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In 1901, 20-year-old William S. Harley drew up plans for a small engine with a displacement of 7.07 cubic inches (116 cc) and four-inch (102 mm) flywheels. The engine was designed for use in a regular pedal-bicycle frame. Over the next two years, Harley and his childhood friend Arthur Davidson worked on their motor-bicycle using the northside Milwaukee machine shop at the home of their friend, Henry Melk. It was finished in 1903 with the help of Arthur's brother, Walter Davidson. Upon testing their power-cycle, Harley and the Davidson brothers found it unable to climb the hills around Milwaukee without pedal assistance. They quickly wrote off their first motor-bicycle as a valuable learning experiment.
Work immediately began on a new and improved second-generation machine. This first "real" Harley-Davidson motorcycle had a bigger engine of 24.74 cubic inches (405 cc) with 9.75 inches (25 cm) flywheels weighing 28 lb (13 kg). The machine's advanced loop-frame pattern was similar to the 1903 Milwaukee Merkel motorcycle (designed by Joseph Merkel, later of Flying Merkel fame). The bigger engine and loop-frame design took it out of the motorized bicycle category and marked the path to future motorcycle designs. The boys also received help with their bigger engine from outboard motor pioneer Ole Evinrude, who was then building gas engines of his own design for automotive use on Milwaukee's Lake Street.
The prototype of the new loop-frame Harley-Davidson was assembled in a 10 ft × 15 ft (3.0 m × 4.6 m) shed in the Davidson family backyard. Most of the major parts, however, were made elsewhere, including some probably fabricated at the West Milwaukee railshops where oldest brother William A. Davidson was then toolroom foreman. This prototype machine was functional by September 8, 1904, when it competed in a Milwaukee motorcycle race held at State Fair Park. It was ridden by Edward Hildebrand and placed fourth. This is the first documented appearance of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the historical record.
In January 1905, small advertisements were placed in the Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal offering bare Harley-Davidson engines to the do-it-yourself trade. By April, complete motorcycles were in production on a very limited basis. That year, the first Harley-Davidson dealer, Carl H. Lang of Chicago, sold three bikes from the five built in the Davidson backyard shed. Years later the original shed was taken to the Juneau Avenue factory where it would stand for many decades as a tribute to the Motor Company's humble origins until it was accidentally destroyed by contractors cleaning the factory yard in the early 1970s.
In 1906, Harley and the Davidson brothers built their first factory on Chestnut Street (later Juneau Avenue), at the current location of Harley-Davidson's corporate headquarters. The first Juneau Avenue plant was a 40 ft × 60 ft (12 m × 18 m) single-story wooden structure. The company produced about 50 motorcycles that year.
In 1907, William S. Harley graduated from the University of Wisconsin–Madison with a degree in mechanical engineering. That year additional factory expansion came with a second floor and later with facings and additions of Milwaukee pale yellow ("cream") brick. With the new facilities production increased to 150 motorcycles in 1907. The company was officially incorporated that September. They also began selling their motorcycles to police departments around this time, a market that has been important to them ever since.
Production in 1905 and 1906 were all single-cylinder models with 26.84 cubic inches (440 cc) engines. In February 1907 a prototype model with a 45-degree V-Twin engine was displayed at the Chicago Automobile Show. Although shown and advertised, very few V-Twin models were built between 1907 and 1910. These first V-Twins displaced 53.68 cubic inches (880 cc) and produced about 7 horsepower (5.2 kW). This gave about double the power of the first singles. Top speed was about 60 mph (100 km/h). Production jumped from 450 motorcycles in 1908 to 1,149 machines in 1909.
By 1911, some 150 makes of motorcycles had already been built in the United States – although just a handful would survive the 1910s.
In 1911, an improved V-Twin model was introduced. The new engine had mechanically operated intake valves, as opposed to the "automatic" intake valves used on earlier V-Twins that opened by engine vacuum. With a displacement of 49.48 cubic inches (811 cc), the 1911 V-Twin was smaller than earlier twins, but gave better performance. After 1913 the majority of bikes produced by Harley-Davidson would be V-Twin models.
