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American Freedom Machines: The Story of Harley-Davidson

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb
The Truth Network Radio
January 1, 2024 3:01 am

American Freedom Machines: The Story of Harley-Davidson

Our American Stories / Lee Habeeb

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January 1, 2024 3:01 am

On this episode of Our American Stories, when Margie Siegal was a teenager, she had a boyfriend with a motorcycle. The boyfriend was forgettable—the motorcycle wasn’t. Since that time, she has written about motorcycle history and is the author of Harley-Davidson: A History of the World’s Most Famous Motorcycle. Here she is with the story of Harley-Davidson.

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And we continue with our American stories. When Margie Siegel was a teenager, she had a boyfriend with a motorcycle. The boyfriend, he was forgettable. The motorcycle, well, it wasn't. Since that time, she's written about motorcycle history for Classic Bike, for Motorcyclist, Motorcycle Collector, American Iron, and Motorcycle Classics. She is also vintage editor for Ironworks Motorcycle Magazine.

Here she is with the story of Harley Davidson. If you ask a non-motorcyclist to name a brand of motorcycle, any type of motorcycle, the first name that comes to mind, and probably the only name, is Harley Davidson. Harleys are not only well known, they inspire a lot of passion. How many other companies' logos are tattooed on people's biceps? Motorcycles There is something about motorcycles.

The experience of moving through the air at speed. That attracts people. And if there is something about motorcycles in general, there is more than a mere something about Harley Davidson motorcycles. Harley Davidson has been building motorcycles for well over a century, and in that time, its products have acquired an aura. People who ride Harleys are seen as bad, and antisocial, and a lot of other things, even though they in real life, they're accountants. When most people look at a Harley, they are seeing not just a vehicle, but a cultural icon.

It wasn't always like this. When the Davidson brothers and their friend William Harley started out to build motorcycles at the turn of the 20th century, they were only one of over 100 small American motorcycle factories, all scheming and competing and trying to make it big. Out of all those aspiring U.S. businesses, only Harley Davidson has continuously made motorcycles.

William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, who were the two friends who got Harley Davidson off the ground, grew up in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And they may have been in the crowd when Edward Pennington, a confidence man, I mean a real crook, and he shuttled between the USA and England, depending on which country was getting a little too hot for him, and he demonstrated a motor-powered cycle in Milwaukee in 1895. This was a huge deal, although no one has ever figured out how Pennington's motorcycle ran, because the design violated several basic laws of physics. This event may have sparked the idea of building a motorcycle in William and Arthur Davidson, but it did not. In 1900, it was very possible to build a motorcycle without violating several laws of physics. Many of the necessities for a successful motorcycle had been invented by the 1890s. The French Didion-Bouton company was manufacturing a lightweight and relatively reliable inlet over-exhaust engine that could be adapted for use in a two-wheeler.

And at this time, a lot of people had been riding bicycles and were getting very tired of riding bicycles uphill, and were looking for something that would help get from point A to point B and have you arrive at point B not totally exhausted. The Didion-Bouton motor was being imported to the United States, where it was dissected and copied. By 1902, at least 13 different companies were building motorcycles in the United States, and they were all using variations of the Didion motor. Either they were using the principles that the Didion motor was built on, or they were just simply copying it. Now, although the Harley-Davidson motor used the same valve configuration of the Didion motor, it wasn't a copy.

They were doing their own effort. Arthur Davidson had three brothers, and he got joined in his effort by his brothers. And by 1903, a prototype was built, tried out, found to not have enough horsepower, and scrapped in favor of a second prototype, which was a success.

It did get you up a hill, and there were some big hills in Milwaukee. The first bike was sold in 1904. Within a few years, the enterprise was selling motorcycles, hiring employees, and very important if you want to stay in business, making money. Now, what distinguished Harley and the Davidsons' effort for the numerous other backyard motorcycle factories that were springing up at this time? Harley-Davidson had a lot of advantages. First, location.

