Skip to main content
Add Me To Your Mailing List
Shopping Cart
HomeHarley Davidson History

Harley-Davidson History

William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson had a dream of manufacturing a motorized bicycle. This dream would be realized with the addition of Walter and William Davidson. Although not the first motorcycle to appear, their efforts would be the beginning of a motorcycle legacy.

By 1900, a dozen U.S. companies were building motorized bicycles. Two hobby designers - William S. Harley (age 21, an apprentice draftsman) and Arthur Davidson (age 20, a pattern maker) - began tinkering with an idea for a motor-driven bicycle in their basement workshop. They progressed as far as they could with limited finances and tools but soon realized they could go no further without the help of a skilled mechanic.

Enter Arthur Davidson's brother Walter, a railroad machinist working in Kansas. Arthur wrote a letter to Walter offering him a ride on their new motorcycle. Walter realized when he arrived that Arthur had failed to mention that their "new motorcycle" had yet to progress beyond blueprints. But Walter's disappointment soon turned to enthusiasm for the project, and he stayed to help. Soon the third Davidson brother, William (grandfather of current Vice President of Styling, Willie G. Davidson) lent his toolmaking skills to the joint endeavor.

Company Timeline - Then, to Now:

1903 Harley-Davidson is founded

1903 The first Harley-Davidson motorcycle is manufactured

1905 The "Silent Grey Fellow" nickname coincides with the new standard grey color

1907 The first Harley-Davidsons sold for police duty

1909 First "V-Twin" engine

1912 First clutch mechanism

1914 Stepstarter and internal expanding rear brake

1915 Three speed transmission

1916 The first issue of "The Enthusiast" publication

1922 74" Twin engine debuts

1928 Front wheel brake appears

1929 WL 45" Twin engine

1932 45" Servicar introduced

1936 80" Side Valve Twin engine and the first "Knuckle Head" 61" engine

1937 William A. Davidson dies

1941 74" OHV Super Power engine

1942 Walter Davidson dies at age 65

1943 Bill Harley dies at age 66

1947 74" OHV Big Twin engine. Last year of the knucklehead

1948 74" "Panhead" engine is introduced

1949 The Hydra-Glide debuts

1950 Arthur Davidson dies at age 69

1957 XLH Sportster introduced

1958 The Hydra-Glide turns into the Duo-Glide

1959 XLCH Sportster

1960 The "Topper," a fiberglass motorscooter, was introduced

1960 Harley-Davidson teams up with Italian manufacturer Aeronautica Macchi S.p.A. to produce a line of smaller bikes including the  Shortster and Sprint models

1965 The Electra-Glide debuts. Last year of the panhead

1965 George Roeder sets a world land speed record (177.225 m.p.h.) for 250 cc motorcycles on a much modified Harley-Davidson Sprint

1965 After being privately held for over 60 years, Harley-Davidson goes public

1966 The introduction of the "shovel head" engine

1967 Electric start Sportster

1969 Merger with American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF)

1971 FX 1200 Super Glide

1972 1000 cc XLH/XLCH Sportster

1972 First disc brakes on a Harley. Last year for the Servicar

1974 FXE electric start

1977 FXS 1200 Low Rider and FLHS

1978 75th Anniversary models

1978 FLH 80 Electra-Glide (first 1340cc shovelheads)

1978 First electronic ignition on a Harley

1979 FXS 80 Low Rider

1980 First FLT which had a rubber mounted engine. FXB Sturgis belt primary drive

1981 Senior executives at Harley-Davidson purchase the company from AMF. Harley-Davidson once again becomes a privately owned company. FXR introduced

1983 President Reagan imposes additional tariffs on all Japanese motorcycles 700cc or larger

1983 The Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) is established

1984 The Introduction of the "Evolution" engine

1984 First Softail models and Air Assisted Anti-Drive

1985 Last shovelhead built

1986 By offering common stock and subordinated notes, Harley-Davidson once again becomes a publicly owned corporation

1987 In an unprecedented move, Harley-Davidson petitions the ITC for early termination of the five year tariff imposed in 1983

1988 Patented "Springer" front-end returns

1990 Dyna model is introduced. North Texas HOG chartered

1991 All Harleys change to five speed transmission

1992 All Harleys adopt a belt drive

1993 "90th Anniversary" homecoming. Gina Galligan was the last "Miss Harley-Davidson". Harley goes "politically correct"

1994 Feb. 1 Harley filed an application  to register its trademark of the sound of its motorcycles with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Harley-Davidson enters Superbike racing with the introduction of the VR1000, a dual overhead cam, liquid-cooled motorcycle.

1995 First fuel injection models. The 30th Anniversary Ultra Classic® Electra Glide® becomes the first production Harley-Davidson motorcycle to include sequential port electronic fuel injection. The FLHR Road King® is introduced.

