When it comes to the most famous names in the motoring business, few are more iconic than Harley-Davidson. Even those who have never sat in any kind of motorcycle know that these serious bikes are for serious riders. And even if you have never owned a Harley, you can still buy the t-shirt to show your love for the brand; in 2016, clothing sales accounted for 5% of Harley-Davidson’s annual income, worth almost $300 million.
Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been around for over a century, and thanks to their innovative engineering and sense of style, they were a big hit right from the start. They may have had some tough times financially, not least during the Great Depression, but they remain one of the most successful 21st-century motorcycle manufacturers, even embracing new technologies in order to keep up with the times.
A company like Harley-Davidson has enjoyed lots of unusual and unexpected moments throughout its history, such as the time they tried to make a commercial success of a Harley-Davidson pedal cycle, but there are just as many tall tales and urban legends which are completely untrue – or perhaps have a grain of truth in them, but which have been exaggerated beyond all recognition over the years.
Check out the list below for some of the wildest Harley-Davidson urban legends which the company has always denied are true.
15 Elvis Harley Found In A Barn
Perhaps the most common Harley-Davidson urban legend is the one about someone finding an old motorcycle belonging to Elvis Presley dumped in an old barn or garage. The stories are just about always the same, even if the location changes; an old Harley is found under a dust sheet and someone spots that the gas tank has been autographed by The King himself, sometimes with a little dedication to his wife, Priscilla, if they want to add a few extra details.
While Elvis was a big fan of Harley motorcycles, the bikes he actually owned are all now in museums.
14 Or Sold To Jay Leno?
In a variation on the same theme, talk show host and gearhead extraordinaire sometimes makes a guest appearance in this particular urban legend. In some cases, the friend of a friend of a friend who found the Elvis motorcycle reports that Leno, who already has an enviable collection of cars and motorcycles, offered first $750,000 to get his hands on the long lots, Harley, before upping his bid to an astonishing $2.5 million.
Leno himself has strenuously denied that the story is true, or that he owns any of the seven Harleys which Priscilla was said to have bought for Elvis when they were married.
13 Harley Davidson Bought By Japan Company
The 1930s was far from the only time that Harley-Davidson has experienced financial difficulties during its long history. In fact, there were rumors in 2014 that the all-US company had been sold to foreign rival Kawasaki, who went on to say that they would be replacing some of the more expensive steel parts on Harley-Davidson motorcycles with cheaper plastic substitutes.
Eagle-eyed Harley aficionados soon spotted that the date on the so-called press release was April 1st, but the April Fool has continued to live on the internet, with some people still believing that Kawasaki owns Harley-Davidson to this day.
12 What Fat Boy Was Named After
The Harley-Davidson Fat Boy is one of the company’s most successful creations; a chunky cruiser bike which was first launched in 1990, and which is perhaps most famous as the motorcycle ridden by Arnold Schwarzenegger as The Terminator in the movie franchise.
There are, however, some rather crazy rumors circulating the web as to how the Fat Boy got its name, with some claiming that Harley-Davidson took their inspiration from WWII, Little Boy, and Fat Man. Harley has always denied this, saying that the name was an evolution of the earlier Fat Bob model.
11 Harley Invented The V-Twin Engine
There are many reasons why Harley-Davidson motorcycles remain such iconic creations today. One is the V-Twin engine which is used on all their bikes, a two-cylinder engine in which the two cylinders are arranged in a V-shape. You can still see that tell-take V-shape on all their modern bikes, and it is an integral part of Harley-Davidson’s success over the years.
In fact, Harley-Davidson and V-twin engine have such an intertwined history that many people believe the company invented it, even though the first V-twin two-wheeled vehicle was built by Gottlieb Daimler in 1889, long before the first Harley V-twin in 1909.
10 First Harley Carburettor Made From A Tomato Can
Sticking with early technological urban legends, this next tall tale at least has an element of truth about it. The story goes that the very earliest prototype Harley-Davidson, which was put together in 1903, used an old tomato can as a carburetor.
While it is certainly true that Harley and Davidson, the two men who founded the company, may have used whatever they could lay their hands on in order to get their first motorcycle finished, it also appears that from day one the two men were meticulous about ensuring that their finished products were as near perfect as possible – and using an old tomato can as a carburetor doesn’t quite fit that MO!
9 Hog Nickname Comes From Harley Owners Group
Today, the Harley Owners Group is one of the largest motorcycle clubs in the world, with almost one million members in 90 countries. There are some who mistakenly believe that the “hog” nickname, which is given to Harley-Davidson bikes came from the initials of the Harley Owners Group, but that is the wrong way round; the fan club took their name from the hog nickname, which itself dates back to the 1920s.
