Harley-Davidson history

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1900s: Early Days[edit]

In 1903, it must have seemed to Mr. and Mrs. Davidson that their three sons had gone their separate ways. None had followed their father into the carpentry trade, but all were holding down jobs in engineering. William, the eldest, had already done well for himself, well established as a foreman with the Milwaukee Road railroad company; Walter, the middle one, had moved away to Kansas to work as a machinist; and young Arthur Davidson remained in Milwaukee, earning his crust as a patternmaker at the Barth Manufacturing Company. Arthur, in particular, seemed to have a bright future ahead of him: he was an outgoing, personable young man with a lot of drive, not to mention a good friend named William Harley. The Davidson brothers' parents had immigrated to the USA from Scotland in around 1871. While, Bill Harley's parents had come over from the North of England. All chose to settle in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

It was hardly surprising that Bill and Arthur were soon turning their considerable energy towards the internal combustion engine. The world they grew up in was one of optimism and belief in fast-developing technology. Steam power had transformed Europe and North America, and now electricity and the small petrol engine promised to do the same.

Where it all began: the Harley-Davidson Motor Company's first “factory”. After centuries of reliance on horse or steam power, mankind was on the brink of discovering a new age in transport. Maybe it was no coincidence that, in 1903, the Wright brothers tested their first powered aircraft, the Model A Ford hit the roads, and the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was sold to a paying customer.

Some say that the young Harley and Davidson wanted to build a small petrol engine to pace cycle races; others that it was to power a row-boat, both being keen cyclists and fishermen. (Incidentally, it was by mutual agreement that their company came to be known as 'Harley-Davidson' -Davidson-Harley just didn't sound right.) Whatever the true reason, from the winter of 1900 they began to spend much of their free time designing their first engine. They weren't on their own, though, as a workmate at Barth, a German named Emile Kruger, had practical experience of the De Dion engine, and Ole Evinrude, whose name was to adorn countless outboard motors in years to come, helped them to develop a suitable carburetor. That first 10-cubic inch (165-cubic centimeter) engine wasn't a masterpiece: speed was controlled by the spark setting - but it ran and it worked.

So the two young men did the obvious thing and bolted it into a bicycle frame. Meanwhile, Arthur had been writing to his elder brother, Walter, keeping him abreast of developments. Walter was evidently interested, for in 1902 he took a job in Milwaukee and moved back home. All the better to help in the exciting new enterprise. But 'enterprise' is perhaps the wrong word. There is no evidence that the three saw their prototype motor as the basis of a business empire; all kept their full-time jobs, and it wasn't until the spring of 1903 that the first prototype putt-putted its way onto the streets of Milwaukee. For many young entrepreneurs. This would have been the cue to rush into production: after all, it ran didn't it. After a fashion? Moreover, many early motorcycle makers were all too eager to jump straight into production with machines that worked, just; they didn't stay in business long.

Harley and the Davidsons were made of sterner stuff. Only when their prototype worked consistently did they consider selling a replica. In fact, this cautious, conservative attitude was to typify the way they did business over the next four decades. So when the tiny prototype obviously needed more power, it was discarded and a much bigger 25ci (410cc) motor was designed in its place. This one had enough power, but soon vibrated the standard bicycle frame to pieces. The only answer was a purpose-built frame, with bigger brakes, wider wheels and heftier bearings. True, it still had pedals, which you had to work like crazy to start it, it cruised at around 25mph (40km/h) and had no gears or suspension, but the motorized bicycle was becoming a true motorcycle. Better still, unlike some of its more hastily-assembled rivals, the Harley-Davidson worked, and kept working.

People started to take notice, and the first orders began to trickle in. It was time to get serious, and while William Davidson Snr was building a 10 x 8ft (3 x 2.4m) shed in the hack garden (the first Harley-Davidson factory). Bill Harley was leaving Barth to study for an engineering degree. Over the winter of 1903-4 Arthur built up two bikes for paying customers, while Walter left his job to concentrate on the new venture full-time. Once word got round that the Harley-Davidson was a reliable piece of machinery, more orders flowed in. A rich uncle, James McLay, lent them enough money to build a proper factory on Chestnut Street (later renamed Juneau Avenue), where in 1906 49 bikes were produced. Harley-Davidson motorcycles emerged from that site for the next 70-odd years. And even now the famous V-twin motor is still made there. Production grew in leaps and bounds as the orders kept coming, and more staff was taken on to cope: output tripled to 152 bikes in 1907 then tripled again the following year. By now, Arthur, who was a born salesman, had left his slay job and was out on the road demonstrating the bike and recruiting dealers, and his eldest brother, William came on board as works manager. Harley-Davidson Incorporated was born.

1910s: Rapid Expansion[edit]

