16 Things Every Biker Needs To Know About Harley-Davidson

Here are 16 things that every self-respecting gear head ought to know about Harley-Davidson.


Okay, so you're a Harley guy or gal and you know more about your bike than most people know about their (current) spouse. (You're probably more in love with it too.)

For example, you know that Harleys have been making that distinctive four stroke V-twin engine noise—"potato-potato-potato"—since pretty much forever (ca. 1909 for any history majors out there). And you know that such a signature is that sound that it had to be purposefully engineered into a co-branded Ford pickup truck that wore the shield and bar for much of the first two decades of the 21st Century. (You likely already also know the outcome of H-D's attempt to trademark that sound...lawyers...)

You also probably have a special spot in your garage (if not a completely separate storage out-building) for parking "Miranda"—don't judge, the rule is everyone gets to name their own—during the off-season, a lift to keep the flat-spot gremlins from taking a bite out of your Dunlops, and about six different battery maintainers laying around as well; four or five of them are "just in case," of course. (You remembered the stabilizer too, right?)

But there are still souls to save out there, trust me on this. And since not everyone has rallied across the badlands in SoDak, or survived the US-98 corridor during Bike Week, as a public service, HotCars.com herein presents a list of 16 things that every self-respecting gear head ought to know about Harley-Davidson, the most venerable brand of motorized freedom.

16 The First Harley-Davidson Was Born in France

De Dion Engine
Via pinterest.co.uk

In truth of course, all motorcycles can trace their roots back to the De Dion Bouton motorized tricycle of 1900. The French company's founders too were interested in putting the new-fangled power of internal combustion to work on any and all manner of transportation including the ubiquitous bicycle.

Yet there is some evidence that William S. Harley—the engineering half of the original company namesakes—was very familiar with the De Dion single cylinder engine design, and that it influenced his own work which became the basis for "Drawing #2" of the "Bicycle Motor," which itself was the seed from which the very first Harley-Davidson products would later spring.

That was just the beginning. Harley and his partners would eventually introduce a lot of their own innovations into their designs; particularly the famous V-Twin and the springer fork.

One of the hallmarks of the brand over the years, however, has been its openness and willingness to adapt to new influences; even those that might come from beyond the company's own doors.

15 ...and it had Coaster Brakes!

1903 Harley
Via pinterest.com

There are positives and negatives to braking any bike with coasters. One of the worst aspects for a motorized bike is that, if and when the chain breaks, the rider can really only lay the bike down and pray. (Now you know why bikers wear leathers.)

Coaster brakes remained a staple of the company's designs for at least the first decade of their major sales. Those were improved in the movement to drums (first offered in 1914) and, eventually, discs much later on. Another aspect to coasters is that those are pretty much limited to single-speed bikes; and that was so with the early H-Ds. Still, before they were completely gone Harley's bikes were already topping out at over 60mph/100kph.

Other "quirks" of the early H-Ds were acetylene gas headlights—also common in early automobiles—and dry-cell powered ignition that needed a new battery on a regular basis. Magnetos were initially offered as an option in 1909.

14 The First V-Twin was Kind of a Failure

Early V Twin Group
Via pinterest.com

Offered for the first time in 1909, the V Twin really didn't jump off the shelves. Although the company sales were into the thousands by then, the first model powered by a twin sold less than 30 units. (The group above had all bought theirs in time for this 1912 photo.)

That wasn't too bad, considering it cost about $325, which at that time was what the average full-time factory worker earned in a whole year. Think about that for a minute.

The single cylinder units weren't being given away for free of course; those ran about $200 and sold about 1,000 more in number than the twins in 1909.

Compare that to the cost of a 1910 Model T Ford—$800 plus—and you can see that motorcycles offered a much cheaper entry point for those looking to get into motorized transport at that time. Indeed, add a side car for just a few dollars more and an entire family could be on the road for less than half what Ford was asking.

13 A Knucklehead was Once a Good Thing to Be

Harley Knucklehead EL
Via hemmings.com

One of the important points of distinction between different era Harley-Davidson motorbikes/V-Twins is the shape of the valve covers. To the H-D cognoscenti we live in a universe of panheads, shovelheads and knuckleheads.