1997 A new 330,000-sq.-ft. plant in Kansas City produces its first Sportster. A new 217,000-sq.-ft. Product Development Center opens next to the Capitol Drive plant in Milwaukee. The building is dedicated to Willie G. Davidson.

1998 Harley-Davidson's "95th anniversary" homecoming. Harley-Davidson buys 99% of sportbike manufacturer Buell, which builds innovative Harley-powered cafe racers. Harley factories in York, Pa., and Kansas City complete 137,000 motorcycles annually. (The famed Juneau Avenue plant in Milwaukee assembles only engines.)  A new assembly facility opens in Manaus, Brazil, the first operations outside of the U.S.

1999 New Twin Cam 88 cu. in. motor introduced. Harley engineers introduce the Twin Cam 88, an all-new 1450cc V-twin. There are now three basic OHV engines: the Sportster, available in 883cc or 1200cc form, the 1340cc Evolution and the 1450cc Twin Cam. By juggling engines, frames, bodywork, suspensions and accessories, Harley creates 26 distinct models, ranging from the stripped $5345 XLH 883 Sportster to the full-dress $19,290 FLHTCUI Ultra Classic Electra Glide. Harley factories gear up to produce 200,000 units by the year 2003.  Harley-Davidson and Ford agree to celebrate joint 100th anniversaries with the Ford Harley-Davidson F-Series trucks in 2003.

2000 New Twin Cam 88B with internal counterbalancers introduced on the Softail and Dyna models . Softail sprocket shaft bearing changed from Timken roller bearings to cheaper ball bearings. Fuel injection is unveiled as a new feature on the Softail line of motorcycles for the 2001 model year. The Softail Deuce makes its debut. New stiffer softail frame introduced.   The first Buell Blast rolled off the assembly line Jan. 26.  June 20 Harley drops its application  to register its trademark of the sound of its motorcycles with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.  The 2000 Harley-Davidson™  limited-edition model F-150 Super Cab is jointly developed by Ford Motor Company and Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

2001 New optional Harley-Davidson security system. New models FXDP Dyna Defender police bike and FXDXT Dyna Super Glide T-sport.   New V-ROD (VRSC - V-Twin Racing Street Custom) introduced with fuel injection, overhead cams, liquid cooling and delivered 115 horsepower.  President George W. Bush visited the Pilgrim Road Powertrains Operations facility in Menomee Falls, Wisconsin. Harley announced it ended its factory VR 1000 Superbike racing program. Harley-Davidson Racing adds 17 year old Jennifer Snyder, the first woman to win a national event in the AMA Formula USA National Dirt Track Series.  The 2001 Harley-Davidson™ limited-edition model F-150 SuperCrew  is jointly developed by Ford Motor Company and Harley-Davidson Motor Company.

2002 The dyna's final drive belt goes to the new narrow style. The rear wheel axle goes from the old 7/8" axle to the new 1" axle.  Last year's VRSCA V-Rod returns in its original anodized aluminum or, factory-painted for the first time, a new Two-Tone Sterling Silver and Vivid Black paint combination. Three variations of 100th Anniversary identification were available for most XL and Big Twin models, and two choices were available for the VRSC family. However, every 2003 model featured a 100th Anniversary medallion on the engine crankcase and a 100th Anniversary model nameplate. The 100th Anniversary kicked off with the Open Road Tour, the world's largest rolling birthday party. The supercharged 2002 Ford Harley-Davidson™ F-150 SuperCrew is the third truck jointly developed by Ford Motor Company and Harley-Davidson Motor Company. The 2002 limited-edition truck features a 340hp supercharged 5.4-liter Triton™ V-8 engine with 425 ft-lbs of torque, unique styling cues and a new color option – Dark Shadow Grey. 

2003 Happy 100th birthday to the dreams of one Harley and four Davidsons!  Welcome to Milwaukee. Sorry about Elton.  Anniversary models feature special paint colors and medallions. FLT and Dynas sprocket shaft bearing changed from Timken roller bearings to cheaper ball bearings in late 2002 or early 2003. 

2004 New Sportster with a 70 hp rubber-mounted Evo engine, extended kickstand, 150mm rear tire (up from 130mm), no trap door on the transmission and longer, larger 4.5 gallon gas tank.  Sportster sprocket shaft bearing changed from Timken roller bearings to cheaper ball bearings.  All touring models get a larger 143mm rear tire. New Road King custom introduced. New tilted fairing for the FLT's.  VRSCA 1130cc 115 hp V-Rod returns in 5 colors.  CVO customs are the 95 cu. in. FXSTDSE2 Screamin' Eagle Deuce and the 103 cu. in. FLHTCSE Screamin' Eagle Electraglide.  Buell gets a 1203cc 103hp engine in the Lightning. Motorclothes goes to extended sizes. Ford Harley-Davidson F-Series trucks available in 4X4 F-250 and F-350 SuperCab or CrewCab powered by Ford's 6.0 liter Power Stroke Diesel engine.  Harley-Davidson and Ford agree to extend the Ford Harley-Davidson F-Series trucks to 2007 

