckly not all the images were negative ones. Harleys became associated with America and the search for freedom. By the time the first American walked on the moon Harley was as recognizable with America as the cowboys of the old west.
Unfortunately the positive image was again short lived and didn’t help out with Harley’s finantial problems,but the AMF company did help when they bought the motor company in 1969. Many people don’t feel the AMF Harley Davidsons were real Hog’s. Production on the AMF’s was rushed and the quality of the bikes was compromised, but no matter how you look at it the AMF company had money and is quite possibly the only reason Harley is around today.
There was one thing AMF did that was right and that was the creation of the Super Glide, a Chopper that was produced right out of the factory as opposed to the old Choppers which were custom jobs that the owner did on his or her own. They would chop off a head light, fender or even the front brakes, the whole objective of them was to go faster.
While new designs came through, images from Hollywood still showed bikers as “bad guys”. As Harley struggled with their bad image and quality problems they also had to deal with overseas competition. British motorcycles were driven under and Harley was still in trouble. By 1979 Harley’s U.S. sales were down to only 4% the only support came from the hardcore loyalists.
Harley Davidsons were concidered the dinosaurs of motorcycles, few thought it would be able to avoid extinction. Then in the 1980’s the biker images started getting better, people started to realize, it wasn’t what you rode or wore, but what was on the inside, but Harley still had it’s quality problems to deal with. Not for long though, cause just as the image got better so did the bikes. In 1981 a group of executives and family members purchased the Harley Davidson Motor Company back from AMF. There were many finantial obsticals that stood in the way but the one thing they knew is that they had to build a better bike.
New production techniques were put in place, but there was a new purpose and attitude among the workers and management. All workers met with riders at rallies and shows just to find out what the riders wanted on their bikes. It created the strongest link ever between customers and workers. Harley still however needed to get noticed and in 1984 with the introduction of the Blockhead motor people took notice. Harley had done it, they made a better bike. Keeping the heritage of the past and combinding it with the technology of the future. Harley entusiasts were excited and slowly the image of the rider changed. Suddenly Rebellion was cool again, but the real change came with the release of “Mask” in 1985 which showed bikers as normal people with real values and issues, not just the hardcore bikers from the past. With the negatives finally gone people from all walks of life started to enjoy riding and Harley profitted the most.
The motorcycle market was shrinking and Harley Davidson’s sales started to skyrocket. They went from almost dead 10 years earlier to doing some of it’s best business in it’s history, which only added to the “Mystique”. Riders gathered at rallies such as Sturgis, SD with atleast one common interest, they all love motorcycles.
Harley Davidson is part of American Tradition all the way and most people say that if there is some rebellion in Harley’s than that is also part of American tradition. Today Harleys have a unique place in society. So as we ride into the second century of motorcycles we’ll do it on the number one and only American motorcycle. So who cares if a frenchman once said Americans have no culture, and that the only thing the U.S. ever contributed to the world was Rock and Roll and Harley Davidsons, what more do you need?