• Founded one of world’s most iconic brands (1903)
• Launched Harley as a force in racing.
• Scored 1st racing victory in 1908 (Walter Davidson)
• Inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 1998
William S. Harley and brothers Arthur, Walter, and William A. Davidson were cofounders of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company (1903), the definitive American motorcycle brand and makers of some of the most celebrated motorcycles in racing history. The project began two years earlier when Harley and Arthur Davidson started experimenting with gasoline engines to motorize bicycles. All four men would play important roles in the company. Harley, the sole college grad, was the company’s chief engineer and treasurer. He was also a racer who served on the AMA Competition Committee for 24 years. Arthur understood marketing and how to energize dealers. He started a school to train H-D mechanics and was an early supporter of the AMA. Walter was the company’s first president and as a rider, gave H-D its first race victory (1908). William did most of the hiring and through his relationships with employees, continually improved the manufacturing process. Together they changed motorcycling history. All four were inducted into the AMA Hall of Fame in 1998.
By Jean Davidson
The dream began with two boys who happened to be neighbors in Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Arthur Davidson and William S. Harley. The Davidsons came from Scotland, the Harleys from England. The two became best friends and fishing buddies. Rain or shine, they would get up early and pedal their bikes to their favorite lake, 30 miles away, and joke with each other that there must be an easier way to get there. They started to think about putting motors on their bikes so they could get there faster.
One evening in 1901, the lads went to the Bijou Opera House in Milwaukee where they saw the shapely Paris-born comedienne, Anna Held. Dressed in white tights, Miss Held demonstrated a nickel-plated French motor-bicycle on the stage. That was all it took. Yes, the lady was beautiful but what captured Bill and Arthur’s imaginations was her motorized bike.
Soon they began trying to make one of their own in a shed behind Arthur’s house. Harley drew plans for a compact, seven-cubic-inch engine. He and Arthur installed it on a modified pedal-bike frame. They were joined by Arthur’s older brother, Walter, who quit his job as a machinist for the railroad down in Kansas. When Walter took that first prototype for a ride, they found it didn’t have enough power to go up a hill. Back to the drawing board. The oldest Davidson brother, William, was by now the head of the toolroom at the railroad shop in Milwaukee. Many believe a lot of those early Harley-Davidson parts were made down in that railroad shop under his supervision. They designed a bigger engine and installed it on a true motorcycle frame.
It worked. The first Harley-Davidson was born. Soon the company incorporated, and William Davidson quit his railroad job to join the young company. Each of the four founders, William Harley and Arthur, Walter and William Davidson, brought unique gifts.
Walter became the company’s first president. He was a perfectionist who would learn a trade and teach it to the employees. He expected the best out of everyone, including himself. He wouldn’t get married until he knew the company was successful, then worked on his wedding day. As a rider, Walter gave Harley-Davidson its first race victory (1908).
Arthur had the gift of gab and loved to meet and be with people. He traveled all over the world setting up dealerships. He became great friends with the dealers because he knew a strong dealer body would be crucial to the company’s future.
William became the shop foreman and was beloved by the workers. He kept a little black book and if a worker needed help, he’d lend him the money and write it in his book. He never asked for it back.
Harley, the sole college grad, was the company’s chief engineer and treasurer. His patented V-Twin engine design caused H-D sales to skyrocket. He was a racer, too, who competed mainly in endurance contests that established Harley-Davidsons as high-quality products, and served on the AMA Competition Committee for 24 years.
The four chose to live close to the factory and gave all their talents to their work. Each had unique qualities that were used to make the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company what it was and is today.
Jean Davidson is the granddaughter of Walter Davidson and the author of multiple books on Harley-Davidson history, including Growing Up Harley Davidson, and Harley-Davidson Family Memories with her son Jon Davidson Oeflein, available at JeanDavidson.com.
Davidson & Harley Family Members