History Under the Hood: Harley-Davidson

Aug 16, 2016 by Ian (Driver Weekly)

Today, Harley-Davidson is the iconic heavyweight motorcycle. But the infamous motorcycles weren’t always an essential part of road culture. Harley-Davidson survived over a century of economic turmoil and suffered from a period of poor quality and morale before rebounding in the 1980s. Now, the company is the world’s fifth largest motorcycle manufacturer and the king of classic cruisers that are an enduring symbol of the beauty of the open road. The origin and development of the infamous FL Big Twins (touring cruisers), the XL Sportster (midsize racers), and FX Super Glides (the first factory custom) recalls the history of American industry—from innovation to stagnation and revival, including interruptions like three-wheelers and bowling ball companies. While this might familiar material to dedicated riders, our goal is an overview for the everyday driver who’s interested in motorcycles. Let’s take a look at the history behind the hog.

America’s Motorcycle

1901, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Twenty-year-old William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson are a pair of young mechanics and engineers tinkering with a motorized bicycle in their backyard. Two years later, they’ve incorporated Harley-Davidson. Five years later, they’ve built their first factory on Chestnut Street (Juneau Avenue) that remains the company headquarters to this day. Harley and Davidson assembled the first 45° V-Twin, a two-cylinder engine with high torque and high power in a small package. The uneven cylinders produce the infamous “pop-pop, pop-pop” that distinguishes the Bar and Shield to this day. The new motorbikes demonstrated their durability and performance in a series of contested races across America and, in 1919, a small hog served as an unruly mascot for a group of successful farmboys, inspiring a new moniker for the indomitable bikes. Not just entrepreneurs, Harley and Davidson demonstrated a commitment to advanced but practical engineering. Hogs were designed for tough roads and long hauls across the United States. By 1920, the two boys from Milwaukee had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

The First FL Big Twins

The company survived the Great Depression, weathering the financial disaster by selling the engines as industrial generators and introducing the practical if deformed three-wheeled Servi-Car. The outbreak of World War II reinvigorated the company, as one of only two motorcycle companies to survive the Depression, Harley-Davidson sold tens of thousands of WLA motorcycles to the United States Army. After the war, veterans familiar with the big bikes could find a range of Big Twins, including the first 1,210cc Knucklehead FL from 1941. This was when big machines were king and the FL would become the sole heavyweight cruiser, building on the success of the 1936 EL and establishing a new standard for performance and style. Contemporary hogs were defined by these pioneering machines, including all of the distinctive features that established the big body and big sound of a Harley-Davidson. Even the smaller bikes can trace their lineage to the 1948 125cc S (modeled from plans taken from Germany as war reparations) that attracted younger riders, many of whom would transition to a full-sized motorcycle. However, desperate to meet demand, the company was still using outdated pre-war technology—leaving them vulnerable to foreign invasion.

Competition and the XL Sportster

In the 1950s foreign imports were eating away at Harley-Davidson. Nortons, Triumphs, and BSAs had arrived from Britain equipped with new features such as telescopic forks and foot shifts. Harley-Davidson developed the Model K to compete with the midsize bikes, integrating the new features and a superior engine into the 1957 1,000cc Ironhead XL Sportster. The oldest surviving model in the current lineup, the streamlined bike combined innovative style and technology. Unfortunately, the real threat was from the Japanese. Even smaller and cheaper than the midsize bikes, the Japanese imports were efficient and reliable. Harley-Davidson developed new lightweight two-stroke bikes of their own, but the competition delivered a better machine for the same price. Desperate to turn the situation around, Harley-Davidson bought a stake (later expanded to outright ownership) in the motorcycle division of Aermacchi of Italy and discontinued production of the domestic two-strokes. On paper, Aermacchi should have reinvigorated the racing image of the smaller bikes, but the racing pedigree was watered down in the dealership models, and buyers were unimpressed. In 1969, Harley-Davidson had gone from the largest motorcycle company in the world to a bloodied heavyweight champion on the ropes and in the corner. The Bar and Shield was bought by American Machine and Foundry (AMF), a bizarre company that produced everything from bowling balls to nuclear reactors. What came next wasn't pretty.

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