Sometimes with things iconic, it seems as if we know everything about the subject already. Like Harley-Davidson, that most American of motorcycles. They have V-twin engines and sound like the Devil clearing his throat. And they were first produced by someone called Harley and someone called Davidson. But there are at least a couple of information nuggets that are less common knowledge.
The fact that the bikes were indeed first produced by someone called Harley and someone called Davidson isn't one of them. Although the Davidson end was held up by three men. The 20th century was one year old when William Harley of Milwaukee, a mere lad of 21, was mucking around on a project with his pal from school, Arthur Davidson. The idea was to put a small engine on a pedal cycle. It took two years and the help of Arthur's brother Walter, only to find that seven cubic inches of displacement didn't exactly dispense with the need for leg power.
The next step, if crushingly predictable, was still a good one: 24.7 cubes. They even enlisted the help of one Ole Evinrude (yes, he of the outboard motors). A bigger, stronger engine meant a bigger, stronger frame, so this was making a motorcycle from scratch, bearing in mind that motorcycles hadn't really crystallized into the things we know and love today.
Biggest bro William Davidson lent a hand as well, and the machine was ready in time for a race at Milwaukee's State Fair Park on September 8, 1904. It placed fourth. The next year, engines were made available to the public, followed by complete bikes. In 1905, the first Harley-Davidson dealer, Carl H. Lang of Chicago, sold one of the first three H-D bikes ever made.
From there it's a story of exponential growth, moving from a back yard to a yellow brick factory. The company's headquarters are still on this site. Harley got his mechanical engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1907. Another highlight was the sale of bikes to police departments, an important market for the firm to this day. The year 1909 saw the first H-D bike with a big torquey 45-degree V-twin engine (up until then, they had been single-cylinder jobs). The template was set.
About 20,000 Harleys saw military service in the First World War. At the start of the 1920s, H-D became the largest motorbike manufacturer in the world. In 1925, the teardrop gas tank made an appearance and has been part of the design furniture ever since. The company had sufficient momentum to survive the Great Depression and then make 60,000 units for active duty in World War II.
Post-war, there have been tribulations. Quality issues plagued the company when super-reliable, super-fast bikes from Japan were flooding the market. Harleys weren't always called Hogs out of affection. Biker gangs affected the image-for better or worse is a subjective matter. But taking all the custom-made choppers out of the equation (and there are thousands of those), two models were produced that epitomize Harley-Davidson.
One is the slightly lean Sportster, starting out as the 1952 Model K with 737cc (45 cubic inches) of displacement and 30 hp. It went through its Ironhead phase from 1957 to '85, then evolved into the, um, Evolution. Rising star Elvis Presley sat on a KH for the May 1956 cover of The Enthusiast, H-D's own magazine. In 1970, Cal Rayborn averaged 265 mph on the Bonneville Salt Flats on a machine powered by a Sportster engine.
The other is the gloriously over-styled Electra Glide, based on the company's large FL touring bike frame and introduced in 1965. The name came from the fact that this was the first Harley to have an electric starter. Its engine was initially the Panhead, but went to the 1,340cc Shovelhead from '66 to '85.
So far, all H-D engines had been aircooled, but the Revolution, found in the 2001 V-Rod, is water-cooled. Ironically, a company also famous for aircooled engines helped with the Revolution's development (info nugget alert): Porsche. Really. The Revolution can go up to 1,300cc and kick out 165 hp.
Another sweet fact: Since August 15, 2006, Harley-Davidson is represented on the New York Stock Exchange as HOG.
Harleys have their imitators, usually Japanese companies. But even BMW did it with the R1200 C, the machine James Bond (Pierce Brosnan) rode in Tomorrow Never Dies. In 1996, H-D's lawyers tried to get the bikes' distinctive sound trademarked. They didn't succeed, but they shouldn't worry-there's nothing else like a Hog.