Location and location. Location is very important in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was the center of the American Industrial Revolution. Along with nearby sources for the raw materials needed to build motorcycles, Milwaukee was well served by both railroads and Great Lakes steamers.

Bringing in ironing tires and sending out a completed product was not difficult or really expensive. Milwaukee boasted a skilled workforce that needed a little training to produce quality goods. And lastly, but not leastly, Milwaukee produced beer. And beer has always been important to motorcycling. The second thing that Harley-Davidson had going for it was quality control. Due to the factory's competent workforce, the Harley-Davidson was well built and for its time reliable.

It had more cubic capacity and more horsepower than competing efforts. Although Harley-Davidson's were not particularly innovative, nobody cared at this point. What people wanted to do was get to work or get to wherever they were going. Now, you may ask, why didn't they just jump in their cars? Well, in 1903, there were cars and they were expensive and they were complicated and they needed constant maintenance. And motorcycles were actually faster and you needed someplace to keep a car. And if you lived in the city, you had no place to keep a car. And the people who had cars were rich and had enough money to hire a chauffeur. And the chauffeur would spend all day basically maintaining the car when the chauffeur was not driving a lady about to tea or wherever else she was going. Harley's at this point were transportation.

There was no aura involved. The major thing that people looked at for Harley was this is cheaper than a horse and buggy and I can get where I'm going on time. The third thing that Harley-Davidson had going for it was it accorded investors and it avoided borrowing money. Indian, the largest motorcycle manufacturer of the pre-World War I period, borrowed huge sums of money in order to build a foundry.

The banks interfered with the operation of Indian, to the point where Hendy and Hedstrom, the founders, both retired. In contrast, Harley's investors either didn't meddle with the business or offered good advice which to the brothers in Harley's credit was listened to and acted on. So here you have a well and efficiently run company making quality goods, and the last thing that Harley-Davidson had going for it was that it marketed these quality goods in a cost-effective manner. Arthur Davidson rode hundreds of miles to demonstrate his motorcycle and sign up dealers. While Indian and several other manufacturers supported the hugely expensive and total bloodbath sport of board track racing, Harley-Davidson entered enduros, which were a form of motorcycle competition where speed does not count but arriving at a checkpoint at a precise time does. Early enduro competitions emphasized reliability and an ability to cope with varying road conditions, which is exactly what the person of the time was interested in in the race. But one of the brothers, Walter Davidson, entered these endurance races on a regular basis.

He did very well with them. And you're listening to Margie Siegel tell the story of Harley-Davidson when we come back. More of the story here on Our American Stories. Luckyland casino asking people what's the weirdest place you've gotten lucky. Lucky? In line at the deli, I guess.

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I can't cure this. And, you know, I'll take my treatment day by day, but I want to try to be engaged, be involved, or be as helpful as I feel I can with the limitations I have of working full time to children. So I participate in like market research to provide information to hopefully benefit others, because it's a small margin of people that have the myasthenia. But then to get pregnant, it's an even more narrow margin. And you can never have too much information as an epidemiologist. Yeah, exactly right. Join us as we navigate the tangled web of Hollywood's secret history of sex, money, and murder.

Subscribe now to Variety Confidential, wherever you get your podcasts. And we continue with our American stories. Harley and the Davidson brothers began competing with their motorcycles in endurance competitions where speed didn't count, but ruggedness and reliability did.

Here again, Margie Siegel. By 1908, Harley Davidson was well known in the upper Midwest, but pretty obscure nationwide. That year, everything changed. Walter Davidson won a national enduro.

This one win was widely reported on. It put the company on the map, and sales went from 150 bikes for the year of 1907 to 1,140 bikes sold in the year 1909, and 3,852 motorcycles sold in 1912. So here you have an American motorcycle industry, which is humming along, which is producing motorcycles that are bought by an average person who can't afford a car. And then 1913 appears, which is the watershed year for the American motorcycle industry.