In 1912, Harley-Davidson introduced their patented "Ful-Floteing Seat", which was suspended by a coil spring inside the seat tube. The spring tension could be adjusted to suit the rider's weight. More than 3 inches (76 mm) of travel was available. Harley-Davidson would use seats of this type until 1958.
By 1913, the yellow brick factory had been demolished and on the site a new 5-story structure had been built. Begun in 1910, the factory with its many additions would take up two blocks along Juneau Avenue and around the corner on 38th Street. Despite the competition, Harley-Davidson was already pulling ahead of Indian and would dominate motorcycle racing after 1914. Production that year swelled to 16,284 machines.
World War I
In 1917, the United States entered World War I and the military demanded motorcycles for the war effort. Harleys had already been used by the military in the Pancho Villa Expedition but World War I was the first time the motorcycle had been adopted for combat service. The U.S. military purchased over 15,000 motorcycles from Harley-Davidson during World War I.
Harley-Davidson launched a line of bicycles in 1917 in hopes of recruiting customers for its motorcycles. Besides the traditional diamond frame men's bicycle, models included a step-through frame 3-18 "Ladies Standard" and a 5-17 "Boy Scout" for youth. The effort was discontinued in 1923 because of disappointing sales.
The bicycles were built for Harley-Davidson in Dayton, Ohio, by the Davis Machine Company from 1917 to 1921, when Davis stopped manufacturing bicycles.
By 1920, Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, with 28,189 machines produced, and dealers in 67 countries.
In 1921, a Harley-Davidson, ridden by Otto Walker, was the first motorcycle ever to win a race at an average speed greater than 100 mph (160 km/h).
During the 1920s, several improvements were put in place, such as a new 74 cubic inch (1,212.6 cc) V-Twin, introduced in 1922, and the "Teardrop" gas tank in 1925. A front brake was added in 1928 although notably only on the J/JD models.
In the late summer of 1929, Harley-Davidson introduced its 45 cubic inches (737 cc) flathead V-Twin to compete with the Indian 101 Scout and the Excelsior Super X. This was the "D" model, produced from 1929 to 1931. Riders of Indian motorcycles derisively referred to this model as the "three cylinder Harley" because the generator was upright and parallel to the front cylinder. The 2.745 in (69.7 mm) bore and 3.8125 in (96.8 mm) stroke would continue in most versions of the 750 engine; exceptions include the XA and the XR-750.
The Great Depression began a few months after the introduction of their 45 cubic inch model. Harley-Davidson's sales fell from 21,000 in 1929 to 3,703 in 1933. Despite this, Harley-Davidson unveiled a new lineup for 1934, which included a flathead engine and Art Deco styling.
In order to survive the remainder of the Depression, the company manufactured industrial powerplants based on their motorcycle engines. They also designed and built a three-wheeled delivery vehicle called the Servi-Car, which remained in production until 1973.
In the mid-1930s, Alfred Rich Child opened a production line in Japan with the 74-cubic-inch (1,210 cc) VL. The Japanese license-holder, Sankyo Seiyaku Corporation, severed its business relations with Harley-Davidson in 1936 and continued manufacturing the VL under the Rikuo name.
An 80-cubic-inch (1,300 cc) flathead engine was added to the line in 1935, by which time the single-cylinder motorcycles had been discontinued.
In 1936, the 61E and 61EL models with the "Knucklehead" OHV engines was introduced. Valvetrain problems in early Knucklehead engines required a redesign halfway through its first year of production and retrofitting of the new valvetrain on earlier engines.
By 1937, all Harley-Davidson's flathead engines were equipped with dry-sump oil recirculation systems similar to the one introduced in the "Knucklehead" OHV engine. The revised 74-cubic-inch (1,210 cc) V and VL models were renamed U and UL, the 80-cubic-inch (1,300 cc) VH and VLH to be renamed UH and ULH, and the 45-cubic-inch (740 cc) R to be renamed W.
In 1941, the 74-cubic-inch (1,210 cc) "Knucklehead" was introduced as the F and the FL. The 80-cubic-inch (1,300 cc) flathead UH and ULH models were discontinued after 1941, while the 74" U & UL flathead models were produced up to 1948.
