Many of the nineteenth century inventors who worked on early motorcycles often moved on to other inventions. Daimler and Roper, for example, both went on to develop automobiles. However, inventors Harley and the Davidsons developed motorcycles and their business competitors were other new start-up companies such as Excelsior, Indian, Pierce, Merkel, Schickel and Thor.
The first really successful production two-wheeler though, was the Hildebrand & Wolfmueller, patented in Munich in 1894. In 1897 a gasoline tricycle built by Louis S. Clarke of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. This is a remarkably modern-looking tricycle, converted to self-propulsion by the addition of a single-cylinder gasoline engine mounted just forward of the rear axle.
In 1901, a bicycle racer Oscar Hedstrom designed a motorcycle for the Hendee Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts, which later became the Indian Motorcycle Company.
In 1903, 21-year old William S. Harley and 20-year old Arthur Davidson made available to the public the first production Harley-Davidson® motorcycle. The bike was built to be a racer, with a 3-1/8 inch bore and 3-1/2 inch stroke. The factory in which they worked was a 10 x 15-foot wooden shed with the words "Harley-Davidson Motor Company" crudely scrawled on the door. The only American motorcycle manufacturer still in existence from the early days is the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, which celebrated its centennial in 2003.
In 1903, William Harley and his friends Arthur and Walter Davidson launched the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. The bike had a quality engine, so it could prove itself in races, however, the company planned to manufacture it as a transport vehicle. Merchant, C. H. Lange, sold the first officially distributed Harley-Davidson in Chicago
The dream began in 1903 for the Davidson brothers, William D., Walter and Arthur and William S. Harley in a 10’ x 15’ shed located in the Davidson’s families backyard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Although they only built three motorcycles that year, it was enough for the Harley-Davidson Motor Company to begin its long journey.
By 1909, Harley-Davidson had introduced the V-twin, resulting in a more powerful motorcycle and incorporating a new engine that is the company’s standard to this day. This engine had double the power of its predecessors and would go 60 miles an hour, a then-unbelievable feat. By 1911, Harley-Davidson had 150 other brands of motorcycles competing with them on the American roadway.
Although Harley-Davidson motorcycles were already used for police work, a new use soon appeared. Harley-Davidson motorcycles soon became popular for use on the battlefield. They were the bikes used in the early 1900’s in border skirmishes with Pancho Villa and also to support the infantry in World War 1. By the time the war was over, there had been 20,000 Harley-Davidson’s put into action.
After the war, the motorcycle industry continued on with major advancements in the design of motorcycles with Harley-Davidson leading the way. Harley-Davidson won a race in 1921 thus becoming the first vehicle to win with an average speed of 100 miles per hour. In 1926, the Teardrop gas tank was introduced and in 1928 the front brake came into use.
During The Great Depression, all motorcycle manufacturers except for Harley-Davidson and Indian were devastated. By the year 1941, Harley-Davidson was called upon to build and ship more than 90,000 motorcycles for use during World War II. Harley-Davidson earned the coveted Army-Navy “E” Award for excellence in wartime production.
By 1953, Indian had closed its doors making Harley-Davidson the sole survivor in the American Motorcycle Industry. In 1957, Harley-Davidson introduced the Sportster which ushered in the era of heavy-wight motorcycles.