Harley had been running its own motorcycle racing team since 1914, known as the Wrecking Crew, and in the early-1920s the team adopted a piglet called Johnny as an unofficial mascot, even taking him on laps of honor. And so the hog nickname was born.
8 Production On Harley Bikes Started In 1903
Like many automotive companies which were founded in the earliest days of the 20th century, Harley-Davidson had a pretty inauspicious start to life, operating out of a shed in the back yard of the Davidson family house where Arthur and his childhood friend William Harley began tinkering with their very first machines.
The company itself was founded in 1903, which has led many people to the misguided belief that this was also when the first Harley-Davidson bike was built. This actually happened in 1901, when the two men first started working together, but they spent two years ironing out any imperfections.
7 Harley Bell Will Protect You From Evil Spirits
This next tall tale is so ridiculous that Harley-Davidson has never even thought of having to deny it – and yet thousands of Harley riders swear that it works. Next time you see a Harley-Davidson parked up in your neighborhood, check and see if it has a little bell hanging off the rear fender.
These trinkets, known as ride bells, are supposed to protect the rider and his motorcycle from evil road spirits, which apparently get trapped in the hallow of the bell and are unable to escape. Harley riders might seem like big tough guys, but you’ll be amazed how many have fallen for the ride bell myth.
6 All Harley Riders Are Rebels
If the idea of a ride bell doesn’t fit with your preconceived ideas about Harley riders, just wait until this next myth is debunked! Riders of Harley-Davidson motorcycles do have something of a reputation as rebels without a cause, but this is far from the case for everyone who rides a Harley. After all, the company provides motorbikes to dozens of police forces across the US and around the world.
They even make bikes which are specially designed for law enforcement, and which can then be customized with the relevant colors and departmental badges before they get shipped out to motorcycle cops.
5 Riders Avoid Green Harley Motorbikes
Up there with the superstition about evil road spirits and ride bells is the aversions that many Harley-Davidson fans have to ride green motorcycles. The company still produces green bikes, but the strange superstition persists. It is thought that is dates from the second WW when olive-colored Harleys were widely used by those serving as messengers, which made them a target.
One alternative is that after, these bikes were sold on to regular riders, who found that they broke down a lot because of the thousands of miles they had ridden during the conflict.
4 Harley Bikes Chased Down Pancho Villa
Harley-Davidson motorcycles have even been present at some of the most significant events in history – if you believe the urban legends, of course! Pancho Villa, one of the key figures of the revolution in 1919, was most often seen pictured on a horse, but the bandit was also a big fan of motorcycles, riding a 1914 Indian motorcycle.
The story goes that the US General sent to headquarters for some motorcycles to help his soldiers in their pursuit of Villa and that the forces were sent a fleet of Harley-Davidson bikes. Perhaps they worked, as the conflict ended within a year.
3 All Their Bikes Are Bad For The Environment
It is an easy assumption to make that Harley-Davidson’s priorities as a company do not include environmentally-friendly initiatives. Their bikes are notorious for their low fuel economy, which not only hits the pockets of riders but also contributes to climate change.
However, despite the aversion to green Harleys among fans, the company itself is doing its bit to go green, having recently launched the first all-electric Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The LiveWire motorcycle, which still manages to maintain the quintessential Harley-Davidson style despite its lack of a V-twin engine, will be available to customers in 2019 and has a range of 140 miles on the highway.
2 The First Harley-Davidson Club Was Formed In The US
Automotive companies don’t come much more US-made than Harley-Davidson, so it would be a reasonable assumption that the first Harley-Davidson fan club would have been set up in the US. However, the oldest club for Harley owners was actually established in Prague, in what is now called the Czech Republic, back in 1927.
The Harley-Davidson Club Prague is the oldest existing Harley owners’ club in the world, holding annual rallies and regular rides around the city. The club even held a Super Rally in 2003, to mark the centenary of the company’s founding, with 9000 riders and passengers attending on over 7,000 Harley motorcycles.
1 The Harley-Davidson Name Was Created By The Founders’ Aunt
William Harley and Arthur Davidson deserve a lot of credit for the way their backyard operation grew to become one of the most successful motorcycle manufacturers of all time. And the name of the company was an obvious choice, given their surnames, though both were keen to ensure that there was a hyphen in the company branding so that people knew there were two founders.
There is an apocryphal tale that it was actually Arthur Davidson’s aunt who came up with the name when she painted it on the shed they used as their workshop, but there is no evidence to support this, though she was probably the first woman to ride a Harley!
Sources - The Drive, Cycle Fish, Deseret News, Riding Vintage, Harley-Davidson