World War II
One of only two American cycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson again produced large numbers of motorcycles for the US Army in World War II and resumed civilian production afterwards, producing a range of large V-twin motorcycles that were successful both on racetracks and for private buyers.
Harley-Davidson, on the eve of World War II, was already supplying the Army with a military-specific version of its 45 cubic inches (740 cc) WL line, called the WLA. The A in this case stood for "Army". Upon the outbreak of war, the company, along with most other manufacturing enterprises, shifted to war work. More than 90,000 military motorcycles, mostly WLAs and WLCs (the Canadian version) were produced, many to be provided to allies. Harley-Davidson received two Army-Navy ‘E’ Awards, one in 1943 and the other in 1945, which were awarded for Excellence in Production.
Shipments to the Soviet Union under the Lend-Lease program numbered at least 30,000. The WLAs produced during all four years of war production generally have 1942 serial numbers. Production of the WLA stopped at the end of World War II, but was resumed from 1950 to 1952 for use in the Korean War.
The U.S. Army also asked Harley-Davidson to produce a new motorcycle with many of the features of BMW's side-valve and shaft-driven R71. Harley largely copied the BMW engine and drive train and produced the shaft-driven 750 cc 1942 Harley-Davidson XA. This shared no dimensions, no parts and no design concepts (except side valves) with any prior Harley-Davidson engine. Due to the superior cooling of the flat-twin engine with the cylinders across the frame, Harley's XA cylinder heads ran 100 °F (56 °C) cooler than its V-twins. The XA never entered full production: the motorcycle by that time had been eclipsed by the Jeep as the Army's general purpose vehicle, and the WLA—already in production—was sufficient for its limited police, escort, and courier roles. Only 1,000 were made and the XA never went into full production. It remains the only shaft-driven Harley-Davidson ever made.
Small Harleys: Hummers and Aermacchis
As part of war reparations, Harley-Davidson acquired the design of a small German motorcycle, the DKW RT 125, which they adapted, manufactured, and sold from 1948 to 1966. Various models were made, including the Hummer from 1955 to 1959, but they are all colloquially referred to as "Hummers" at present. BSA in the United Kingdom took the same design as the foundation of their BSA Bantam.
In 1960, Harley-Davidson consolidated the Model 165 and Hummer lines into the Super-10, introduced the Topper scooter, and bought fifty percent of Aermacchi's motorcycle division. Importation of Aermacchi's 250 cc horizontal single began the following year. The bike bore Harley-Davidson badges and was marketed as the Harley-Davidson Sprint. The engine of the Sprint was increased to 350 cc in 1969 and would remain that size until 1974, when the four-stroke Sprint was discontinued.
After the Pacer and Scat models were discontinued at the end of 1965, the Bobcat became the last of Harley-Davidson's American-made two-stroke motorcycles. The Bobcat was manufactured only in the 1966 model year.
Harley-Davidson replaced their American-made lightweight two-stroke motorcycles with the Aermacchi-built two-stroke powered M-65, M-65S, and Rapido. The M-65 had a semi-step-through frame and tank. The M-65S was a M-65 with a larger tank that eliminated the step-through feature. The Rapido was a larger bike with a 125 cc engine. The Aermacchi-built Harley-Davidsons became entirely two-stroke powered when the 250 cc two-stroke SS-250 replaced the four-stroke 350 cc Sprint in 1974.
Harley-Davidson purchased full control of Aermacchi's motorcycle production in 1974 and continued making two-stroke motorcycles there until 1978, when they sold the facility to Cagiva.
Prior to WWII, Harley-Davidsons were produced in Japan under license to the company Rikuo (Rikuo Internal Combustion Company) starting in 1929 under the name of Harley-Davidson and using the company's tooling, and later under the name Rikuo. Production continued until 1958.
In 1952, following their application to the U.S. Tariff Commission for a 40% tax on imported motorcycles, Harley-Davidson was charged with restrictive practices.
In 1969, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought the company, streamlined production, and slashed the workforce. This tactic resulted in a labor strike and lower-quality bikes. The bikes were expensive and inferior in performance, handling, and quality to Japanese motorcycles. Sales and quality declined, and the company almost went bankrupt. The "Harley-Davidson" name was mocked as "Hardly Ableson", "Hardly Driveable," and "Hogly Ferguson", and the nickname "Hog" became pejorative.
