Classic Harley-Davidson 1903-1941

Back Cover & Beautiful 36EL Knucklehead

Clement Salvadori wrote a flattering review of the little color book for American Rider shortly after it was published. Clement is a dedicated motorcyclist who also has an interest in Harley history. His description of my book and methods is right on the mark. I hope he also reviews my new book At the Creation as that baby contains some REALLY new and unusual information on Harley-Davidson.

Book Review

AMERICAN RIDER
January/February 2000, p.68-69


Classic Harley-Davidson: 1903-1941 by Herbert Wagner
Reviewed by Clement Salvadori

Anyone even mildly interested in the history of Harley-Davidson should get this book. It is not expensive, it has lots of very beautiful photos of interesting machines, and the author has come up with some unprecedented information about the first 40 years of The Motor Company.

The writer, Herbert Wagner, who has authored many historical articles that have appeared on these pages of American Rider magazine, is an interesting and articulate fellow with a genuine passion for history especially that of Harleys. He seems to be happiest spending his days trying to come up with something new about Harley-Davidson's past.

Which isn't easy, as his subject has been written about time and again, especially in the last 10 years, when anybody with a computer who can string a few words together has produced a book on the Milwaukee motorcycles. My own little collection includes about 30 books.

Most lay-about historians use what are called secondhand sources; they merely read a couple of books on the subject, shuffle all that knowledge into a new format, and then just regurgitate it. What I look for is a writer like Wagner, who does his own original research, who gropes in attics and opens long-closed trunks and closets, who spends hours just chatting with oldsters to get some oral history, who actually comes up with new material.

The book opens with just that, a 1901 blueprint drawing by Bill Harley of a small, 116cc motor. I've never seen this drawing before, and I love it. This little engine might well have used some proprietary parts that Bill had bought, but back a hundred years ago there were a lot of small companies selling bits and pieces, so an enterprising lad could build his own engine. But this drawing shows the very first Harley motor and the real beginning of The Motor Company.

What Wagner is giving us here is some background on how Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson actually got from that little 116 to the larger 440cc engine of 1905. That precious story is worth the price of admission alone.

Along with information, more than 100 pictures are on those 96 pages, about 90 percent of them in color. The rest are from historical archives. The photographer, Mark Mitchell, is a good color shootist, and along with all the oft-seen profiles, he has some really eye-catching detail shots that glimmer with texture and color. Great stuff.

The book has some intelligent words on the oft-overlooked singles of the late '2Os, powered by stalwart 21-inch flathead and OHV engines, which were the foundation for the future 45-inch flatheads and for OHV engine development. Some modernists like to think that the sun only rose on Harley in 1936, with the introduction of the E model OHV, but I like to wander about in the dawn of automotive time, and with Wagner as a guide, I find myself fascinated and educated.

Of course, the weakness of this book is that it is too short. It is part of the Motorbooks International Enthusiast Color Series, all done to a format which has about 60 percent pictures and 40 percent words. I think this book should have been at least four times as long. Or perhaps MBI could break down Harley history into 10 volumes, each covering 10 years. That will keep Wagner busy for a lifetime.

Book: Classic Harley-Davidson: 1903-1941 Price: $13.95

Supplier: Motorbooks International Publishing, (800) 826-6600, or ask your local bookstore or Harley dealer to order it.

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