The first Harley-Davidson motorcycle, constructed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903, was the creation of Bill Harley and Arthur and Walter Davidson. Harley, the only college graduate of the group, designed the motorcycle, Arthur Davidson drew up the patterns, and Walter Davidson built the bike.
The prototype Harley-Davidson was a conventional single-cylinder 400 cc engine bolted beneath the crossbar of a strengthened bicycle frame. There were plenty of problems with this arrangement; the main one was the frame was unable to handle the power and vibration of the engine, and it kept breaking. Eventually, after several rebuilds, the wheelbase was extended for stability, heavier steering head and wheel bearings were used, the frame tubes and wheels were made thicker, and “final drive” was achieved by a leather belt uniting the engine with the rear sprocket, allowing the rider to control the speed of the bike by tightening or loosening it. Harley-Davidson had a motorcycle. By 1905, the Milwaukee factory was producing eight of them per year.
In 1906, orders mounted to forty-nine, and an American industry was born. By 1910, the oldest of the three Davidson brothers, William, had joined the team as Vice President and Works Manager of the plant. Three thousand bikes were built and sold, and the original single-cylinder 3 HP engine was replaced by a V-twin, two cylinders mounted at a forty-five degree angle to each other, and upgraded to 5.35 HP.
The two-cylinder V-twin engine was, and still is, the heart of Harley-Davidson.
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The company manufactured its V-twins in 45 cu. in. and 74 cu. in. engine sizes, (about 700 cc and 1200 cc), which were nicknamed Flatheads because of the flattened shape of the engine heads, and began to battle for sales, both domestic and military, with its arch rival, the Indian motorcycle company.
At times, Harley’s marketing techniques were less than sportsmanlike. At one point they encouraged their dealers to scrap any non-Harleys which came into their shops as part exchange for a Harley-Davidson as a way of getting the Indians off the road, and only a decline in public image forced them to withdraw this “exchange” offer. Forced to look for advances in engineering and style in order to compete, Harley first added a “buddy seat,” allowing the Harley man to travel with a “companion,” then revolutionized the engine by manufacturing the 1000 cc, 61 cu. in. and 36 HP overhead-valve V-twin. It was nicknamed the “Knucklehead” because of the shape, like the prominent knuckles of a clenched fist, of its rocker covers (the covers above the engine heads).
The Knucklehead was the forerunner of the Harley fleet. It is the source of the general Harley nicknames Twin and Big Twin, and stands, even today, as a “classic” Harley, a very desirable “base” bike for many “complete restorations” or “customs.” The Knucklehead had speed and it had style, but, unfortunately, it leaked oil. Lots of oil.
In 1949 Harley-Davidson manufactured the Panhead engine, with pan-shaped rocker covers. Built to solve the oil-leak problem by placing the previously external oil lines inside the engine casing and upgrading the oil pump to regulate pressure, the new Pan also featured aluminum engine heads for a lighter and cooler performance. This configuration, however, created a problem of its own: insufficient oil pressure (partially cured, in later models, by the factory). In the style department, Harley replaced the Springer forks, two large springs (shock absorbers) mounted on top of the front forks of the bike, with a hydraulic system (no springs). They christened their new bike the Hydra-Glide.
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Through this combination of factory innovation and creative marketing, Harley buried the Indian in 1952, only to be met by new competition from England—Triumph, Norton, and BSA. The Milwaukee boys turned to the US government for help, petitioning to have a 40% import tax placed on all non-American motorcycles. They were turned down.
They were forced to compete; this time on the racetrack, with a 750 cc, 45 cu. in. Twin. This was a fiasco that was hard pressed to make 80 MPH on the straights and consequently lost every race. So Harley tried again, creating an all-aluminum engine bored out to 883 cc named the XL Sportster. The XL could do 100 MPH, and finally beat the Triumph on the oval, also earning itself a reputation as a red-hot “street bike.” It was not, however, red hot enough in the sales department to keep the company from financial trouble, and in the mid 1960s Harley went public, selling just enough stock to finance an upgrade in their product. Believing that an electric starter would make their heavier bikes more accessible to the general buyer by doing away with the “kick,” they built the Electra-Glide, then spent the remainder of their money revising the hydraulically temperamental Panhead engine, giving birth in 1966 to the Shovelhead, after which the company was once again broke.
Rescue (or disaster disguised as rescue) came in the shape of a leisure industry conglomerate called the American Machine and Foundry Company, or AMF. AMF bought Harley-Davidson for twenty-one million dollars, then proceeded to crank production up to fifty thousand motorcycles a year (about three times their previous production), too many machines to be effectively screened for quality control. The consequence was that Harley-Davidson got an even worse reputation for reliability, or lack of it.
