America's Motorcycle: From 1901 to the 2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide Aug 16, 2016 by James (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.
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.
These were dark days for Harley-Davidson. AMF fired hundreds of workers, cancelled underperforming models, and cut corners. It’s true that the merger brought marketing experience and an injection of cash, but none of it trickled down to new product development. Quality decreased and riders noticed. In just a few years, Harley-Davidson became known as “Hardly Driveable." Demoralized workers and dealers meant demoralized customers—especially in the motorcycle industry, where a community of riders, mechanics, and innovators is essential for success. Despite notable technical improvements to the Big Twins, such as the 1965 FL Electra Glide, the company was playing catchup to the superior twins and fours produced by Honda, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Suzuki. AMF didn’t understand that there was a difference between sports equipment and sports motorcycles, and didn't pay attention to quality engineering. The only development we’re grateful for during this period are the original choppers, when mechanics and riders dismantled production bikes and created the distinctive look of the 1960s that would be carried into the first factory customs.
Revival and the FX Super Glide
In 1981, Harley-Davidson was brought back from the brink by a consortium of investors led by Vaughn Beals and William “Willie” Davidson, a descendent of founding partner Arthur Davidson. The buyback witnessed a complete change in direction for the beleaguered company. Instead of trying to make lightweight bikes that could compete with the Japanese, Harley-Davidson would focus on traditional heavyweights that capitalized on the company’s legacy. Davidson had already seen the potential for the new strategy under AMF when he pioneered the first mass-market factory custom, the 1971 FX Super Glide. The FX combined the frame, rear suspension and 1,200cc Shovelhead from the FL Electra Glide with the front fork assembly, headlight, and front wheel of the XL Sportster. Originally intended as his personal ride, Willie Davidson saw the potential for a production “chopper” that evoked the long lines of the 1960s, perfected and popularized in 1977 with shorter rear shocks and longer forks as the FXS Low Rider. The 1976 Liberty Edition and 1977 Low Rider demonstrated the appeal of traditional styling to nostalgic consumers and represented the culmination of decades of manufacturing history. At the same time, the company didnt' stop innovating. They invested in a new engine, the 1984 Evolution, or “Evo.” While it retained the familiar proportions of a V-Twin, it was a complete modernization that resolved ongoing issues inherent in the previous engine. With a new engine and a new strategy, the pump was primed for a comeback.
King of the Road
Although it took years to restore the company’s reputation and regain riders’ loyalty, once again, Harley-Davidson was king of the road. New models, a dedication to engineering and quality, and a stream of specialized factory customs under the guiding hand of Willie G. Davidson, ensured that the Bar and Shield was back for good. This time, the company continued to improve their products while emphasizing their iconic style. By 1991, Harley-Davidson was the sales leader in the heavyweight market for the first time in decades. A range of models provided everyone from eager amateurs and dedicated mechanics to tasseled road kings with the perfect ride. This was a period of peak demand and controversial expansion that had the potential to dilute brand quality—such as the 1999 Twin Cam 88, which looked like a traditional V-Twin but lowered the volume of the engine…before aftermarket additions. Today, the company is eager for continued expansion in overseas markets. In 2001, Harley-Davidson introduced the VRSC V-Rod with a water-cooled Porsche 60° V-Twin, joined by the entry-level Harley Street in 2014. For a while it looked like the Evolution was the last in the line of distinctive motors created by William Harley in 1936. But the arrival of the Milwaukee Eight, Harley's third all-new Big Twin in 80 years, first introduced in 2017, was a positive step forward for riders. New bikes like the 2017 Harley-Davidson Street Glide with a new Big Twin engine feel like a real hog again. Project Rushmore promises to improve comfort, braking, lighting, buffeting, and infotainment on touring bikes.
While it’s true that the company needs new (and younger) riders around the world, first and foremost, the Bar and Shield is defined by their riders and customizers in the USA—a legacy of long hauls, custom jobs, and big style. Without a core of loyal choppers that keep the Harley-Davidson at the heart of road culture, Harley-Davidson risks losing its credibility. We don’t doubt the company’s commitment to improved performance, and there are plenty of great bikes in the lineup. But if hoped-for new riders don’t join the club on a motorcycle that captures the look and feel of a real Harley-Davidson—as opposed to a generic racing bike—the company won’t retain their loyalty or preserve their brand. Going forward, Harley-Davidson needs to balance technical improvement with style and passion. Harley-Davidson might be king of the road, but we’ll see if the lineup continues to reflect the attention to road culture that got them there. Thankfully, it’s been done before and they can do it again.
Article updated 26-July-2017.