The Origin of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle: Advertising Strategy
and Creation Myth
A Talk Given at the Milwaukee County Historical Society
20 July 2003
First off, I’d like to thank Bob Teske and the Milwaukee Historical Society for inviting me here today to talk about Harley-Davidson and my new book on the subject published by the Wisconsin Historical Society. Its title: At the Creation: Myth, Reality, and the Origin of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, 1901-1909.
I’ll be happy to take any questions afterwards.
While my talk today concerns Harley-Davidson, it’s not about tattoos, the outlaw biker lifestyle, or the “potato-potato-potato” sound that some “gurus” claim they hear emanating from the Harley-Davidson tailpipe.
What my talk and book attempt to describe is a true accounting of Harley-Davidson’s authentic Milwaukee roots. Milwaukee roots lost or obscured by generations of advertising myth established at an early date. Quite frankly, some things that Harley-Davidson claimed in the early years were not completely truthful. Yet something understandable, perhaps, coming from an upstart young motorcycle company trying to make a name for itself. However, the result has been historical confusion for the past 95 years. There’s a slogan that Harley guys like to use: “If I have to explain, then you wouldn’t understand.” I’d modify that slightly and say: “If somebody doesn’t explain Harley’s origin, then nobody will ever understand.”
Most of Harley-Davidson’s existence has been marked by roller-coaster ups and downs in the marketplace. During earlier decades the motorcycle was less of a fashion statement and more of a pure sporting vehicle. But it also had a practical side as seen by the bikes on display here today. Motorcycles were used by postal carriers and for delivery service, by repair and salesmen. Even doctors used motorcycles for house calls. Motorcycles were used by the military and by law enforcement agencies.
The split between sporting and commercial usage demonstrates the unpredictable character of the motorcycle industry that goes way back to the beginning. Underlying the problem is the disturbing fact that nobody really needs a motorcycle, but only wants one. As the founders of Harley-Davidson discovered to their dismay, motorcycles are not ideal for most commercial purposes due to limited carrying capacity and exposure to the elements.
Yet there was a time in the 1920s when company officers thought the “sporting rider” market was dead, and the future lay in commercial motorcycles and economical “80-mile-per-gallon” bikes. A few years later they reversed that strategy and developed a super sports bike that is probably the greatest motorcycle of all time: the 1936 “61 OHV” model, commonly known as the Knucklehead.
But the most critical period for Harley-Davidson took place during the company’s first years. This was during the great sales boom in motorcycles that preceded the First World War. During this pioneer epoch the motorcycle had a strong price advantage over the automobile. For that reason it enjoyed considerable success not only for speed thrills, but among people looking for cheap motorized transportation.
During my 15 years of researching Harley-Davidson it became apparent that almost all later trends in the motorcycle industry originated before World War One. It therefore appeared that a basic understanding of Harley-Davidson would be found by going back and examining how the motorcycle developed in the first place. Especially how the motorcycle developed here in Milwaukee.
On the surface that task appeared to be simple. But when I interviewed the late William H. Davidson in 1990 I was in for a surprise. Bear in mind that Mr. Davidson was born in 1905 and grew up with the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. He was president of the firm from 1942 to 1971. But when he spoke about the origin of Harley-Davidson he said this, and I quote: “No history I’ve seen goes back to the early days...the woodshed days. That’s a part of the story that gets lost in every history because there doesn’t seem to be much of a record.”
By “woodshed days” Mr. Davidson was referring to Harley’s earliest years when the company was still tentative in nature and before it had achieved much success in the marketplace. This especially applies to the years before 1907 when the business was located in a wooden shed behind the Davidson homestead on the corner of 38th Street and Highland Blvd; about one block south of today’s Harley corporate headquarters on Juneau Avenue, but known back then as Chestnut Street.
Mr. Davidson’s curiosity about the “woodshed days” piqued my own interest. As a result I began gathering historical material on early Harley-Davidson. Not only later secondary sources, but also through my own primary research that included the time-consuming and eye-straining task of reading old Milwaukee newspapers on microfilm.
In 1996, I began to evaluate this visual and written evidence. At once I was struck by the lack of original documentation -- just as Mr. Davidson had predicted. At that time the earliest documented photo of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle dated to June of 1905. That was a picture from the Milwaukee Journal newspaper that I had discovered during those eye-popping sessions at the microfilm reader. The only earlier known image was a drawing of a Harley I had found in Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal that dated to April 1 of 1905. The earliest written evidence came from a race clipping from September 9 of 1904, also something dug out of the Milwaukee Journal.
Those late dates surprised me due to the universally accepted belief (including my own) that Harley-Davidson had been producing and selling motorcycles since 1903 and by some accounts even earlier. The undocumented gap previous to late 1904 and early 1905 seemed like an awfully long interval with no primary evidence and was a mystery that wouldn’t go away.
