In 1905 the first Harley to be produced in significant numbers was the Silent Gray Fellow named for its quite operation and gray color. These were 450cc single cylinder bikes using a bicycle-style frame.To slow down and stop the rider had to peddle backwards.
Following the official formation of the company in 1907, Arthur signed up over 800 dealers in ten years. These dealers were in all of America's then 48 states. Just five years after the first Harleys were made and sold the Detroit Police bought a fleet of motorcycles. By 1925, over 2,500 police units in the US were riding Harley-Davidsons.
The first V-Twin Harley was produced in 1909. It was an inlet-over-exhaust belt-driven engine. This first V-Twin was the Model 5-D. This was the engine that would go on to make Harley famous.
A big part of Harley-Davidson history is Harleys contribution to U.S. Military efforts. In 1918 Harley supplied thousands of motorcycles to the military to be used in World War I. Almost half of all Harley-Davidsons produced that year were sold to the military. The first American GI to enter Germany was Roy Holtz, riding a Harley-Davidson.
Harley became involved in racing to prove the dependability of their bikes. Harley's first and notable success was in 1908. Walter Davidson won the Jack Pine Endurance run. Not only did the bike prove its dependability, the bike won the economy contest with 188 miles per gallon. In 1921 Harley becomes the first motorcycle to win a race with an average speed of 100PMH on a board track in Fresno, CA. Another early sucess story was the record of Joe Petrali, who set a record of 136.183MPH at Daytona Beach in 1937. Early Harley racing teams adopted a pig as their mascot and carried it on victory laps. This might have been the start of the term HOG. Racing was not always a priority for Harley but their riders have had great success over the years.
In 1941 America joins World War II. Harley produces the Model WLA which features blackout lights, high clearence fenders and metal leg shields. Almost all of Harley-Davidsons output was devoted to the military from 1941 to 1945. By the end of the war, Harley produced 88,000 WLA models for the U.S. Military and around 20,000 for the Canadians.
When looking at Harley-Davidson history, we can't forget the many World War II ex-servicemen who came back to small town America. While Harley-Davidson's civilian production had all but ceased during the war, there were plenty of army surplus motorcycles to be bought. Many of these ex-servicemen started a trend by buying and customizing these bikes. They removed or shortened the fenders to reduce weight. These bikes became known as Bobbers. These changes ultimately lead to the evolution of the Chopper.
After a post-war boom, the company's sales were damaged by the influx of cheaper Japanese and British imports. This competition ironically caused a resurgence of interest in motorcycles, which the company profited from. Harley was bought by American Machine and Foundry (AMF) in 1969. Harley-Davidson history is full of ups and downs. Some of us are old enough to remember that Harley went through some hard times during the AMF years. In 1981 senior management bought the company back from AMF.
Harley slowly came back in the 80s and now Harley-Davidson is one of the most recognized names in the world. In 1983 Harley Owners Group (HOG) was formed with 30,000 members in the first year. Now there are about a million HOG members world wide. After 105 years, Harley-Davidson Motorcycles are more popular than ever.