There’s a showroom on London’s King’s Road – the Wandsworth Bridge Road end – called “Warrs” – who are the oldest Harley Davidson dealership in Europe. Founded in 1924 by Captain Frederick James Warr, in the same year they became an official Harley-Davidson outlet. The business is still run by the Warr Family, with John Warr as MD.
There are very few motorised forms of transport I like to look at and listen to but not drive and large motorbikes fall into this category. They are thrilling and alluring but, for me, best ridden by someone else.
Harley-Davidson, Inc was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1903 by twenty-two year old William S. Harley, and his childhood friend, Arthur Davidson (seen below on two early motorbikes bearing their names) who together worked on a design for a simple engine that would sit inside a bicycle frame – initially it was not a great success and required pedalling! A later and much bigger version proved more successful and an early prototype – the very first Harley-Davidson – was raced in September 1904, at the Milwaukee State Fair Park.
In 1906, Harley-Davidson built their first factory – making an initial 50 cycles per year quickly to expand to 150 per year by 1907 – on Juneau Avenue (Milwaukee US), the current location of Harley-Davidson’s corporate headquarters.
The V-Twin engine – with a 45 degree angle between the cylinders – was the next major development in 1909 and after 1913 the majority of Harley-Davidsons were V-Twins. In 1994 the company unsuccessfully sort trade-mark protection for the distinctive sound made by a V-Twin.
1912 saw the arrival of the patented, and very recognisable, adjustable spung seat which was used until 1958.
1917 saw the military purchasing over 20,000 motorcycles.
Surviving the Great Depression by controlled expansion by the late 1930’s Harley-Davidson was again producing motorcycles for the US Army and delivered more than 90,000 for military use.
In 1941 the FL was introduced to the Harley-Davidson model line with its “Knucklehead” OHV engine that was changed to the “Panhead” engine in 1948 with aluminium cylinder heads and improved cooling. In 1949, the FL – being renamed the Hydra Glide in 1950 – was given a new front suspension featuring distinctive hydraulically damped telescopic forks. The third and final change given to the basic FL model would occur in 1965 when Harley-Davidson engines were equipped with electric starters, an innovation that resulted in a new model name of the Electra Glide.
Post War the company struggled and in 1969, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought Harley-Davidson, rationalised production and reduced the workforce, with a commensurate reduction in quality and non-competitive prices when compared to Japanese imports.
In 1981, AMF sold the company to a group of investors led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson who deliberately exploited the retro appeal. The iconic Softail series of motorcycles – as in our featured image – was introduced in 1984 and in 1990, this was joined by the “Fat Boy”, in doing so Harley regained their preeminece in the heavyweight market.
In 2008, a 12,000 m2 Harley-Davidson Museum opened in the Menomonee Valley it houses the company’s heritage collection of motorcycles and archives.
Images courtesy of Harley-Davidson