It was late October when the publisher of my new book At the Creation wanted me to come down to Madison and give a talk at the Wisconsin Book Festival. Of course the morning I was to leave (280 miles one way) the temperature was about 36 degrees fahrenheit and it was raining! Luckily by mid-morning the rain stopped and I took off on my bike (R75/6). The roads were very wet and it was cold, but I was so overdressed I never felt it. As I traveled south the temps rose until it was in the 50s. Then 30 miles from Madison the sky grew plutonic black ahead and down came the rain! Nothing like being in fast freeway traffic in a heavy downpour! So I got off the freeway ASAP and ducked into a burger joint where I parked my bike under an eave of a building and went inside for some bites. Rain let up but started again when I took off. The worst was over fortunately and I got to my destination (UW-Madison where Bill Harley went to school) just as it was getting dark and with me only slightly wet and not soaked. I was glad!

The ride back two days later was colder. In the 40s when I left Madison and 35 F. when I got home. Near the Baraboo quartzite hills it started to drizzle and I thought I was doomed. But it soon stopped and was dry the rest of the way. North of Eau Claire the sky nearly cleared off. Temps were dropping though and my fingers got slightly cold. But I rode fast and then faster, passing nearly every car on the highway. Kept in the right lane except when passing and I always use my directionals when changing lanes. I wish other people would do that instead of HANGING in the left lane and blocking traffic. They should punch that thing and pass and then get over!

The day after I got home it started snowing and it's been cold and snowy and nasty ever since. I just missed that mess by one day. Who says that motorcyclists never beat the weather god that "Hap" and the other old timers called Jupiter Pluvius? -- HW

Myth, Reality, and the Origin of the
Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, 1901-1909
Herbert Wagner

Madison Book Festival
October 25, 2003

First, I’d like to thank you for attending my presentation today. I rode down from northern Wisconsin on my bike and the weather was xxx. Hopefully the weather gods will cooperate for my ride home on Sunday.

My new book is titled At the Creation, Myth, Reality and the Origin of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. This is my 5th book about Harley-Davidson and my first published by the Wisconsin Historical Society Press. It is the first fully documented work on Harley-Davidson ever written, meaning that it lists all my sources of information. It was through that process of nailing down the facts that something unexpected turned up. How the story of Harley’s beginnings had been thoroughly screwed up by past generations of deceptive advertising.

Now unless you were visiting the North Pole this past summer, you know that Harley-Davidson just celebrated 100 years of being in the motorcycle building business. By most accounts the celebration was successful, although it’s still a mystery why the Milwaukee firm gave its following Sir Elton John when everyone was expecting the Rolling Stones and a little “sympathy for the devil.”

That slip-up has been widely reported, but between you and me, that wasn’t the only thing that Harley got wrong during the 100th celebration. Harley also got its birth date wrong. Historical detective work shows that the company has been disseminating a flawed account of its origin for the past 95 years. In the book I present evidence that shows how very early on Harley-Davidson began to juggle and spin the facts to invent a creation myth as a marketing tool for greater impact on the advertising page.

Unlike other better documented beginnings like the Wright brothers first flight, Harley’s origin was never well documented. It remained the stuff of folklore and unexplained puzzles that failed to pass the smell test when examined closely. In spite of all the recent hoopla over Harley-Davidson, nobody before me bothered to ask the tough questions about Harley’s origin. Lazy writers and historians accepted the company’s “official” but flawed version of events. My book attempts to break that historical log jam of some 95 years standing.

For example: Modern Harley-Davidson defines its 1903 origin by claiming that the company was an up-and-running concern by 1903 building and selling motorcycles. That in 1903 at least three complete machines were built with eight more constructed and sold in 1904. The company also claims that a dealer for their product was already in business in 1903 selling bikes in Chicago.

By those solid sounding statements modern Harley-Davidson claims the company was in business in 1903 and 1904. But original evidence tells a different story. The first appearance of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the historical record actually dates to the autumn of 1904. And the first sign of any marketing attempts dates to early 1905. While similar claims are made for 1903, there is no original proof backing those big claims up!

This discrepancy isn’t the invention of modern Harley-Davidson. Modern Harley-Davidson inherited the problem. The 1903 creation myth had its beginning back in 1908 when the young company was struggling to succeed in a competitive marketplace -- and there lies the root cause. Starting in 1908 and for a decade following Harley’s advertising department purposely handed out bad information to the public. This bad information filtered down through the years unchallenged. In 1970 a critical mis-step was taken when that same bad information was incorporated into a booklet history about Harley-Davidson issued by the parent firm.

That publication was accepted without question as the truth and has been used since that time as source material for the many books about Harley-Davidson that have appeared. It was also used by the modern Harley-Davidson company for its “official roots” during the recent 100 year anniversary.