The next blow came when I attempted to construct a step-by-step origin chronology for Harley-Davidson. Much of what was accepted as true about the pre-1907 period came from accounts written between 1910 and 1920. But creating a logical chronology from those sources proved difficult. Their contents were so vague and contradictory, that constructing a smoothly flowing chronology proved impossible.
For example, two of the most influential early histories were published in a 1914 issue of the Milwaukee Journal and in a 1916 issue of Motorcycle Illustrated magazine. One chapter in the book analyzes these and other early articles. A chapter I call: “Harley-Davidson Origin Accounts: A Study in Confusion.”
Confusion is no exaggeration. The sequence of events described in these articles zig-zag around in time so much you might conclude Bill Harley and the Davidsons were building a time machine and not a motorcycle. In the 1916 source supposed origin “facts” are totally discredited by testimony given in 1914 under sworn oath in a court of law.
Already by 1914-1916, Harley-Davidson’s origin as found in early published histories was a mess, although these same articles had been used without question by generations of writers and continue to be used today.
Due to this puzzling situation, I began to veer towards a more critical approach, and adopted the notion that there were unanswered questions about early Harley-Davidson. To arrive at anything of value, the best approach would be to start from scratch and accept nothing at face value, especially information from later secondary sources. That meant more digging.
That digging produced results. One thing I uncovered was the previously untold story of Edward Joel Pennington’s visit to Milwaukee in 1895. “Airship” Pennington they called him, and in the 1890s he was a well-known figure with the Wizard-of-Oz-like characteristic of promising new technology but failing to deliver it. Pennington’s inventions lay on the hazy border between illusion and reality. Among his supposed break-throughs were airships (or gas-bags as detractors called both inventor and invention), 150 mile-per-hour monorails, electric railways that operated by “earth currents” (whatever that means), armored fighting vehicles, automobiles, and even a gasoline-powered baby buggy. But his most important invention for us was The Motor Cycle.
In 1895, Pennington was based in nearby Racine. That July he brought The Motor Cycle -- his original trade name for it -- to Milwaukee. He stayed at the Pfister Hotel and the next day took the Motor Cycle to a smooth paved stretch of Grand Avenue where he “may” have demonstrated it under power. I say “may” because Pennington was such a humbug that you can’t believe anything he told reporters.
Later accounts claimed that he blazed up and down the street at a speed of 58 miles-per-hour. That was an incredible velocity for an 1895 motor-bicycle and today impossible to believe. But what is important is that the crowd was immense and just a few blocks away from this 1895 motorcycle demonstration 14-year old William S. Harley and 14-year old Arthur Davidson were then living in their boyhood homes.
Although they never mentioned Pennington in later years, legend tells of a “dream” these boys held of building a motor-bicycle long before they were able to do so. Because of Pennington’s known mesmerizing effect upon sober-minded businessmen, some, who like Henry Ford, later went on to form the automobile industry, it’s a strong possibility that he may also have influenced two Milwaukee lads who would later create the Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
What we do know about young Harley and Davidson’s early career is that after 1895 the Davidson family moved to the western outskirts of Milwaukee and the Harley family moved to the north side on Burleigh. Art went to Cambridge, Wisconsin, for four years where he lived on his grandparents’ farm. At age 15 young Harley found work at the Meiselbach bicycle factory in North Milwaukee. Later, around 1900, Harley wrote to Art out in Cambridge telling him of the good job possibilities in Milwaukee. Soon Art came home and became an apprentice pattern-maker. One evening in 1901 they went to the Bijou Opera House where they saw the shapely Paris-born comedienne, Anna Held. Dressed in white tights, Miss Held demonstrated a nickel-plated French motor-bicycle on the stage. The two young men -- now age 20 -- later said they were greatly excited by that performance, although they neglected to mention whether it was Miss Held or her motorcycle that excited them most. We can presume it was both.
In July of that year -- 1901 -- Bill Harley took the first step in creating a motorcycle when he drew up plans for a very small gasoline engine of 7-cubic-inch piston displacement. One sheet of these 1901-dated plans still exist in the Harley family today and is labeled as a “bicycle motor.” This very small engine was intended to be placed in the frame of an ordinary pedal bicycle.
For the next two years Harley and his pal Art Davidson labored over their hobby. Progess was slow. They had no backing or experience, no factory, and very little money. They managed to work out a deal with Harley’s neighbor Henry Melk who owned a lathe. In exchange for a set of engine castings, Melk allowed them the use his basement shop.
Time dragged on through 1902 and into 1903. When Walter Davidson arrived home
in April of 1903 to attend older brother Bill Davidson’s wedding to Mary Bauer, he
was also counting on a “glorious ride” on the motor-bicycle Arthur had written him
about. But Walter later told how when he arrived home the motor-bicycle was still
largely in the blueprint stage and to get his ride, Walter -- a skilled machinist
-- had to help finish it.