In 1977, following the successful manufacture of the Liberty Edition to commemorate America's bicentennial in 1976, Harley-Davidson produced what has become one of its most controversial models, the Harley-Davidson Confederate Edition. The bike was essentially a stock Harley with Confederate-specific paint and details.
Restructuring and revival
In 1981, AMF sold the company to a group of 13 investors led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson for $80 million. Inventory was strictly controlled using the just-in-time system.
In the early eighties, Harley-Davidson claimed that Japanese manufacturers were importing motorcycles into the US in such volume as to harm or threaten to harm domestic producers. After an investigation by the U.S. International Trade Commission, President Reagan imposed in 1983 a 45% tariff on imported bikes with engine capacities greater than 700 cc. Harley-Davidson subsequently rejected offers of assistance from Japanese motorcycle makers. However, the company did offer to drop the request for the tariff in exchange for loan guarantees from the Japanese.
Rather than trying to match the Japanese, the new management deliberately exploited the "retro" appeal of the machines, building motorcycles that deliberately adopted the look and feel of their earlier machines and the subsequent customizations of owners of that era. Many components such as brakes, forks, shocks, carburetors, electrics and wheels were outsourced from foreign manufacturers and quality increased, technical improvements were made, and buyers slowly returned.
Harley-Davidson bought the "Sub Shock" cantilever-swingarm rear suspension design from Missouri engineer Bill Davis and developed it into its Softail series of motorcycles, introduced in 1984 with the FXST Softail.
In response to possible motorcycle market loss due to the aging of baby-boomers, Harley-Davidson bought luxury motorhome manufacturer Holiday Rambler in 1986. In 1996, the company sold Holiday Rambler to the Monaco Coach Corporation.
The "Sturgis" model, boasting a dual belt-drive, was introduced initially in 1980 and was made for three years. This bike was then brought back as a commemorative model in 1991. By 1990, with the introduction of the "Fat Boy", Harley once again became the sales leader in the heavyweight (over 750 cc) market. At the time of the Fat Boy model introduction, a story rapidly spread that its silver paint job and other features were inspired by the B-29; and Fat Boy was a combination of the names of the atomic bombs Fat Man and Little Boy. However, the Urban Legend Reference Pages lists this story as an urban legend.
1993 and 1994 saw the replacement of FXR models with the Dyna (FXD), which became the sole rubber mount FX Big Twin frame in 1995. The FXR was revived briefly from 1999 to 2000 for special limited editions (FXR2, FXR3 & FXR4).
In 2000, Ford Motor Company added a Harley-Davidson trim level to the F-150, which was produced until 2003. In 2004, Ford introduced a Harley-Davidson trim level to the Super Duty, which was produced until the trim was discontinued for the 2011 model year. Production of the F-150 Harley-Davidson resumed in 2006 and continued until 2012, when Ford discontinued the F-150 Harley-Davidson edition for the 2013 model year due to low sales, accounting for only 1-2% of the F-150's total sales.
Construction started on the $75 million, 130,000 square-foot (12,000 m2) Harley-Davidson Museum in the Menomonee Valley on June 1, 2006. It opened in 2008 and houses the company's vast collection of historic motorcycles and corporate archives, along with a restaurant, café and meeting space.
Buell Motorcycle Company
Harley-Davidson's association with sportbike manufacturer Buell Motorcycle Company began in 1987 when they supplied Buell with fifty surplus XR1000 engines. Buell continued to buy engines from Harley-Davidson until 1993, when Harley-Davidson bought 49% of the Buell Motorcycle Company. Harley-Davidson increased its share in Buell to ninety-eight percent in 1998, and to complete ownership in 2003.
In an attempt to attract newcomers to motorcycling in general and to Harley-Davidson in particular, Buell developed a low-cost, low-maintenance motorcycle. The resulting single-cylinder Buell Blast was introduced in 2000, and was made through 2009, which, according to Buell, was to be the final year of production.