2005 Harley-Davidson announced the addition of four new models during their 2005 dealer show in San Diego. All 2005 Harleys received new clear-lens reflector optic headlights that are said to put more light on a broader area while reducing glare for oncoming traffic. Eleven models got new tank badges or decals, and there were several new colors for most of its lineup. Also new was the arrival of the Aluminum Profile Laced wheel, featuring a pretty, chrome-plated aluminum rim and chrome spokes and nipples. This wheel was optional on the Dyna Wide Glide, Sportster Custom models and most Softail and Touring models. The Touring models received a revised lower fairing that was adjustable for the amount of venting delivered and offered greater foot clearance. It is retrofittable back to the 1989 model year. The Softail series, in its 21st year of production, had eight models to choose from in the family, including two new additions: the new retro Softail Springer Classic and the Softail Deluxe. The Softail Deluxe featured whitewalls, the new laced wheels, an FL-style front fender, a luggage rack, and a new headlight nacelle with driving lamps. The Deluxe's floorboards were new to the Softail, and Harley claimed the same 28- to 29-degree available lean angle as the peg-equipped versions. A new seat resulted in the $16,995 Deluxe having the lowest seat height, 24.5 inches, of any Harley. As with most of The Motor Company's 1450cc Big Twins, the Deluxe was available with or without EFI, Both the VRSCA (silver frame and accents) and VRSCB (black frame and accents; and up) got new paint schemes. The VRSCB also got two new colors in addition to the new clear-lens headlight fitted to both.

2006 XM Satellite Radio, the nation's leading provider of satellite radio with more than 4.4 million subscribers, entered the motorcycle market with Harley-Davidson's exclusive 2006 FLHTCUSE Screamin' Eagle Ultra Classic Electra Glide, the first ever motorcycle model equipped with a standard XM Satellite Radio. Harley-Davidson retooled its entire Dyna family of motorcycles with a new six-speed gearbox, new frame geometry, and 49mm forks. The Dyna line also got two new models, the FXDBI Street Bob and the FXDI35, a 35th-anniversary version of the Super Glide. The Dynas have been completely overhauled with the new frame with a 160mm rear tire, a six-speed "Cruiser Drive" transmission. beefy 49mm-diameter fork legs and more. The FXDX model has been discontinued, but the two new Dyna models were introduced.There was a new member of the liquid-cooled VRSC series, the VRSCD Night Rod, and a new touring family member, the FLHX/I Street Glide, Finally, the classically styled FLST/I Heritage Softail returns to that family's line. The newest member of the liquid-cooled Harley line was the Night Rod, Harley discontinued the B version of the V-Rod. Tourers with audio systems got an Advanced Audio System by Harman/Kardon that Harley says offers superior sound quality and which permits the owner to integrate many electronic devices and enables them to operate with the base radio controls. It can play MP3s and CDs. To provide more power for those electrical accessories, a new three-phase, 50-amp/650-watt charging system was standard on all Touring models. It increased charging capacity by 11 to 32 percent, depending on the model. Touring models with auxiliary lights got a new clear-lens design with reflector optics. These new spotlights matched the headlight design introduced in 2005, were more durable, and offered an improved light pattern and intensity. Harley's newest touring-family member was the FLHX/I Street Glide, which undresses the bagger to give a minimalist, custom style. A wide, 200mm rear tire was introduced on the FXST/I Softail Standard, FXSTB/I Softail Night Train and FXSTS/I Springer Softail. The drivetrain for all six Sportster models was upgraded with a new gearbox that Harley says works more smoothly and quietly

The Tour Pak trunk is completely new. It has been redesigned to improve comfort for the passenger and lower center of gravity—without reducing storage capacity. It offers a two-position front-and-back adjustability with a one-inch difference in position. The forward position is the same as the 2005 fixed position, and the rear offers an additional inch of room. The passenger backrest is also in a lower, more comfortable position. The 2006 Tour Pak is made of a new GTX nylon alloy that provides a smoother finish and eliminates internal "chalking." Ultra Classic models get LED side lights on the trunk and full-length chrome trim accents have been added to Electra Glide Classics.

Other improvements to the Touring series include reduced clutch-pull effort, an ignition switch for the Electra Glide and Road Glide that requires the fork to be at full-lock before the switch can be turned to the "fork lock" position, and new "pinstripe" rubber pads for the brake pedal and rider and passenger footboards on all models except FLHRS/I and FLHX/I, with a Bar and Shield logo on the brake pedal.