At the same time, the Japanese invaded the American motorcycle market at the cruiser end with the Honda Gold Wing, and at the street-hot end with the Kawasaki 900 range. The Japanese product was fast, relatively inexpensive, and reliable.
In 1978, the AMF petitioned the Tariff Commission to slap heavy import duties on the Japanese bikes—as Harley-Davidson had attempted with the English bikes—and failed. Then, in a competitive effort, they increased the engine size of the big bikes to 1340 cc and added a five-speed transmission to the touring models, following that with the Sturgis, a sports bike with a Kelvar belt-driven motor replacing the chain named after the annual bike meet in the hills of South Dakota. It was anything to increase that elusive reliability factor and win the bike market back from the Japanese. It didn’t work, and in 1981 the AMF bailed out, selling Harley-Davidson back to Harley-Davidson, or, specifically, to a management-based group led by Chairman Vaughn Beals. Beals took control just as his company was going under for the third time.
In a last-ditch effort, Beals (on behalf of the reorganized Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company) petitioned the Tariff Commission, requesting high import duties on only those Japanese bikes over 700 cc. The Commission finally came through, giving Harley a five-year period over which tariffs on big Japanese bikes would start high then taper off. It was the breathing space Harley-Davidson desperately needed, time to go back to the drawing-board on both design and marketing.
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In 1983, Milwaukee launched the V2 Evolution engine. Using aluminum alloy for both heads and cylinders and burning unleaded fuel, the Evolution was—for the first time in Harley’s history—oil tight and reliable. Harley-Davidson had finally stepped into the future—or more accurately the present.
In the same year the Harley Owners Group (HOG) was formed, a Harley club sanctioned by Milwaukee and open (in the USA) to anyone purchasing a new Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The idea behind HOG was to link the buyer to the manufacturer. Willie Davidson, grandson of William Davidson and head of the design department, began spending time with and listening to the people who rode his motorcycles. He understood their desire for the classic look of the old Harleys coupled with the reliability of the new Evo engine, and it was through this combination that Harley-Davidson truly found its feet.
The new Heritage Softail (the cruiser of the fleet) was an updated Hydra-Glide from 1949, and the Sportster (the racing bike, light and easy to handle) still looked as it did in 1952, but was now powered by a choice of either an 883 or 1100 cc engine (and now a 1200 cc engine). In 1988, eighty years from their inception, Springer forks were reintroduced to create the FXSTX Springer Softail—a factory custom.
For some buyers it may have been nostalgia; for others, including myself, it was just plain perfection.
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In America they call the 883 the ladies’ bike, because at 463 lbs. with an overall length of 87 in. it is nearly two hundred pounds lighter and half a foot shorter than any of the Big Twins. In theory, that makes it a lot easier to throw around—or in my case, after twenty years out of the saddle, to ride at all.
I say “in theory” because I believe a lot of my apprehension regarding the 1340s was psychological. They looked too big to ride. In fact, because the saddle height of a stock (factory-built) Springer Softail is actually two inches closer to the ground than that of a Sportster, thereby lowering its center of gravity, the bigger bike is arguably easier to balance. On top of this, I genuinely loved the looks of the Sportster, basically just a frame and an engine, like a skeleton draped with muscle. About as lean as a bike gets.
And then, of course, there was the money factor. When I bought the 883 the price on the road was a touch under 4,000, less than half the cost of a new Springer Softail and just about a third of an Ultra-Glide, the flagship of the Harley fleet, including radio-cassette player, intercom, CB radio, leg shields, and enough luggage space to take the wife and kids off for a week in St. Tropez—sort of an open-air caravan.
The Ultra-Glide was never my idea of a “lean machine.” I couldn’t get into the idea of wheeling along the highway while having a conversation, via the headset-style intercom, with the person behind me. “Ah, pilot to copilot, pilot to copilot, do you read me, over?” Then again, I’ve lost some of my best Raybans while twisting my neck at seventy miles an hour, trying to communicate with a passenger: the wind, after scattering my words and splattering my face with saliva, catches the outside rim of the shades and removes them from my nose, sending them up then down beneath the front tire of the inevitable truck in the middle lane, while I ride on…teeth gritted, wind pounding my bared eyeballs, and tears streaming down my cheeks.
Now that’s real biking.
Copyright © 1995 by Richard La Plante