On October 15, 2009, Harley-Davidson Inc. issued an official statement that it would be discontinuing the Buell line and ceasing production immediately. The stated reason was to focus on the Harley-Davidson brand. The company refused to consider selling Buell. Founder Erik Buell subsequently established Erik Buell Racing and continued to manufacture and develop the company's 1125RR racing motorcycle.
First overseas factory in Brazil
In 1998 the first Harley-Davidson factory outside the US opened in Manaus, Brazil, taking advantage of the free economic zone there. The location was positioned to sell motorcycles in the southern hemisphere market.
Claims of stock price manipulation
During its period of peak demand, during the late 1990s and early first decade of the 21st century, Harley-Davidson embarked on a program of expanding the number of dealerships throughout the country. At the same time, its current dealers typically had waiting lists that extended up to a year for some of the most popular models. Harley-Davidson, like the auto manufacturers, records a sale not when a consumer buys their product, but rather when it is delivered to a dealer. Therefore, it is possible for the manufacturer to inflate sales numbers by requiring dealers to accept more inventory than desired in a practice called channel stuffing. When demand softened following the unique 2003 model year, this news led to a dramatic decline in the stock price. In April 2004 alone, the price of HOG shares dropped from more than $60 to less than $40. Immediately prior to this decline, retiring CEO Jeffrey Bleustein profited $42 million on the exercise of employee stock options. Harley-Davidson was named as a defendant in numerous class action suits filed by investors who claimed they were intentionally defrauded by Harley-Davidson's management and directors. By January 2007, the price of Harley-Davidson shares reached $70.
Problems with Police Touring models
Starting around 2000, several police departments started reporting problems with high speed instability on the Harley-Davidson Touring motorcycles. A Raleigh, North Carolina police officer, Charles Paul, was killed when his 2002 police touring motorcycle crashed after reportedly experiencing a high speed wobble. The California Highway Patrol conducted testing of the Police Touring motorcycles in 2006. The CHP test riders reported experiencing wobble or weave instability while operating the motorcycles on the test track.
On February 2, 2007, upon the expiration of their union contract, about 2,700 employees at Harley-Davidson Inc.'s largest manufacturing plant in York, Pennsylvania went on strike after failing to agree on wages and health benefits. During the pendency of the strike, the company refused to pay for any portion of the striking employees' health care.
The day before the strike, after the union voted against the proposed contract and to authorize the strike, the company shut down all production at the plant. The York facility employs more than 3,200 workers, both union and non-union.
Harley-Davidson announced on February 16, 2007, that it had reached a labor agreement with union workers at its largest manufacturing plant, a breakthrough in the two-week-old strike. The strike disrupted Harley-Davidson's national production and was felt in Wisconsin, where 440 employees were laid off, and many Harley suppliers also laid off workers because of the strike.
MV Agusta Group
On July 11, 2008 Harley-Davidson announced they had signed a definitive agreement to acquire the MV Agusta Group for $109M USD (€70M). MV Agusta Group contains two lines of motorcycles: the high-performance MV Agusta brand and the lightweight Cagiva brand. The acquisition was completed on August 8.
On October 15, 2009, Harley-Davidson announced that it would divest its interest in MV Agusta. Harley-Davidson Inc. sold Italian motorcycle maker MV Agusta to Claudio Castiglioni, ending the transaction in the first week of August 2010. Castiglioni is the company's former owner and had been MV Agusta's chairman since Harley-Davidson bought it in 2008.
Operations in India
In August 2009, Harley-Davidson announced plans to enter the market in India, and started selling motorcycles there in 2010. The company established a subsidiary, Harley-Davidson India, in Gurgaon, near Delhi, in 2011, and created an Indian dealer network.
According to Interbrand, the value of the Harley-Davidson brand fell by 43% to $4.34 billion in 2009. The fall in value is believed to be connected to the 66% drop in the company profits in two quarters of the previous year. On April 29, 2010, Harley-Davidson stated that they must cut $54 million in manufacturing costs from its production facilities in Wisconsin, and that they would explore alternative U.S. sites to accomplish this. The announcement came in the wake of a massive company-wide restructuring, which began in early 2009 and involved the closing of two factories, one distribution center, and the planned elimination of nearly 25% of its total workforce (around 3,500 employees). The company announced on September 14, 2010 that it would remain in Wisconsin.