The engine given the "Knucklehead" designation was released in 1936 and represented a significant redesign of the large V-Twin from what had come before it. That was mainly because the valves were relocated from the side to overhead and the oil circulation and cooling systems were both redesigned. (Engine cooling is one of the biggest challenges in motorcycle design because of the location of the engine—the driver/rider is straddling it—and the lack of an engine compartment as you would find in an auto.)

The first Knuckleheads were also the first of the big V-Twins in that they were the first production models to reach 61 cu. in. or 1,000 cc's. That engine displacement has been of great significance in the history of H-D mainly for reasons of regulation and in terms of the export and import trade.

12 A "Hog" was Once a Bad Thing to Have

HOG logo
Via pinterest.com

If you've ever lived in the upper midwest of North America then you know that "swine" are a big moneymaker for those areas where agriculture is a way of life. Turn a bunch of hogs into a harvested field and they will pretty much clean out whatever chaff is left and provide a bit of fertilization too. But they are also kinda sloppy.

That was the origin of the moniker, "hog", as applied to Harleys. They were notorious for being pretty messy (they leaked a lot of oil) and they made a lot of noise. One of the main reasons the company went through the Knucklehead redesign was to try and stop oil leaks. It didn't really work out that way.

In one sense, that meant Harley and their dealers could make a steady bit of business selling motor oil to their customers (which they still do to this day), but on the downside it was a bit of an image problem.

In the 1990's however, the company took that negative and turned it into a positive. They embraced the name by creating something called "Harley Owners Groups," and they changed their New York Stock Exchange designation to "HOG."

11 The Bad Boys Always Ride Harleys

Elvis Presley on a Harley
Via pinterest.com

A series of notable cultural figures and associations from the 20th Century gave Harleys a bad image beyond that of the "Hog."

Indeed, one of the reasons for the slide of the company towards bankruptcy and general crisis in 1981 was that bad boy image. Harleys were associated with biker gangs almost exclusively for much of the last half of the century. That was despite the fact that the majority of what could be called gang membership pretty much had brand loyalties all over the motorcycling world map. BMWs, Triumphs and eventually Hondas were absorbed into the halo of "Harley" and "Hog", by a larger public that didn't know much about motorbikes other than that they were noisy and that in the movies, bad guys in gangs always seemed to be riding them.

The motorcycle, at least in the North American psyche, has always represented the untethered loner; the man with no name who rides into town and sells his gun to both of the local wealthy feuding families for a fistful of dollars.

In that way, motorcycles were the complete opposite of the post-war move to suburbia. There was nothing "settled down" about a Harley, and all motorcycles were Harleys.

10 Now The Good Guys Ride Them

Harley Rolling Thunder Ride 2017
Via nbcchicago.com

Of course, the bad boy image was just a part of the challenges faced by the H-D company as it moved into the last quarter of the last century.

While reorganization, tariff protection, and the help of Japanese manufacturing know-how could address the hardware problems, the bad image had to be attacked in a different way.

Starting in the 1980's the company started to try and change the image by "turning left" and changing the perception from "lawless drifter" to "rugged and freedom-loving individualist."

It worked too. Probably the most obvious artifacts of that could be seen in the increasing popularity of the H-D brand. In fact, the movement of H-D from "product" to "brand" was itself the most significant change.

And nowhere was that more evident than in the form of licensed wearables that consumers could now buy just about everywhere.

9 The Company Was Started For the Current Price of a Fat Boy

2018 H-D Softail Fat Boy
Via moto.it

The beginnings of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company are truly the stuff of legend. The company was started by a couple of guys—kids really—who wanted to motorize their bicycle because...well, because internal combustion was kind of a hot tech around the turn of the 20th Century and it seemed like the thing to do.