The first thing that happened was that Henry Ford came out with a Model T. The Model T Ford offered weather protection and load-carrying ability for little more than the price of a two-wheeler. So instead of buying a motorcycle, which couldn't carry a whole lot, and one passenger could actually afford and maintain, which was important, a car, which could carry goods to market, a lot of goods, and take three or four passengers. So the motorcycle industry shrank about by the reason of that. The motorcycle industry also shrank because war broke out in Europe. Many motorcycle companies had imported bearings and magnetos from Germany.

World War I ended the availability of these components, but opened up new opportunities for war production. So one door opens, one door closes, and a lot of people who had been building motorcycles stopped what they were doing and bid on war contracts. The number of U.S. motorcycle manufacturers shrank to about a dozen. And one of those dozen, of course, was Harley-Davidson. The Davidsons and Harley decided that if their business was going to expand, they needed to enter road racing for the publicity value. Careful planning and training of trackside crew, along with newly designed eight-valve racers, produced wins in prestigious races in 1916. Now you look at what Harley-Davidson is doing at this point. They don't just decide, well, we're going to go racing. Let's hire some racers. They carefully plan. They carefully train the cachside crew. They spend a lot of time with stopwatches.

Everything is tested out. And they won a bunch of races. And when the U.S. entered World War I, which was shortly after they started winning races, Harley didn't sell every motorcycle it produced to the government. It provided about 15,000 motorcycles for the war effort, but continued to supply its dealers. And at this point, Harley had quite a few dealers all over the United States. Indian, then the largest American motorcycle company, shipped every motorcycle it made during World War I to the U.S. government, starved its dealers, people couldn't get Indians, and they bought Harleys instead. So between good publicity from race wins and support to its dealers throughout the war, Harley-Davidson entered the 1920s in an excellent position, a very good position, except for one little problem. The Eclipse Machine Company, which is now Bendix, was suing Harley for patent infringement. The Eclipse suit did have some validity, and Harley-Davidson kept the litigation going for years until the four founders had enough money to arrange a settlement. The case settled in early 1929, and Harley immigrated to the United States in 1909, and Harley immediately paid off the settlement amount. This was a big disappointment to Eclipse.

Eclipse had pursued the litigation with the idea of taking over Harley, and the settlement payment was this huge disappointment. Harley's mainstay from World War I through the 1920s were inlet over exhaust, F-Series, and J-Series V-Twins. These were simple motorcycles that could be repaired by anybody with some mechanical skill, and a lot of them were hitched to an amazing variety of commercial sidecars. Now, you don't see commercial sidecars these days, but in the 1920s and 1930s, it was a big deal. You had some very narrow streets in cities. They were very crowded, and a four-wheeler couldn't get through, but a package truck, and that's what they call these commercial sidecars, could.

So, Baker would have a delivery vehicle, which would be a Harley-Davidson hitched to a sidecar that was modeled to look like a loaf of bread, and people who were delivering candy would show up with a package truck, and it would look like a little cottage with lace curtains, and there were all sorts of different inventive side hacks, which could not only haul goods around crowded cities, but also advertise the owner's business. The founders were not content just to sell bikes for commercial use. They became concerned about the low number of motorcycles sold for sport, and they decided to revive motorcycle clubs. So, they also decided that to be a boon to dealers, as well as Harley's factory, the clubs would now be run out of dealerships, which was a good thing for the dealers, and also gave people a place to meet. Clubs were a really good thing in a few years, because they got Harley-Davidson, its dealers, and an awful lot of riders through the Depression.

You really do gotta have friends. And then, in the summer of 1929, a lot of bad things happened in 1929. Harley introduced a 74-inch twin, the V. The early Vs were a total disaster. Every single bike sold between August and October 1929 had to be rebuilt, with the factory issuing parts and instructions, and the dealers supplying the labor. And it says a lot for the relationship between Harley and his dealers, that the dealers were willing to do this for free.

Harley didn't pay them. And you're listening to Margie Siegel tell the story of Harley-Davidson. And my goodness, and my goodness, what a series of transformations they survived.

Being hit sideways in 1913 by the Model T, it comes in at about the same price as your motorcycle, and it's covered, and it can carry stuff. But they survive. And they survive by acumen and sharp business and marketing strategies, getting into the performance end of the business, and then ultimately to clubs.

