Who Were The Founders Of Harley-Davidson?

Perhaps no consumer product sold anywhere in the world is as tightly associated with its own fandom as the Harley-Davidson motorcycle (pictured above). According to The Chronicle of Higher Education, the brand is associated with its own subculture, complete with its own dress code, slang, and rules (never mind that most Harley-Davidson owners, though they may participate superficially in the culture, are no longer the rough-and-tumble outlaws once associated with the brand).

Perhaps another reason American fans in particular are so obsessed with the brand is that, in a market dominated by names like Ducati, Suzuki, and Yamaha, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle is 100 percent American. They're made in America (at factories in Missouri and Pennsylvania, according to WUSA9) and were originally designed and built by four American men in a Milwaukee garage. In fact, three of the men involved were named Davidson, but the team landed on putting Harley's name first on the product because he was the one who came up with the idea of a motorcycle (via Harley-Davidson Insurance).

From The Bicycle To The Motorcycle

In discussing the history of the motorcycle, we must begin by discussing its ancestor: the bicycle. As Live Science notes, the answer to the question of who invented the bicycle depends largely on how you define such words as "invented" and "bicycle." But certainly by 1817, a two-wheeled, human-powered machine that's more or less a bicycle had become a thing. Early versions were unwieldy and dangerous, and they relied on the rider pushing against the ground with his feet (a la Fred Flintstone and his car). Propulsion systems using pedals and gears came about later.

Once the steam engine made machine-powered vehicles a thing, it wasn't long before tinkerers were trying to build a self-propelled bicycle — a "motorbike," if you will (via Motorcycle.com). Davidson and the Harleys weren't the first to come up with the idea, and indeed, such machines had been around for several decades before William Harley and the Davidsons began tinkering around with their own invention.

William S. Harley

William Sylvester Harley (above) was born in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1880, according to Biography. By the age of 15, he'd gotten a job at a bicycle factory, working alongside his childhood friend, Arthur Davidson (more on him later). Both men were ambitious tinkerers with eyes for engineering, and while working at the bicycle factory, the two started working on the idea of an engine mounted to a bike, with Davidson (and his brothers) later agreeing that the idea was Harley's and, thus, his name should be first in the company's name, according to Harley-Davidson Insurance.

In 1901, Harley worked with Arthur Davidson and his brother, Walter Davidson, to design a prototype that, though functional, wasn't capable of summiting the hills around Milwaukee (via Rommel Harley-Davidson). The men worked and tinkered some more, and soon enough, the Harley-Davidson company was a thing, eventually selling motorcycles that met and even exceeded the company's expectations

Harley was the chief engineer and chief treasurer of the company that bears his name until his death in 1943 at the age of 62 (per History).

Arthur Davidson

Arthur Davidson (above) was born in Wisconsin sometime around 1881, according to Encyclopedia.com (Harley-Davidson Insurance says his birthdate was February 11, 1881). He spent at least part of his childhood not far from William S. Harley, who became his best friend and business partner. In 1901, when he was around 20 years old, he and Harley built their "factory" in a Milwaukee shed.

While his partner's name appears first on the company letterhead, make no mistake: Harley-Davidson would not have become what it is now without Davidson's help. In addition to the technical contributions to the company's products, Davidson also was instrumental in moving the company's products from the factory into riders' hands. According to Harley-Davidson Insurance, he was the company's first general sales manager, and he was responsible for getting the United States Postal Service, the military, and various police departments to make use of his company's machines.

Davidson died at 69 after a car crash (per Harley-Davidson Insurance).

Walter Davidson

Walter Davidson (above, second from the left) was a latecomer to the Harley-Davidson game. As Google Arts & Culture explains, when his older brother (above left) and his brother's partner were tinkering about in the family's garage, Watler had left Wisconsin for Kansas. A self-taught electrician and a machinist by trade, by adulthood, he'd gotten a job with a railroad, according to the AMA Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Back in Wisconsin, Harley and Arthur's reach had exceeded its grasp when it came to building a prototype motorcycle, and they needed a skilled machinist. Arthur sent a letter to his brother, and the younger man promptly responded by returning to Milwaukee. "Walter arrived expecting to see a motorcycle but instead was greeted by an unfinished mess. But in that mess, Walter saw a dream, so he decided to stay in Milwaukee to make William and Arthur's dream a reality," notes Harley-Davidson Insurance.

Walter died on February 7, 1942, at age 65; at the time, he was the president of the company that bears his and his brothers' names (per Harley-Davidson Insurance). 

William A. Davidson

Like his brother Watler, William Davidson was a skilled mechanic who — also like his brother — had been working for the railroad (although in this case, he was closer to home, working in a nearby suburb of Milwaukee, per Google Arts & Culture). According to Harley-Davidson Insurance, going to work for his brothers and their partner was a risky move for Bill, as he was making good money at his railroad job when he joined the Harley-Davidson company.

Bill's role in the company evolved into that of the works manager — which is to say, supervising the day-to-day operations and the company's employees at its factories. He was also responsible for identifying the presses and other heavy machinery required for the operation, and his desk was often cluttered with random machine parts that may or may not have played a role in the company's manufacturing.

Bill was known to be a kind, compassionate, and generous man who made care packages for strangers during the Christmas season. He died at the age of 66 on April 21, 1937 (per Harley-Davidson Insurance).