When I first became interested in Harley’s history, I also accepted the 1903 first-year-in-business date as true. But before long I began to question it. Because every piece of original evidence I found told a different story. My findings showed that there was no Harley dealer in Chicago in 1903. No marketable machines were produced or sold in 1903 either. Nor was there a dealer in 1904 or any bikes sold that year either. It even seemed doubtful that Harley and Davidson had a successful design fully worked out on paper in 1903 -- although they were feverishly working in that direction.

But how did this strange situation of myth versus fact begin in the first place? How did false marketing claims become established as the truth?

The background of the problem is as old as our capitalist system: The need to carve a market niche for a product. At that time young 20th century America was abandoning shoe leather, horse-flesh, and the foot-pedaled bicycle in favor of gasoline-powered land transportation, including the most exciting of such devices: the motorcycle. Beginning in a backyard shed, Bill Harley and Art Davidson were two optimistic young men trying their luck at motorizing a bicycle. And who, after considerable effort, would create America’s sole surviving motorcycle brand from that pioneer era: the Harley-Davidson.

That pioneer American motorcycle industry had its impetus in the late 1890s when the first lightweight gasoline engines were imported from France. In 1901 a few American-made motor-bicycles appeared on the market. Incredibly, in that same pioneer year of 1901 we can document Bill Harley’s first stumbling attempt at building a motorized bicycle. The proof comes from an engineering drawing preserved in the Harley family. The drawing is dated “July, 1901” and describes parts for a “Bicycle Motor.”

The 1901 drawing shows a small and rather crude engine with just 7 cubic inches of piston displacement. Young Harley and his pal Davidson intended to fit this tiny motor into a regular pedal bicycle frame. It took them two years to finish this initial machine. Then they found out that their engine was too small to adequately propel a bicycle and rider.

This puny little motorized bicycle was a totally different beast from the first successful Harley-Davidson motorcycles that appeared on the market in 1905. The distinction between them is critical. Bill Harley’s first crude exercise in engine building begun in 1901 was a valuable learning experience, but it never powered a motorcycle worthy of the Harley-Davidson name. Nor was it ever sold. Yet for advertising purposes the company would later pull a vanishing act with this puny motorized bicycle and would substitute their first real motorcycle instead.

This is where fact and folklore begin to merge. First consider the facts: In 1901 Bill Harley was just 21 years old; less than half the age of the typical Harley owner today. He had no experience in building gasoline engines let alone building complete motorcycles from scratch. He and Art Davidson had no factory. They had no machine tools of their own. The two older Davidson brothers (Walter and William) had not yet joined their enterprise which was then just a hobby. Most critical they had no capital backing them. No money.

And yet, if we are to believe the creation myth, a mere 24 months after Bill Harley put his first crude groping ideas on paper for a puny little bicycle motor that could hardly have moted out of its own way, Harley and the Davidson brothers were turning out finished motorcycles of a highly superior type with a reliable and powerful engine placed in a highly advanced loop-frame chassis. And not just a cobbed-together prototype either, but a refined product ready to take on every other motorcycle in the business. Legend also tells that these same superior Harley-Davidsons of 1903 were built from scratch in a backyard shed just 10 x 15 feet in size with no machinery and no electricity!

Now, let’s jump to the facts. Facts based on evidence from the time the events actually happened. For example, the first known Harley-Davidson marketing attempt dates to January of 1905, not 1903 or even 1904. Significantly, this first known advertisement does NOT describe complete motorcycles for sale, but offers only bare engines for the do-it-yourself builder. While the 1905 ad does show the famous bigger Harley engine and not the dinky 1901-type motor, the 1905 ad does not even offer a carburetor.

This suggests that Harley-Davidson did not have complete motorcycles ready to sell at that time and didn’t have a carburetor ready to sell either. And this is already in the year 1905 -- two years after legend has them turning out complete bikes. Not until April of 1905 do we find the first evidence of complete Harley-Davidson motorcycles for sale. We even know where one of those first 1905 Harleys was delivered: to Peter Olson, a rural mail carrier living a few miles from here in Cambridge, Wisconsin.

For me, the wide discrepancy between actual 1905 evidence and Harley’s traditional but vague claim of building and selling complete motorcycles out of a backyard shed in 1903 came like a warning shot across the bow. The lack of first-hand evidence from 1903 was disturbing. In fact, the oldest photo of a Harley that the company traditionally handed out dated not even from 1905, but from 1906!

There were other little puzzles that didn’t add up either. When Harley started numbering motorcycle models in 1909, they referred to the 1905 bike as “Model One.” Why on earth would Harley-Davidson leave out of that official numbering system the years 1904 and 1903 if bikes had been built and sold during those years? That didn’t make sense.