So far, so good. But at this point the story as told in later accounts becomes messy. Events shift about like mirages and the existence of the experimental 7-cubic-inch motor-bicycle is kicked around in time like a football or ignored altogether as a second, much-superior machine (that we’ll get to in a moment) suddenly pops out of nowhere. This is the confused chronology I previously mentioned. It was impossible to make sense of it. You couldn’t get anywhere from there.
Then, in the year 2000, a breakthrough discovery was made. This discovery was a previously unknown Harley-Davidson publication from late-1907. In this document was found the earliest known account of Harley’s origin. There it clearly states that the little 7-cubic-inch motor-bike was finished in the “summer of 1903.” Furthermore, it states that the motor-bicycle was found wanting in several respects and that this first design was never marketed.
However, this experiment of 1903 did show our heroes what a real motorcycle should contain. At once they set to work with Bill Harley creating a second machine, totally different, and far superior to the little power-bike of 1901-1903. The 1907 document states that this second design was finished in 1904 and that it was nearly identical to the Harley-Davidson motorcycle of 1908 that the late-1907 publication was announcing.
Bill Harley’s first marketable motorcycle was built with a 25-cubic-inch engine -- some three times larger in piston displacement than the previous engine. There is evidence that Ole Evinrude helped with this larger engine. Next Harley developed a loop-frame chassis that was likely inspired by the Merkel motorcycle, another early Milwaukee brand. For 1903 Merkel had introduced an advanced loop-frame design -- nearly identical to the first production Harleys. With a big-bore engine placed in a modern loop-frame, the prototype of 1904 was a more powerful and advanced design than most of its early rivals. It looked more like a real motorcycle and less of a motorized-bicycle. That would help too.
Just as the late-1907 document tells, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle was up and running by 1904. We know for sure by those September newspaper clippings that report the presence of a Harley in motorcycle races at State Fair Park. The event marks the first known occurrence of Harley-Davidson in the historical record. September of 1904. Sometime later, a Milwaukee man named Henry Meyer bought that first machine and it went through a series of owners -- including a doctor -- until by 1912 it had achieved celebrity status. Mysteriously, however, four years later it drops out of sight and has not been heard of or seen since. Find it and you can name your price!
By early 1905, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company was in business as a loose partnership. The first offering to the trade were separate motors as evidenced by a small ad placed in the January 1905, issue of Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal. Complete motorcycles were available for sale that spring when one was delivered to Peter Olson in Cambridge.
The chronology just set forth: an experimental motor-bicycle begun in 1901 and finished in 1903, then the prototype loop-frame design finished sometime in 1904, and with production of motorcycles beginning in 1905, is what I believe to a plausible and accurate scenario. Beginning in 1908, however, the separate identities of the motorized-bicycle experiment and first loop-frame motorcycle would become confused. But why? What caused that confusion? To find the answer, it’s critical to understand Harley-Davidson’s rapid early progress.
The Harley-Davidson motorcycle of 1905 met with instant success. Compared to its rivals it was more strongly built, faster, more dependable, and it looked right. By late 1906 the Harley-Davidson had reached California -- a milestone when you consider the market for motorcycles there today.
Growing popularity allowed Harley-Davidson to increase production from 5 or 7 bikes in 1905 to about 50 in 1906, to 150 in 1907, 450 in 1908, and 1150 in 1909. An experimental V-twin was on the drawing board in 1906 and a V-twin prototype displayed at the Chicago automobile show in February of 1907.
Growing sales demanded that Harley expand production capacity. The original backyard shed doubled then tripled in size during 1905 and 1906. In late 1906 a lot was purchased up the block on Chestnut Street. There, a single-story wooden factory of about 2500 square feet was erected. In 1907 a second story was added to the plant and by early 1908 the Chestnut Street premises were nicely spruced up with fresh paint and the Harley-Davidson name. That year an addition made of Milwaukee cream brick was added to the west side of the existing plant. Next, the original wooden section was faced with brick, and in 1909 a brick machine shop was added to the east side of the plant. Together these segments formed the “yellow brick factory” as it was known to old timers.
The period before 1910 was also the time when Harley-Davidson began racing. As early as 1905 Walter Davidson was winning speed events and that summer Perry E. Mack set a Wisconsin speed record on a Harley. This hazardous activity was done for the publicity that winning motorcycles brought to Harley-Davidson, proving that the Harley was not only fast, but that Bill Harley’s design philosophy was above all the rest.
In 1908 company president Walter Davidson scored his greatest victory in motorcycle competition when he won the National Endurance Contest in New York state. Three days later he won the Economy Contest when his “big powered” machine covered 50 miles on one quart and one ounce of gasoline -- nearly 200 miles to the gallon.
