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The Four Men Behind Harley Davidson Motorcycles

When you hear about the globally renowned motorcycle company, Harley-Davidson, you might think it was founded by two guys. You’ll be pretty sure that their names were Harley and Davidson. Well, you’re partly right. However, it was actually founded by four individuals. The last name of one among them was Harley and the other three had Davidson as their last name.

These four individuals worked together to develop a brand that revolutionized transportation in the United States. It was in the year 1903 that the company, Harley-Davidson, was founded in the city of Milwaukee. The incorporation of the company took place in 1907 with Walter Davidson as its first president. The first general sales manager and secretary was Arthur Davidson, while the first works manager was William Davidson.

The treasurer and chief engineer of the company was William Harley. Many wonder why the company’s name was not Davidson-Harley as the ratio was three Davidsons to one Harley. The real reason behind this was that William Harley had come up with the original idea for the motorcycle. So, the Davidsons thought it would be fair that William Harley’s name came first.

About the founders

William Harley and Arthur Davidson grew up in the same neighborhood just a couple of houses apart in Milwaukee. Harley was a year older than Davidson. These two friends had great fascination for bicycles. Because of this love for bicycles, Harley took up a job at a bicycle factory in Milwaukee when he was 15. From the rank of cycle fitter, he rose to the rank of drafter.

Later, he worked as a draftsman at Barth Manufacturing Company, where he designed his first internal combustion engine. The French de Dion-Bouton engine was the inspiration behind it. The engine designed by Harley was later used by many of the early manufacturers of motorcycles. Harley, along with his friend Arthur spent the next few years working on the prototype of a motorcycle.

Although the prototype was a failure, it made the two friends realize the importance of a machinist. The two friends then decided to take the help of Walter, who was Arthur’s elder brother. At the time, Walter was living in Parsons, Kansas. Walter came to meet them, expecting to see a motorcycle. Instead, what he saw was the mess of a motorcycle that they were yet to finish.

Upon seeing a dream in that mess, Walter decided to stay and help the two friends. Soon, the three had another mechanic, William Davidson, in their team. He was the eldest among the Davidson brothers. By 1904, they were ready with a second prototype of their motorcycle. It became the first-ever motorcycle of Harley-Davidson to compete in a motorcycle race.

William Harley

He was the treasurer and first chief engineer of Harley-Davidson. Although it was his idea to develop the motorcycle, it couldn’t have been possible without the Davidson brothers. He belonged to the family of engineers. His father, William Harley Sr. was a railway engineer. He had emigrated to the United States from England with his wife Mary in 1860.

William Jr. was born in the year 1880. Harley pursued a degree in mechanical engineering when he was not working on the prototypes of the original motorcycle. He earned this degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1907. By 1909, Harley created a two-cylinder engine. Harley remained the treasurer and chief engineer of the Harley-Davidson company until his death.

He had a significant contribution in the success of the company. Harley also played an important role in introducing new bikes. As he was a passionate racer, he tested his latest creations. In the year 1910, he married Anna Jachthuber and had three children with her. He died on the 18th of September 1943 due to heart failure. In 1998, he was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame.

Arthur Davidson

The youngest among the Davidson brothers, Arthur was born on the 11th of February 1881 in Milwaukee. As a child, Arthur Davidson developed a friendship with Walter Harley. Both of them had a deep interest in biking and would often go fishing together. Arthur was Harley-Davidson’s first general sales manager and secretary.

He was also successful in getting the major sections of the government to use Harley-Davidson motorcycles. They included the military, USPS, and police departments. A service school of Harley-Davidson was also started by Arthur. The purpose of starting this school was to train the qualified mechanics.

He saw immense value in a coalition of riders and industry insiders. It could work towards the common goal of advancing motorcycling. Arthur Davidson aligned himself closely with the American Motorcyclist Association and even offered it his support. Arthur died in a car crash on the 30th of December 1950 just three miles south of his home.

He was 69 years of age at the time of his death. His wife Clara and their friends Donald and Dorothy were also killed in the incident. Arthur Davidson was instrumental in creating the first bikes of Harley-Davidson. He also ensured a place for the brand Harley-Davidson in the popular culture and history of America.

William Davidson

Born William ‘Bill’ Davidson, he lived with his brothers Arthur and Walter in Milwaukee. He worked with the Milwaukee Road railroad. Later, he quit his job to join Harley and the two Davidson brothers to work on their dream project. Considering the fact that he had a well-paying job, quitting his job was quite risky.

The risk that he took soon paid off as the Harley-Davidson motorcycles became extremely popular. After the incorporation of the Harley-Davidson company, William Davidson became its works manager. His responsibilities in the company included the procurement of various tools required for manufacturing the motorcycles.

He died on the 21st of April 1937 at the age of 66. William maintained close contact with the employees of Harley-Davidson’s factory throughout his tenure. He was also popular for his generosity and charity.

Walter Davidson

Walter repaired and raced bikes as a child. When he was a teenager, he was a self-taught electrician and could even make batteries on his own. He was called from Kansas to Milwaukee to join William Harley, younger brother Arthur Davidson and elder brother William.

He worked with them on their dream project that would eventually become Harley-Davidson. Walter was also instrumental in building Harley-Davidson’s first motorcycle. After the incorporation of the company, he became its first President and General Manager. For the rest of his life, he worked for the company and also delivered speeches to stockholders.

As Walter was a motorcycle enthusiast, he had won several races. They included the Federation of American Motorcyclists endurance run in the year 1908. He died on the 7th of February 1942 while still serving as the President of Harley-Davidson.

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