Most intriguing of all were numerous advertisements and articles that appeared in the motorcycle trade press in the years between 1908 and 1920. These ads and articles made a variety of conflicting claims about Harley’s first year on the market. Not just claims that Harley had been building and selling motorcycles in the years 1904 or 1903, but that the company had been in business building and selling motorcycles in 1902 and even in 1901!

Those ad claims of bikes built and sold in 1901 and 1902 broke my own mental fog surrounding Harley’s origin. Clearly the 1901 claim was IMPOSSIBLE. By that time I had positive proof that it was already July of 1901 when Bill Harley started drawing plans for a crude little bicycle motor. A motor too small to get out of its own way. Yet advertisements from the 1908-1920 period were claiming that the advanced, second model Harley with its powerful hill-climbing engine and cutting-edge loop-frame was on the market in 1901!

Clearly, there were some very old marketing fairy tales circulating around Harley’s origin that looked suspiciously like a snake-oil salesman at work, but perfumed with raw gasoline.

But if impossible claims had been made for Harley’s beginnings, what was the truth? Without doubt Harley’s true origin lay somewhere between the first ads of 1905 and Bill Harley’s 1901-dated drawing. But exactly when? And how did the story of Harley’s origin get so messed up in the first place?

More digging turned up the answers to these questions. In the book I show the rapid progress these young fellows made in those first years, all the more impressive when you consider their limited knowledge and the shoestring they were operating on. But they were shrewd and practical guys. While their first bumbling attempt to motorize a bicycle failed, it showed them what a real motorcycle should be. Not a pedal-bike with a puny engine, but a unique vehicle with its own demands and solutions. That sounds simple, but it was a big step when even the experts were still groping for the right answers.

Here is where the practical genius of young Bill Harley shines forth, and it doesn’t need exaggerated folklore to prove it either. At a critical point in time -- and I think that was 1903 -- Harley and Davidson realized that a successful motorcycle needed greater power to climb hills and conquer poor dirt roads. That meant a larger motor with big heavy flywheels. But with a larger motor would come the problem of a reliable frame to put it in. The ordinary bicycle frame was too weak and its design was all wrong. In fact, their entire first concept of a motorized bicycle had been all wrong, but it set them on the right path.

Shrewdly, instead of attempting to improve what they already had, the boys dropped their crude motor-bicycle project cold and started fresh. First they needed that bigger engine and it appears that they found it in the machine shop of Ole Oleson Evinrude, another gasoline-sniffing pioneer and later of outboard motor fame.

There are so many unique design similarities between Evinrude’s engine of 1903 and Harley’s engine of 1905 that one suspects good-natured Ole encouraged young Bill Harley to adapt the Evinrude engine for motorcycle use. Ole had been building engines for sale since at least 1902 and we also know that Arthur Davidson worked in Ole’s pattern shop around this time. Later “official” histories handed out by Harley-Davidson credit Evinrude with helping the boys, and that help appears to be the larger Harley engine first seen on the market in 1905.

But that larger and more powerful engine created a problem: a suitable frame or chassis to put it in. The boys found the answer to that difficulty in the product of another early Milwaukee motorcycle builder: the Merkel Manufacturing Company. In business since 1901, the Merkel firm introduced a new model with a highly advanced loop-frame in 1903 that in time would become the industry standard. No longer would builders try to adapt gasoline engines to bicycle frames, but instead would build the frame around the engine in a continuous loop. While this new frame type would define the modern motorcycle, it took other builders time to figure that out. Indian, then the industry leader, wouldn’t adopt a loop-frame until 1909. The keen intuition of Harley’s founders is shown in that when the first marketable Harley-Davidson motorcycles appeared in 1905 they looked nearly identical to the Merkel.

Adapting the proven Evinrude type engine to the Merkel frame were shrewd moves for young Harley-Davidson. But Bill Harley added a feature of his own to make the Harley-Davidson a superior motorcycle. This was the provision of an adjustable belt tightener between the running engine and the rear wheel. Most early motorcycles -- including Merkel and Indian -- were direct drive. They had no clutch or provision for disconnecting the engine from the rear wheel. This direct-drive feature made pioneer motorcycles difficult to ride and unstoppable unless the rider killed the engine. So most riders chose NOT to stop, and threaded their way through horse-drawn traffic, farm animals, and children with sometimes tragic results. Hills were rushed at high speed because most engines didn’t have adequate hill-climbing power. As a result, early motorcycles quickly gained a bad reputation that exists to the present day.