In other words, how to build a brand. When we come back, more of this remarkable story, the story of Harley-Davidson. And it's a Milwaukee story. And location, location, location.

Well, it's true. Chicago, Milwaukee, at the heart of the Industrial Revolution. The Great Lakes, access to railroads, access to goods and supplies.

And Harley-Davidson took advantage of all of it. When we come back, more of this remarkable story here on Our American Stories. Hi, I'm Martine Hackett, and I'm hosting the second season of Untold Stories, Life with a Severe Autoimmune Condition, a production from Ruby Studio in partnership with Argenix. Sharing real stories of MG, CIDP, and other autoimmune conditions, we hope to share inspiration and educate the larger community about the severe and often overlooked conditions. I can't fix this.

I can't cure this. And, you know, I'll take my treatment day by day, but I want to try to be engaged, be involved, or be as helpful as I feel I can with the limitations I have of working full time to children. So I participate in like market research to provide information to hopefully benefit others, because it's a small margin of people that have the myasthenia. But then to get pregnant, it's an even more narrow margin. You can never have too much information as an epidemiologist.

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See for more details. And we return to our American stories. For the 1929 model year, Harley Davidson introduced their first side valve v-twin engine motorcycle. It was a disaster, but because Harley had built a great relationship with its dealers, the dealers pledged to provide the labor for free with the factory providing parts and instructions for rebuilding the engines.

Here again, Margie Siegel. Now the side valve disaster got straightened out. People started buying motorcycles again, and then they stopped buying motorcycles because the depression started to take hold. The factory had to lay off a lot of workers. Dealers had to cut their operations to the bone, but the goodwill Harley had built up over the past 30 years got the company through.

Harley collaborated with Indian. By this time, Excelsior Henderson had gone out of business due to the depression to encourage club racing under new Class C rules. Class C was another good thing that happened during the depression. This was amateur racing, and people would go out and race and their club would come out and support them, and people would have fun and enjoy themselves and not be quite so depressed.

And the companies were encouraging this because they were too broke to hire a factory team. In 1936, Harley produced the Knucklehead, which was its overhead valve twin, and the new Knucklehead stirred interest in sales. So Harley's doing better, but now it's facing a new challenge. You see things go up, things go down, and we're looking at World War II. After numerous tests, Harley won the U.S. Army contract for motorcycles, in large part due to what Harley has always traded on – rugged construction, a larger motor, and quality control.

The other candidates for that contract just broke down more. After the war was over, the company ramped up civilian production and upgraded the product. Many ex-GIs rode, and the rest of the 1940s were good times for Harley. However, within a few years, veterans were settling down, raising families, and trading the motorcycle in for a washing machine, and the good times kind of ran out. In the 1950s, sales dropped to the point where Harley-Davidson sometimes took on subcontract work for General Motors. There were bright spots in the 1950s.

The introduction of the Sportster in 1957 stirred interest in sales, like the Knucklehead had 20 years earlier. And people did keep riding. Some people did.

The number of people who rode dropped a lot. The people who did ride were outside the mainstream. They looked different. They dressed differently. And they seemed tough. And they seemed antisocial. And these were very attractive qualities to teenagers growing up in a conformist culture.

Now, here we have the aura starting. Harley is becoming synonymous with toughness and attitude. And some people really like that idea. But it wasn't enough people, so there weren't a lot of Harleys sold. When the good times restarted, though, it was in large part due to a most unlikely cause. A Japanese company? Yes, a Japanese company named Honda. Honda established an import depot in Los Angeles in 1959 and spent a lot of money making motorcycles popular and mainstream. In the 1950s, motorcycling was kind of antisocial. But now people could ride bikes and not be thrown out of their apartments, which happened to one woman I talked to. Kids learned to ride on the new imported minicycles. And as soon as they could get necessary together, bought a Harley because Harleys were bad and tough.