When the final numbers for the Endurance Contest were announced Walter was awarded the Diamond Medal prize and five additional points due to a score that deviated just eight minutes from a absolute perfect schedule over the two day event. One journal remarked: “[Davidson’s] title to the diamond medal...is beyond question...”
This double win brought Harley-Davidson great publicity. Overnight the brand leapt to the forefront of the many challengers to industry-leader Indian. The Milwaukee firm was no longer another face in the crowd among some 25 American motorcycle companies. Riders realized that this well-designed, reliable, and powerful motorcycle from Milwaukee was the machine they had been waiting for.
The result was a crossroads for Harley-Davidson. Would the company remain a small player in their modest yellow brick factory on Chestnut Street? Or would Harley-Davidson expand to mean the growing demand for their machine?
We know today that Harley-Davidson took the latter course. Plans were made for a five-story reinforced concrete and red brick structure. To begin this expansion a three-year $15,000 loan was arranged with Milwaukee’s Marshall and Ilsley Bank.
Now the stakes for success or failure were greater than ever. Market competition was fierce and profit margins small. The days when the Harley-Davidson design was clearly superior was fading as a standardized motorcycle was coming into existence. Even Indian, which had stuck to its 1901 pattern long after it was obsolete, finally adopted the loop-frame in 1909, thereby admitting that the machine Harley had been selling since 1905 was superior. In this environment, any advantage to boost one’s product was eagerly grasped.
It was during this time beginning in 1908 that the previously mentioned advertising high-jinks began and when Harley-Davidson began re-writing its origin story for a better marketing tool. In the years following and until the origin accounts dried up abruptly after 1919, there would be ever more exaggerated claims that the Harley-Davidson motorcycle had appeared on the market not in 1905 as the evidence today shows, but in 1904 or 1903, and in the most extreme cases, already in 1902 or even 1901.
Although puzzling at first glance, these advertising fibs make sense when placed in the context of the time. By those standards when the industry was only a few years old, no matter how good the Harley-Davidson motorcycle was when it appeared on the 1905 market, it was something of a late-comer when compared to Indian and other pioneers of 1901.
However, if ad claims could be planted that Harley-Davidson had been on the market at an earlier date, it would look vastly more impressive on the advertising page. For what was still excellent in 1905 when Harley-Davidson entered the market, would have been cutting edge stuff in 1904 or 1903, and absolutely ahead-of-the-curve stunning genius in 1902 or 1901 when the average motorcycle was little more than a pedal bike with a wheezy little motor.
The evidence shows that such deception took place. One chapter of the book tracks the evolution of false advertising claims beginning in 1908 and continuing for a decade as ever bolder and more extravagant claims were made. The person writing this marketing literature was most likely Harley’s first advertising manager, S. Lacy Crolius, whose tenure as ad manager matches that ten year span perfectly.
That Crolius could make these claims with a reasonably clear conscience was probably due to the fact that there had been a predecessor motor-bicycle experiment. Pushing the motor-bike out of the picture and replacing it with the second, vastly superior design probably seemed like a good idea at the time and easy stuff for an ambitious young fellow who had been given a couple shares of company stock as incentive.
That false information and myth was emanating from Harley-Davidson’s advertising department and was known around the company during that period can be demonstrated from 1914 court testimony. Under sworn oath Bill Harley is asked about an advertising claim most likely written by this same man Crolius. Mr. Harley responds this way, and I quote: “I am not responsible for that advertising and I won’t go back and say what the man that wrote that out meant.”
However understandable these antics are in light of the honest desire to sell motorcycles, they caused a less-than-honest account of Harley-Davidson’s origin to come into being when these false advertising claims found their way into historical articles published in the 1910-1919 period. Some of the better-known examples like the 1914 Milwaukee Journal and 1916 Motorcycle Illustrated article continue to fool writers and historians today. This puzzle is only beginning to be untangled and I urge anyone interested to get a copy of the book: At the Creation. You can read more about it online at: www.atthecreation.com.
While now we now have a better understanding of Harley’s origin, gaps still remain, especially in the early photographic record. Still to be found are possible photos of Pennington’s Motor Cycle in Milwaukee, the early Merkel motorcycle and the Merkel factory, the September 1904 race, the 1904 Harley-Davidson prototype when it was new, and the first little motor-bicycle experiment. The field for early motorcycle documentation here in Milwaukee is potentially a rich field that is largely untapped.
You might think of it as blank pages in a gasoline-powered baby album. Events that took place in an older quainter Milwaukee of rumbling beer wagons, old world accents, and cream brick architecture. Back when the Harley-Davidson motorcycle was an infant in America’s early motor age. When inventors sought to accomplish the seemingly outrageous task of creating a bicycle that “moted” under its own power. A task that ultimately evolved into the world-famous Harley-Davidson motorcycle of today.
I’ll be happy to take your questions now.