By: Mick Yates
The story begins in 1903, when school friends Arthur Davidson and William S. Harley built their first commercial bike. They sold three in 1903/1904 - even before they were built, thanks to advertising and positive editorial articles. Walter C. Davidson Sr. and William A. Davidson joined the two friends and on September 17, 1907 the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was born. In 1913 the Company established an official racing team, and started winning with riders such as Ralph Hepburn, Joe Petreli and Red Parkhurst.
During World War One, Harley-Davidson built about 20,000 motorcycles which were used by the Allies, and opened service schools to train mechanics. Although the Company's racing was interrupted from 1926 to 1931, it still gave Harley an edge on research and technology. Fast forwarding, whilst there were three big US bike companies through World War Two, by 1953 only Harley Davidson was left standing.
Unfortunately, despite bikes like the "Sportster" and the "Electro-Glide", there were lean years in the 1960's, and the Company was bought by AMF (American Metal Foundries). Under this ownership Harley was competing with new Japanese bikes - and made the mistake of trying to copy some of their mass production approaches. Although some great bikes were introduced (the "Super Glide", in 1971, for example designed by Willie G. Davidson - more on him later), overall quality and brand strength declined.
In 1981 thirteen Harley-Davidson executives raised $75mm and bought the company from AMF. Willie G. Davidson (the grandson of William A. Davidson) was one of the thirteen - and for 40 years has been the man responsible for all Harley-Davidson styling and design. In 1983 Harley-Davidson started the H.O.G club (Harley Owners Group), one of their most successful activities. And ten years later H.O.G. had more than one hundred fifty thousand members and almost 700 chapters. Today, there are over a million members and "Ladies of Harley" is an integral and important part of the club.
In 1984 the company introduced an all-new "Softail" - a bike which has been kept up to date to this day, and in many ways helped define the "Harley Style". The Harley-Davidson brand was cemented into place with the "Fat Boy" in 1990. As an aside, although Harley had successfully petitioned for tariffs against Japanese bikes in the early 1980's, by 1987 the company was so confident of their future that they petitioned to have the tariffs withdrawn. The same year the company listed on the New York Stock Exchange.
Going from strength to strength, thanks to design genius, great technology and very savvy marketing, in 2003 more than 250,000 people come to Milwaukee for the Harley-Davidson 100th Anniversary Celebration and Party. And in 2006 the Company appointed their first authorized dealer in China.
So, this leadership story could have focused on a lot of people, not least the founders, and then Willie G. But, instead we think the moral of this story is the collective ethos and spirit, passed across generations, to deliver the ultimate experience for all customers of the Company. Harley- Davidson is more than a brand, and more than a Company. Harley-Davidson is a part of their customer's lives in ways that almost no other enterprise on Earth is.