The classic Harley-Davidson engines are V-twin engines, with a 45° angle between the cylinders. The crankshaft has a single pin, and both pistons are connected to this pin through their connecting rods.
This 45° angle is covered under several United States patents and is an engineering tradeoff that allows a large, high-torque engine in a relatively small space. It causes the cylinders to fire at uneven intervals and produces the choppy "potato-potato" sound so strongly linked to the Harley-Davidson brand.
To simplify the engine and reduce costs, the V-twin ignition was designed to operate with a single set of points and no distributor. This is known as a dual fire ignition system, causing both spark plugs to fire regardless of which cylinder was on its compression stroke, with the other spark plug firing on its cylinder's exhaust stroke, effectively "wasting a spark". The exhaust note is basically a throaty growling sound with some popping. The 45° design of the engine thus creates a plug firing sequencing as such: The first cylinder fires, the second (rear) cylinder fires 315° later, then there is a 405° gap until the first cylinder fires again, giving the engine its unique sound.
Harley-Davidson has used various ignition systems throughout its history – be it the early points and condenser system, (Big Twin up to 1978 and Sportsters up to 1978), magneto ignition system used on some 1958 to 1969 Sportsters, early electronic with centrifugal mechanical advance weights, (all models 1978 and a half to 1979), or the late electronic with transistorized ignition control module, more familiarly known as the black box or the brain, (all models 1980 to present).
Starting in 1995, the company introduced Electronic Fuel Injection (EFI) as an option for the 30th anniversary edition Electra Glide. EFI became standard on all Harley-Davidson motorcycles, including Sportsters, upon the introduction of the 2007 product line.
In 1991, Harley-Davidson began to participate in the Sound Quality Working Group, founded by Orfield Labs, Bruel and Kjaer, TEAC, Yamaha, Sennheiser, SMS and Cortex. This was the nation's first group to share research on psychological acoustics. Later that year, Harley-Davidson participated in a series of sound quality studies at Orfield Labs, based on recordings taken at the Talladega Superspeedway, with the objective to lower the sound level for EU standards while analytically capturing the "Harley Sound". This research resulted in the bikes that were introduced in compliance with EU standards for 1998.
On February 1, 1994, the company filed a sound trademark application for the distinctive sound of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle engine: "The mark consists of the exhaust sound of applicant's motorcycles, produced by V-twin, common crankpin motorcycle engines when the goods are in use". Nine of Harley-Davidson's competitors filed comments opposing the application, arguing that cruiser-style motorcycles of various brands use a single-crankpin V-twin engine which produce a similar sound. These objections were followed by litigation. In June 2000, the company dropped efforts to federally register its trademark.
The Revolution engine is based on the VR-1000 Superbike race program, co-developed by Harley-Davidson's Powertrain Engineering team and Porsche Engineering in Stuttgart, Germany. It is a liquid cooled, dual overhead cam, internally counterbalanced 60 degree V-twin engine with a displacement of 69 cubic inch (1,130 cc), producing 115 hp (86 kW) at 8,250 rpm at the crank, with a redline of 9,000 rpm. It was introduced for the new V-Rod line in 2001 for the 2002 model year, starting with the single VRSCA (V-Twin Racing Street Custom) model.
A 1,250 cc Screamin' Eagle version of the Revolution engine was made available for 2005 and 2006, and was present thereafter in a single production model from 2005 to 2007. In 2008, the 1,250 cc Revolution Engine became standard for the entire VRSC line. Harley-Davidson claims 123 hp (92 kW) at the crank for the 2008 VRSCAW model. The VRXSE Destroyer is equipped with a stroker (75 mm crank) Screamin' Eagle 79 cubic inch (1,300 cc) Revolution Engine, producing more than 165 hp (123 kW).
750 cc and 500 cc versions of the Revolution engine will be used in Harley-Davidson's new Street line of light cruisers. These motors, named the Revolution X, use a single overhead cam, screw and locknut valve adjustment, a single internal counterbalancer, and vertically split crankcases; all of these changes making it different from the original Revolution design.
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