And they had the aura, the impact that the imports didn't. And young people wanted to buy into that. Now, with the resurgence in riding came a new interest in motorcycle events. The American Motorcycle Association had been sponsoring Gypsy Tours, which were rides and campouts, often with entertainment and racing, since the 1920s.

The 1949 Hollister event was part of a Gypsy Tour. This is the event that ended up on the cover of Life magazine. Now, for the record, nothing happened.

I'm sorry, nothing at all happened. I've talked to several people who were there. A whole bunch of people showed up. This was a family event. Their wives and girlfriends showed up.

This was not an invasion force. And people tried to drink some beer and enjoy themselves. The cops closed off a couple of streets for drag racing. There were some bar fights. People got busted for drinking too much. I mean, what's different than the normal Saturday night?

The photo with the guy on the bike surrounded by bottles was staged by a bored Life magazine photographer who was tired of standing around there and not seeing the photograph. In the 1960s, these events, Laughlin, Daytona Beach, Loudon, and the granddaddy of them all, Sturgis, exploded. Thousands of people showed up for the experience of hanging out with fellow bikers and watching some racing and drinking a little beer.

These events and many smaller local events have continued to the present day. There's a myth that bikers are loners. In reality, much of motorcycling is very social.

All these events are social events. So here we have Harley-Davidson. Motorcycling is becoming real popular and the company is trying to expand to catch the wave of motorcycle interest, but years of low sales had emptied out the capital reserves and it can't do it. At the end of 1968, American Machine & Foundry bought out Harley-Davidson. Now, people are really unhappy with American Machine & Foundry. American Machine & Foundry is bad.

It's caused all sorts of problems. Anything bad that happened to Harley is because of American Machine & Foundry not true. The AMF buying out had good points and bad points. AMF pumped a lot of money into Harley-Davidson, allowing the factory to modernize.

However, AMF also demanded that the assembly lines be speeded up past anyone's ability to put out a quality product. And selling an unreliable motorcycle to some large guys who are not really patient and understanding is kind of not a good idea. I rate customers and unhappy dealers demanded that something be done. In 1981, a group of Harley executives, aided by a friendly bank, arranged a buyout. Harley was its own company again and after a few rocky years, and it was really rocky for a few years, started to regain customer trust and respect. Harley also started its own company club, Harley Owners Group, which is called HOG mostly, and it continues to be a social center for riders based on the local dealership.

You see how all these ideas just get recycled, but they get recycled because they work and people like them. HOG is so successful that it's studied in business administration programs. So the years after the buyout were boom times for Harley once they got over that hump. There were wait lists for new bikes. Harley Davidson fielded a flat track racing team, sponsored different road racing efforts, and even built its own road racer.

And it also upgraded the product. The evolution motor of the 1980s gave way to the twin cam, also known as Twiki, of the 21st century and later to the Milwaukee 8 for 8 valve. So here's to Harley Davidson. Harley Davidson has weathered changing tastes, environmental protection legislation, economic ups, economic downs, and ups and downs in the business environment. The company has successfully dealt with all challenges in the last 118 years and is coming up with new stuff. It just introduced an electric motorcycle, the live wire, and a new adventure bike with a new engine.

So crack open a beer and drink a toast. Here's to Harley Davidson and the next 118 years of great motor science. Margie Siegel signing off. And a great job by Greg Hengler and a special thanks to Margie Siegel for telling the story of Harley Davidson. By the way, order her book Harley Davidson, a history of the world's most famous motorcycle.

Go to for the usual suspects. It's a terrific read. And in the end, well, it chronicles the sheer fun and love of riding a Harley.

And if you haven't done it, by the way, you don't know what you're missing. This is Lee Habib, and this is Our American Stories. Abusers in Hollywood are as old as the Hollywood sign itself. Underneath it lies a shroud of mystery. From Variety, Hollywood's number one entertainment news source and iHeart podcast, comes Variety Confidential. I'm your host, Tracy Patton, and in season one, we'll focus on the secret history of the casting couch.

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Whisper: medium.en / 2024-01-01 04:15:50 / 2024-01-01 04:28:04 / 12

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