Harley-Davidson History 1903-1910, Part 1

The turn of the 20th century was undoubtedly the beginning of the Transportation Age. In 1903, Orville and Wilbur Wright completed the first successful test flight of their airplane in Kitty Hawk, N.C. That same year, Henry Ford introduced his “model A” in Dearborn, Mich. Harley-Davidson’s roots started 18 years before, when automotive pioneer Gottlieb Daimler had developed his two-wheeled, gasoline-powered vehicle. Daimler’s invention gave rise to the “motor bicycle,” a popular, inexpensive, but unreliable configuration.

harley-davidson crowd shot
The four founders of Harley-Davidson Motor Company -William A. Harley, and Walter, Arthur and William Davidson – posed with the entire staff in 1907. The picture was taken in front of the factory building they used prior to the one that was built in 1912.

In 1901, along came Edward Joel Pennington, who also developed “motor bicycle” and gave a demonstration on Milwaukee’s Grand Avenue of his “Motor Cycle” (he was the first person known to use the term). It is not known if William S. Harley, or Arthur and Walter Davidson saw Pennington’s machine or not, but early in the 20th Century, the three spent two to three years working on their own “motor cycle” contraptions in a 10’x15′ wooden shed. In 1903, they completed and sold their first single cylinder motorcycle. The next year, they built and sold two more similar machines, one of which was sold through the business of C.H. Lang in Chicago, the first Harley-Davidson dealer.

Harley-Davidson Founding Fathers

No one could have doubted that the brothers were determined to get their “Harley-Davidson Motor Company” on the map. They doubled the size of their factory in 1905, and Arthur Davidson’s brother, William, joined the effort two years later in 1907–the same year the Company was incorporated.

At this point, the motorcycle was rapidly gaining popularity as a competitor to the car. And, like the automobile industry, the motorcycle industry was populated with dozens of companies, all trying to gain the advantage. While Harley-Davidson’s first hallmark would be reliability, the Company had to meet the rising demand. The years 1906 to 1908 saw a jump in production from 50 motorcycles in 1906 to 450 bikes in 1908. After hiring the first full-time employee (other than the founders) in 1905, 35 full-time staffers had been hired by 1908. You’ll find more H-D history goodness at the o-fficial museum, too.

Story by Bill Jackson, Harley-Davidson Senior Archivist

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