Of course they had a lot of help, including the donation of some real estate and an out-building that became the company's first factory. Later, when they moved to their historic address on Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee, they were finally forced to do an accounting of the company's worth- if for no other reason than to value the stock and to buy insurance. It worked out to about $14,200. Naturally, back then a US dollar was worth a bit more than it is now, but if you had a time machine though you could choose between owning a Fat Boy or an even fatter part of the company that builds them.

8 Beijing's Relationship With Harleys Is Weird 

Beijing Harley T-shirt
Via pinterest

Overseas marketing has, interestingly, pretty much been a part of H-D's business model since the very inception of the company over 100 years ago.

From the very beginning, the company was looking for foreign markets, especially in Europe, and over the years it has found some places more favorable to its products than others.

Since 2007 the company has aimed its marketing arrow in the direction of mainland China. There has been a Harley-Davidson dealership/store in Hong Kong for about twenty years now, but in 2007 the first on the mainland opened in the national capital.

The irony is that there are also pretty heavy regulations in Beijing, and many other of China's largest cities, against operating motor vehicles with engines over 500 cc. As we all know by now, that describes a lot of what Harley-Davidson is interested in selling. Indeed, that number is even exceeded by the size of the Sportster entry-level displacement.

7 Softail was Designed by a Rider (Who else?)

H-D Softail Slim
Via wikipedia.org

Besides dealing with heat produced by the engine that the rider/driver is sitting on top of, smoothing out the ride in general has always been a major design concern for motorcycles.

The Sportster design incorporated dual shock suspension in the back but it is, after all, an entry-level bike. As a friend once told me, he was never accepted as a real "biker" until (as the old hands told him) "he got off that damn dirt bike!"

That "dirt-bike" was a Sportster; my friend's first purchased H-D.

Fortunately for that guy, just about the time he bought his second, "real" bike, Softails were coming into production. The Softail is known for its rear end suspension even though, for the most part, it can't be seen. It also incorporates a swing arm design.

Though the company had been tinkering with such before he contacted them to pitch his own system, H-D eventually struck a deal with rider/enthusiast Bill Davis in 1982 to purchase his "Sub Shock" design.

6 President Reagan Tried to Help Save The Company

H-D Super Glide Low Rider
Via onlymotorbikes.com

1981 was a bit of a watershed year for the modern H-D motor company. In the USA, things were going in opposite directions for the motorcycle business.

Motorcycles themselves were becoming a lot more popular and a lot more mainstream, motivated in part by increasing fuel prices and increasing scarcity as well. The US had experienced about a 300% increase in the price of gasoline at the pump in a few short years. But the lone domestic maker, H-D, was flirting with bankruptcy and oblivion.

The newly-elected US president, Ronald Reagan, had made it a cornerstone of his campaign that he would try to use the office to help homegrown businesses to battle back against foreign imports and thereby protect domestic jobs, so when H-D went to the federal government to ask for help in (re-)building its business, it got a bit of executive action.

It's hard to gauge the exact effect of raising the tariffs on imported big bikes—which is the action that H-D got—but it at least gave notice to people in the USA that the brand still existed, that it had recently changed hands, and that it was looking to modernize.

5 The President And The Tariffs

H-D Facility in Bawal, India
Via autocarpro.in

According to the then-newly elected US president, Donald Trump, a lot of what might be afflicting US businesses who compete internationally is unfair tariffs against their products. Early in his current term, he (in)famously made such a claim about Harleys in particularly. Specifically, the president cited a "100% tariff" that is levied against the big bikes as they are imported into India.

Again, it is hard to say how much of an impact on sales such taxation really has. As with Honda (and other Japanese makers) escaping some of the earlier tariff intended to protect H-D by having production facilities within the USA, so Harley-Davidson has at least one such facility inside of India.

Furthermore, it is also true that many nations' regulations (including taxation) of motorized transport in general are more closely tied to engine size and, for motorbikes, Harleys carry big engines.

It is also true that despite the growing middle-class in presently-industrializing nations such as India and China, it remains to be seen if their populations would really embrace the touring bike lifestyle, as it seems in many ways, to be very North American in character.

