Harley-Davidson History

By: the Auto Editors of Consumer Guide

Harley-Davidson 1903-1928

The 1909 Harley-Davidson was one of the early models by the legendary motorcycle company.
The 1909 Harley-Davidson was one of the early models by the legendary motorcycle company.

At the dawn of the 20th century, motorcycle production was already well underway in Europe but still in its infancy in the U.S. Yet by the time William Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson pieced together their first motorcycle in 1903, there were already a number of other domestic manufacturers, though most were little more than backyard enterprises. Among them was the Indian Motorcycle Company, founded in 1901, which would later become Harley's biggest competitor.

That first Harley-Davidson differed little from other motorcycles of the time, essentially being a bicycle powered by a simple single-cylinder motor that drove the rear wheel through a leather belt. The normal pedals and chain remained in place so the rider could pedal the bike up to speed to start the motor, as well as lend a little leg power when ascending hills.


Though the 10.2-cubic-inch single-cylinder motor was patterned after an existing design, each part was made by hand. It managed to wheeze out only enough power to propel the machine to a brisk walking pace. A second example with a larger, more powerful motor followed, and it was this machine that formed the basis for the early production versions. Three motorcycles were built that year, and the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was in business.

Production rose to eight units in 1904, then to 16 the following year, reaching 50 in 1906, when the original black finish was joined by Renault Grey. In years to come, the company's quiet motors and grey paint would prompt riders to nickname Harleys the "silent grey fellows."

With the quest for more speed came the need for more power, and Harley-Davidson answered with its now-famous V-twin motor. Introduced at a motorcycle show late in 1907, the first production model was released in 1909 with vacuum-operated intake valves and belt drive-both normal Harley-Davidson practice at the time. Problems surfaced early and the model was pulled after that year, but the V-twin returned in 1911 with mechanically actuated intake-over-exhaust (IOE) valves and a belt tensioning system. With that, a legend was born.

Technology then began advancing at a rapid rate. Harley-Davidson introduced one of the industry's first clutches in 1912, and chain drive became available in 1913. A two-speed rear hub debuted for 1914, followed by a proper three-speed transmission for 1915. Singles were sold alongside V-twins during this period, but they would come and go in future years.

By 1918 the V-twin engine was a fixture on models such as the Harley-Davidson 18-J.
By 1918 the V-twin engine was a fixture on models such as the Harley-Davidson 18-J.

A rather odd 35.6-cubic-inch fore-and-aft flat twin was introduced in mid-1919 but would last only until 1923. Meanwhile, the V-twin, which had grown from 50 cubic inches to 61 for 1912, was joined by a 74-cubic-inch version in 1921 -- the first of the famed "Seventy-fours." Improvements were made to the V-twin's original IOE design over the years, but by the late 1920s they still had exposed valve trains that were messy to run, difficult to maintain, and highly susceptible to wear.

Rival Indian had long used a flathead design for its V-twins, and though this configuration was theoretically less efficient, it had been refined to the point where it produced reasonable power while being far easier to service. Harley-Davidson decided it was time to develop its own line of flathead V-twins, and the first examples hit the streets in the closing days of the 1920s.

Keep reading to learn about the next chapter in Harley-Davidson history.

To learn more about Harley-Davidson and other classic motorcycles, see: