Whether you're a die hard Harley rider or you wouldn't be caught pushing one around a deserted parking lot, there is no denying that few motorcycle companies have achieved the success that Harley-Davidson has over their 112 year history. But who were the visionaries behind this iconic brand?
Most would guess that it was probably some guy named Harley and his partner Davidson, which would be pretty close to the truth. A more complete version is that Harley-Davidson was founded by William Harley and the three Davidson brothers: Arthur, William and Walter.
The Motor Company can trace its beginnings all the way back to the late 1800's to a house on Ninth Street in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. To be fair, it would actually be two houses on Ninth Street, the first belonging to the Harley family and the second belonging to the Davidson family. William Harley and Arthur Davidson were only one year apart in age and growing up just a handful of houses away from each other made for the beginnings of a life long friendship.
Like most boys of that era, they were both entranced by that hot new form of two wheeled transportation called the bicycle. William was so intrigued by bicycles that he took a job at a Milwaukee-based bicycle factory at the age of 15.
Little did he know that this had set him on the path of building the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
By the turn of the century, William had worked his way up from cycle fitter to draftsman and soon left the bicycle company to work as a draftsman for the Barth Manufacturing Company. It was during this time that he designed his first internal combustion engine based on the French de Dion-Bouton engine, which was widely used (and widely copied) by early motorcycle manufacturers. With the help of Arthur, a fellow draftsman at Barth and a mutual friend whose father owned a lathe, William spent the next couple years trying to complete a prototype machine in his spare time.
That first machine never materialized, but William was already putting his skills as a draftsman to use designing a second prototype by 1903. William and Arthur realized that what they really needed in order to build a complete motorcycle was a competent machinist, so they hatched a plan to enlist the help of Arthur's older brother Walter. Walter was an experienced machinist who had worked for the Milwaukee Railroad, but was living Parsons, Kansas at the time.