4 The 1957 Sportster was Designed by Dealers

1957 H-D Sportster
Via mecum.com

Though they were born to make bicycles go faster, H-D eventually came to be known as a maker of big, touring motorcycles. It is that fact that both constitutes the best part of the company's image and also, occasionally, bites them on the "softail."

Perhaps that's why every so often the company has tried to expand its offerings to include smaller bikes with varying degrees of success, meaning "generally, not a lot of success." Probably the most notable exception to H-D's problem with small bikes is the Sportster line.

It was introduced in the late 1950s with the goal of competing with especially British brands which were popular in the USA following the end of World War II. The British bikes were lighter weight and had foot-operated shifters. In combination, all of their characteristics (including much-reduced post-war pricing) made the Brits useful both as street transport and also adaptable to the demands of off-road racing.

The original version of the Sportster, however, was revamped almost immediately based on dealers' feedback. The 1957 Sportster was something of an "experimental" response to that input; it was intentionally lightweight and featured dual shocks in the back. It took its place then as the quintessential entry-level for the brand.

3 H-D Took the First Step to Modernize and Fight Japan By Visiting Honda's Plant in Ohio

1975 Gold Wing
Via wikimedia.org

Also, in 1981, H-D had just been "recovered" by a management group who had seen it relegated to being a part of the AMF corporation. It's not that AMF had bad feelings towards motorcycles or Harleys per se, but only that that corporation did not seem to appreciate what it had in the brand. Further, it was so widely-diversified it couldn't really give the big Hog business the TLC it needed at that time.

Japanese motorcycles were flooding the US market. A lot of those sales, of course, were piggy-backed on the extensive dealership network those same makers already had in place for auto sales.

One of those was Honda, which by then had even begun moving some production to the USA. When Harley-Davidson wanted to learn how to improve its manufacturing process for motorcycles, it naturally asked for a tour of the Japanese maker's facilities in Marysville, Ohio. That's where the company was producing (among other products) the Harley-killer, Gold Wing touring bike. I know, I don't get it either. But it worked and, pretty much from that moment on, Harley-Davidson became a modern, competitive manufacturing firm once again.

2 The Sturgis Rally Didn't Start With Harleys

1935 Indian Motorbike
Via pinterest.com

A crucial aspect to Harley-Davidson's success and also to biker culture in general is the bike rally. Those started out mainly as racing events. Both the annual events at Laconia and Daytona began as bikers traveled to those places to watch motorcycle races. Eventually, rallies became events for owners of similar bikes to meet, exchange information and experience, and...ahem...to "socialize."

The first Sturgis Rally was organized in 1938 by the local Indian Motorcycle dealer. As that brand faded into history, the population of the annual event shifted to become dominated by the bar and shield. To the credit of H-D management, they have always seemed to believe that what was good for Indian Motorcycles was good for their own company too.

At times, that has meant flirting with the notion of reviving the brand as a part of H-D or of funding it as a separate company. These days it seems like H-D has enough troubles of its own. Still, it's good to know that the "Indian rally" continues, despite being constituted in large measure by Harleys.

1 The Museum is Closed on Christmas Day (but Admission is Free on Mother's Day!)

Harley-Davidson Museum
Via visitmilwaukee.org

H-D is facing some more challenges now as we approach the end of the second decade of the new century. Some of those seem very familiar: costs of production are going up and the demand for the product is down. Where baby-boomers could be marketed motorcycles via their in-born "freedom" bone, millennials seem to be bent on avoiding everything that even smacks of conspicuous consumption.

Many eschew the blessings of driving cars much less riding around in black t-shirts and leather on the back of what is, admittedly, a bit of an anachronism.Given that, how could you sell them on an entire lifestyle?

That, if anything, has typified the greatest successes of the H-D brand for the last 30 years or so, at least since those dark days of the early 1980s; it has become very much a lifestyle brand. And, probably because that lifestyle centers on a mode of transportation, most of it is about going places.

Places like the Harley-Davidson company museum...where your mom gets in free...once a year.

Sources: American Iron Magazine Presents 1001 Harley-Davidson Facts, Rebuilding the Brand: How Harley-Davidson Became King of the Road

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