2007 New for 2007, Harley-Davidson introduced a new 1584cc engine for all its Big Twin models, plus a 50th-Anniversary Sportster, a new Fat Boy, Softail Custom, Night Rod and racing-style V-Rod. The new 1584cc Twin Cam TC96 engine incorporated over 700 new parts and added more displacement, torque, and power. It was mated to the six-speed Cruise Drive transmission, which offered lower top-gear rpm, light and more controllable clutch operation, and much smoother shifting. A limited-edition 1200cc model celebrated half a century of Sportsters, which were first produced in 1957 as the K series with 883cc engines. The 50th Anniversary Sportster had a traditional peanut fuel tank, special badges, and additional touches to mark the 50th anniversary of this motorcycling icon. The 2007 Sportsters joined the rest of the line by incorporating Harley's ESPFI fuel injection as standard equipment. The FXSTC Softail Custom was brought back in name only. The Fat Boy was given a 96-cubic-inch engine and an "extra chopped" rear fender.The VRSCDX Night Rod Special went deep into black. Two new models based on the 1130cc VR engine were introduced including the VRSCDX Night Rod Special, A power upgrade was offered by the new 1584cc engine on Harley's Touring series motorcycles. Harley also incorporated the six-speed Cruise Drive transmission with a new ratio set lowering rpm by about 11 percent in top gear on the highway. For 2007, Harley's Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) had four models: the Screamin' Eagle Road King ($28,495), the Screamin' Eagle Ultra Classic Electra Glide ($33,495), the Screamin' Eagle Softail Springer ($24,995), and the Screamin' Eagle Dyna ($24,995), all of which got a new high-performance Twin Cam 110-cubic-inch powertrain with the six-speed gearbox. Other product announcements included the new Harley-Davidson Smart Security System, which featured a hands-free fob and auto arming/disarming. It was an available factory-installed option for all models.

2008 Happy 105th birthday! To honor Harley-Davidson's 105th Anniversary there was 14 models available with a limited-edition 105th Anniversary styling package. Harley-Davidson added 3 radically styled factory customs. The Dyna Fat Bob, the Rocker and the Rocker C were new additions to the diverse Harley-Davidson model line. An advanced Anti-Lock Braking System (ABS) was added as an option on all Touring and VRSC models. The Harley-Davidson ABS system was designed to work with Brembo designed disk brakes. The Harley-Davidson ABS was not like most other motorcycle ABS systems because the manual Harley-Davidson system allows the rider full and independent control how much each brake is applied. The components were designed to be invisible so a clean custom look around the wheels is maintained. Harley-Davidson Sreamin' Eagles were better than ever. ABS was standard on the 2008 FLHTCUSE3 Screamin' Eagle Ultra Classic Electra Glide, 2008 FLHRSE4 Screamin' Eagle Road King and the 2008 FLHTCU Ultra Classic Electra Glide 105th Anniversary Edition. The CVO 110" had big problems with overheating with its low 9.3:1 compression ratio. The TC 96 ratio was 9.2:1 and the TC88 ratio was 8.8:1.

2009 Harley introduced its Twin Cam 103 with reverse three-wheeler, called the Tri Glide Ultra Classic, at its annual dealership meeting in Las Vegas. The company also introduced a new V-Rod motorcycle and said it was dropping three bikes from the 2009 model-year lineup.The Motor Company built a new museum in Milwaukee, purchased an Italian premium motorcycle manufacturer, MV Agusta, and iheld its big 105th anniversary bash. Bruce Springsteen’s trailer was there for his anniversary concert over a beer at the museum’s Motor restaurant. The all-new VRSCF V-Rod Muscle was the latest V-Rod powered by the same 60-degree liquid-cooled DOHC, eight-valve, Revolution 1250cc V-Twin engine with Electronic Sequential Port Fuel Injection as is in the V-Rod and Night Rod Special. In the Muscle, Harley says the Revolution mill is tuned to produce 122 hp at 8,250 rpm and up to 85 ft-lbs. of torque at 7,000 rpm. Harley-Davidson’s seven Touring bikes all received a brand new chassis for 2009. The frame, swingarm, engine mount, wheels and tires were all redesigned. “Under the skin, our 2009 Touring models are essentially new motorcycles,” says Bill Davidson, Harley-Davidson vice president of core customer marketing. “and we were able to retain the character of each model while significantly improving the riding experience in many ways.” The new chassis provided a rigid backbone that Harley-Davidson says can support an extra load of 70 pounds over the 2008 Touring bikes. The engine isolation system has been revised to reduce the vibrations from the 1584cc Twin Cam 96 V-Twin engines with ESPFI. A new Isolated Drive System compensator integrated into the rear hub is also designed reduces noise and vibration. An Electronic Throttle Control system replaces the mechanical cables with the wiring from the throttle grip sensor routed inside the handlebars, making room for a factory-option cruise control system.