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An American Icon

[Man on motorcycle].
[Man on motorcycle].
1 photoprint, ca 1910-1930.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

In 1903, the same year Henry Ford incorporated the Ford Motor Company and the Wright brothers first flew, William Harley and his friends Arthur and Walter Davidson launched the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. They gave their bike a quality engine, so it could prove itself in races, but planned to manufacture it as a transport vehicle. That same year the merchant, C. H. Lange, sold the first officially distributed Harley-Davidson in Chicago, a city given to "motoracing" and auto-touring. Another of the Davidson brothers, William, joined the company, which soon burst the seams of its first manufacturing center and, by 1906, had to move to larger quarters in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
F
rom the beginning the Harley-Davidson motorcycle began to set records. In 1908, for example, the Harley achieved a record 188.234 miles per gallon. It captured seven first place finishes in 1910 motorcycle racing, and, by 1912 claimed 200 U.S. distributors. A sturdy Harley-Davidson Sidecar won the first annual Pike's Peak race in 1916, and another bike claimed first in the 1922 Adelaide to Melbourne South Australia race 

Harley-Davidson Smashes Adelaide to Melbourne Record.
Harley-Davidson Smashes Adelaide to Melbourne Record.
Motorcycle and Bicycle Illustrated
April 13, 1922.
Library of Congress General Collections

By the 1960s "the hog," as it affectionately came to be called, scored seven consecutive victories at the Daytona 200. During the next decade the Harley took four consecutive wins at the AMA Grand National Championships and broke the world motorcycle record for land speed.
T
he Harley-Davidson came to be America's most recognized motorcycle, but it was not the first. Howard Roper developed a coal powered steam-engine motorcycle in 1867 and Gottlieb Daimler, a German, developed a gas-powered motorcycle in 1885, which he attached to a wooden bike. That marked the moment in history when the dual development of a viable gas-powered engine and the modern bicycle collided.

[Jayne Mansfield, posed as motorcycle cop "Miss Traffic Stopper," ticketing male driver].
[Jayne Mansfield, posed as
motorcycle cop "Miss Traffic Stopper," ticketing male driver].

1 photoprint, 1962.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

Turn of the nineteenth century inventors who worked with both the engine and the bicycle chose to follow one of three paths. Daimler, for example, went on to develop automobiles, the Wright brothers left their bike shop to fly airplanes, and men like Harley and the Davidson's developed motorcycles. Their business competitors were other new start-up companies such as Excelsior, Indian, Pierce, Merkel, Schickel and Thor.
F
rom the beginning a unique and characteristic sound endeared the Harley-Davidson to its owners. The Harley's pistons connected to its crankshaft in a way that caused the motor to give two "pops" then a quiet pause as it hummed along the road. Yet around that constant sound, other things evolved and changed: a 45 degree V-twin motor was introduced in 1909, the "Bar and Shield" logo in 1910, and the teardrop-shaped gas tank in the 1920s. In the 1930's an "eagle" design was placed on those tanks and the famous "Knucklehead" engine was introduced. At a time the Harley became widely used as both a police and a commercial vehicle, the company even manufactured sidecars and sported motorbikes built for two.

[Mack Sennett comedy films--glamour pose by three young women in bathing suits on beach, two of them on a motorcycle].
[Mack Sennett comedy films--glamour pose by
three young women in bathing suits on beach,
two of them on a motorcycle].

1 photoprint, ca 1919-1927.
Prints & Photographs Online Catalog

During World War I Harley-Davidson manufactured nearly 20,000 motorcycles for the U.S. government. And during World War II virtually all of the Harleys produced went towards the war effort. As nations such as England were forced to give up motorcycle production to favor production of tanks and planes, Harley's motorcycles were also shipped overseas to U.S. allies.
F
ollowing WWII the Harley's market share, as well as its myth, continued to grow. Its main U.S. competitor, Indian Motorcycle, ceased production in the 1950s. And veteran owners, new bikers, and even movies such as Easy Rider raised the Harley Davidson to the status of American icon. Glamorous stars pictured with Harleys, from the early Mack Sennett Studio, to Jayne Mansfield, Elvis Presley, and Peter Fonda, certainly enhanced the company's image.
F
or the most part, however, Harley-Davidsons, like all motorcycles, are enjoyed by individuals and groups who find biking a wonderful way to get where they are going. Who in on-the-road-America has not seen bikers tooling along the highway whether on a Fall outing, in a parade, making a statement, or raising money for charity? Indeed, the Harley-Davidson company prides itself on the money it has raised for charity during the last quarter century, with the help of its customers and dealers.

The following safety tips are taken from discussions in the Motorcycles and Harley-Davidson forums. Most of these riders have been riding a long time. Here are some of the reasons.

  • Be very cautious after the first rain after a dry spell. All the oil that has accumulated on the road comes up in the first half hour and is very, very slick.

    Ride like you're invisible.

    Here are 155 articles, most written by James R. Davis, all on advanced techniques. Most of them are things we don't WANT to experience to learn.

    Toll booths have the most oil problems for motorcycle riders. Slow way down as you approach. Stay in the left tire track area. Stop and catch yourself with your feet ever-so-gently, and pull away with the greatest care you can because you will almost certainly have some junk on your tires when you pull away. Make your passenger aware of toll booth dangers as well and if they are handling the tolls, make sure they don't move the wrong way and cause an unnecessary spill.

    An important book, full of basic and advanced safety tips, is David L. Hough's Book, "Proficient Motorcycling." Buy it and read it before and after every riding season.

    Practice various riding skills such as emergency braking skills, swerving, slow turns, and smooth throttle operation at least 15 minutes a week in a vacant parking lot or other area devoid of people and traffic.

    Slow down before entering blind turns and be watchful at intersections and when passing driveways and alleys.

    Stay to the left side of your lane when passing parked cars to your right.

    Park where either gravity or the engine will get you out of a parking spot. In other words, back into a downhill sloped space and pull straight into an uphill sloped space.

    Look ahead, plan ahead! Look as far down the road as you can. Pay close attention to colors and shapes on the road surface (scanning for trash, bumps, holes, cracks, new asphalt, old concrete, spills, puddles, etc.) and also observe how other vehicles are reacting to the road (scanning for brake lights, swerves, bumps, etc.).

    Practice hard braking when you don't need to so you can "safely" apply the brakes under an emergency situation. Practice in vacant parking lots or quiet streets that won't interfere with other people/vehicles.

    New riders should never carry passengers until such time as they are "very" comfortable with their bike. Usually this takes at least a year without a passenger.


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