But Bill Harley’s combination of a powerful engine set low in a loop-frame with a flexible belt tightener made the Harley-Davidson an easy-riding and safer vehicle. We know this is true from the experiences of a motorcycle enthusiast who this past August rode a 1905 Harley from Cleveland to Milwaukee and was amazed to discover how road-worthy this 98 year old machine actually was.

But how accurately can we date the first appearance of that excellent and marketable Harley-Davidson motorcycle? In the book I provide the earliest known evidence of a Harley in the historical record. That evidence comes from a Milwaukee Journal newspaper article from 1904. On September 9th of that year there were some motorcycle races held at State Fair Park. Articles describing those races turns up a Harley-Davidson motorcycle with the name spelled in its modern hyphenated form.

Here then, in September of 1904, some four months before the first Harley motor ad appeared, we have solid evidence of a living breathing Harley-Davidson motorcycle! Being in a race, this had to be the big-engine second generation machine. Most likely it was the original prototype and possibly the only one in existence. Backing up this 1904 Milwaukee Journal appearance is a long forgotten Harley-Davidson document from 1907 stating that the first motorized-bicycle experiment was finished in the summer of 1903 but never marketed. The 1907 document also says that the improved and very marketable Harley-Davidson prototype was finished in 1904.

This 1904 first appearance and 1905 market introduction is further backed up by courtroom testimony given by the first dealer, Carl H. Lang. In 1914 under sworn oath Mr. Lang said that he first heard of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle in the fall of 1904 and that he began selling Harleys in 1905. Again, historical digging shatters old folklore and myth.

And yet how did these simple facts get so messed up in just a few years time? Until Harley-Davidson was claiming bikes had been sold in the impossible year of 1901?

The answer is found in the early company’s need to make a name for itself. Thanks to Walter Davidson, Perry Mack, and others, the Harley-Davidson brand was already winning races in 1905. By 1909 two full pages of the Harley catalog was devoted to trophies and racing awards. A good design and racing success increased sales. Production doubled every year. Factory expansion followed apace with a $15,000 loan from Milwaukee’s Marshall and Ilsley Bank.

It was in this highly volatile setting beginning in 1908 that advertising forces began to make mischief with Harley’s origin. Here steps in a Harley employee named S. Lacy Crolius, the company’s first advertising manager. Another highly ambitious young fellow, in Crolius I believe we find the man directly responsible for messing up Harley-Davidson’s early history. The reasons are clear: Crolius wanted to help Harley grow by creating a better marketing tool to challenge industry leader Indian -- even if he sacrificed the truth to get it.

Beginning in 1908 and continuing for some ten years we find Harley-Davidson issuing ever more extravagant claims containing ever earlier dates for the origin and market introduction of their motorcycle. In the book I show old ads and articles with market introduction claims for the years 1904, 1903, 1902, and 1901. Contrast that with original evidence that shows the first existence of a Harley in the fall of 1904 and a market introduction in the spring of 1905.

The intent of these fib-date ads was to make Harley appear to be a pioneer equal or better than the famous Indian and other established brands. Because what was still an excellent design in 1905 when Harley-Davidson actually entered the market, would have been a cutting edge machine in 1904 or 1903, and absolute genius in 1902 or 1901 when the average motorcycle was little more than a pedal-bike with a wheezy little motor attached!

While the more fanciful 1901 and 1902 origin claims for Harley-Davidson didn’t stick, the 1903 origin claim did. It stuck so well that generations of writers and historians have been fooled and Harley-Davidson was fooled again recently when naming 2003 as their 100th year of motorcycle production. A little digging would have shown that it was 1954 when the company celebrated the 50th anniversary models. The logic for that 1954 date is quite clear: The first practical Harley prototype was not finished until 1904, and the guys running the company in the early 1950s knew it. Likewise, the 1905 Harley was known inside the company as Model 1 because 1905 was the first year the Harley-Davidson was actually placed on the market. These long-standing mysteries are mysteries no more.

For me, the folklore and facts surrounding early Harley-Davidson only add to the company’s famous mystique and allure. After all, baby Harley-Davidson wasn’t writing history, baby Harley-Davidson was making history. It was a company headed by four practical men whose goal was to build the best motorcycles possible and make money selling them. This they accomplished quite well. In fact, the Harley motorcycle of 1905 helped set the pattern for all American motorcycles to the present day. Other builders -- including Indian -- would follow Harley’s lead.

Incredibly, in 1936 Bill Harley and the Davidson brothers did it again when they re-invented the American motorcycle with their fabulous 61-cubic-inch overhead-valve model, commonly known as the Knucklehead, a subject that I covered in one of my previous books.

That time, however, Indian chose not to follow Harley-Davidson’s lead, and the results were fatal for that once proud name. I guess it all adds up to one thing: While Harley-Davidson might have messed up its early history, Harley-Davidson got its motorcycles right.