Meanwhile, the motorcycle had hardly been changed since 1903. It was now nicknamed the Silent Gray Fellow (it was quiet, and came in only one color) but was much improved by the addition of sprung leading-link forks, which Bill Harley designed while at college. Incidentally, the same basic design of forks was used by the company until 1947, and was even reintroduced (in modernized form) in the late 1980s. Soon after, the 25ci (4 Wee) engine was enlarged to 35ci (575cc), housed in a larger, longer wheelbase frame. Walter proved the latest version by winning the Long Island Endurance Run in 1908, and consolidating it with an economy run win the week after. But though the 5-35, as it was officially known, could top 50mph (80km/h), it still wasn't enough for the emerging motorcycle riders and the huge distances they travelled in America. Like all its rivals, Harley-Davidson needed a bigger bike. Strange as it may now seem, Bill Harley did not invent the V-twin: when he paired two existing singles onto a beefed- up crankcase, he was merely doing the same as everyone around him. The V-twin was a relatively quick and easy way to build a more powerful engine using existing parts. Though, Harley's first prototype seemed hardly that. Still hampered by an atmospheric inlet valve (opened by piston suction. rather than positively via a camshaft and pushrod), it was no faster than the single - the 49-ci (803-cc) twin was quickly withdrawn from sale, and Bill went back to the drawing board. When it reappeared as the F-type in 1911, it was clear that he'd been working hard. It now had a mechanical inlet valve. So it could rev higher and produce more power, and the drive belt was tensioned to prevent slippage (another problem with the prototype). In some ways, the F-type, with its fixed belt drive and gravity-fed lubrication, seemed little advanced on the early pioneer motorcycles, hut this was about to change. The years 1910 to 1915/16 saw a brief flurry of innovation from the American motorcycle makers which, for a while, put them ahead of the Europeans: and Harley-Davidson was right in the thick of it. A basic clutch in the rear hub allowed the rider to stop and restart with stopping and restarting the motor. That was soon overtaken by a proper multi-plate clutch and chain drive with a two-speed gear in the hub. This was a real breakthrough. which Harley followed up in Harley-Davidson's image was somewhat different in the early days, as illustrated by this solid and reliable sidecar tug 1915 with a three-speed gearbox and automatic engine oil pump. Also that year (they must have been working nights) was the option of electric lighting and fitted with this, the F-model became the J. using a gear-driven magneto-generator. Harley-Davidson's success mirrored these technical leaps forward, and production continued to soar: over 3,000 bikes were sold in 1910, over 5,000 the year after and 9.000 the year after that, while over 16,000 left the factory the year war broke out in Europe and 22.000 as the decade came to a close. Only ten years after that first prototype first hit the road, Harley-Davidson had established itself as number two in the American motorcycle market: the longer-established Indian still led, with Excelsior a poor third. In fact, it was the start of an intense, sometimes bitter, rivalry between Indian and Harley-Davidson, which lasted for the next 25 years. Harley-Davidson certainly did better out of the First World War than its rival. In a fit of patriotic fervour, Indian turned over its entire production to military needs with the result that there were many disgruntled Indian dealers with no bikes to sell; Arthur Davidson lost no time in persuading them to change sides. This Indian/Harley rivalry was never more obvious than at the racetracks which included the wooden boardiracks of the early years and the later din ovals. Harley and the Davidsons weren't natural race goers, but they were shrewd enough to realize that success on the racetracks could translate into sales, and engineer William Ottaway (a man central to Harley-Davidson's engineering policy for many years) developed the short wheelbase II-K racer out of the J-model. It could top 90mph (145km/h), and win races, so in 1916 Ottaway got the go-ahead for the Model 17 V-twin racer, with four valves per cylinder. With the help of cylinder-head specialist Harry Ricardo, the 8-valve produced 55hp and in the hands of the official factory team (the delightfully named 'Wrecking Crew') it was soon notching up victories all over America. However, Harley's official racing effort was short-lived as the collapse of the motorcycle market in 1920 caused the whole team to be disbanded. Most of those racers were V-twins (though there were some four-valve singles), but that simply reflected the American motorcycle market. Harley's own V-twin had long since overtaken the little single in importance, which was drifting into the background. The availability of cheap cars (not the least of which was Henry Ford's Model T) meant that motorcycles were increasingly seen as leisure tools for sporting young men, and a few women, and they wanted power and speed. However, various motorcycle makers Still believed that a quiet, reliable and cheap machine could persuade the man in the street hack onto motorcycles. Harley-Davidson's contribution was the Sport Twin of 1919. The 'Spore part of it was a misnomer, as the new bike was a docile, mild-mannered flat-twin which could barely top 50mph (80km/h). On the other hand, it was quiet and easy to ride. had an enclosed chain for practicality, a modern three-speed gearbox and the option of electric lights. Unfortunately, it failed to attract the masses back to motorcycling and was dropped after a few years. It was quite well received in Europe. owing much to the English Douglas in its design. This was had news, as the SportiWin was part of a massive expansion plan based on borrowed money. Since 1903, Harley-Davidson sales had spiraled upwards year after year, to the point where it was catching Indian, the market leader. So in 1919-20, the four Founders appeared to forget their natural caution and borrowed $3 million (a huge sum at the time) to expand the factory. When it was finished, the Juneau Avenue works was the largest motorcycle plant in the world, and produced a record 28.000 machines in 1920. Now in prosperous middle age, it seemed that Arthur. Bill, Walter and William could do nothing wrong.

1920s: Down & Up[edit]

Although the four Founders had become accustomed to success, they had to cope with economic failure in double-quick time. Harley sales more than halved in 1921 (to 11,202), which left them with an inventory of unsold bikes and a $3 million loan to pay off. But to have achieved the success they already had, the four had needed plenty of business acumen. They shut the newly expanded factory for a month, cut salaries by 15 per cent and abandoned the racing program. So sudden was this decision that the racers were actually left stranded at the State Fair races at Phoenix. They had to pawn their wristwatches and borrow money from a local Harley-Davidson dealer in order to buy their train tickets home! This abrupt belt-tightening worked: the unsold bikes found buyers and production began to recover. But it was a fluctuating recover): the motorcycle boom time was over, thanks to cheap, affordable cars, and it took the company 20 years to match that peak of 1920. What the new generation of riders wanted was more power, and Harley-Davidson obliged with the Superpowered Twin of 1922. Although intended as a sidecar machine, the extra power from its enlarged 74-ci (1200-cc) V-twin was welcomed by keen solo riders. The engine was no more than a bigger version of the original twin, still with overhead inlet valve, side exhaust and total-loss lubrication. Like its predecessor, the bike came in magneto (FD) or electric light (JD) forms. Harley-Davidson had always set a great deal of store by its dealers, taking time to build up a network when less patient rivals were selling bikes to anyone with cash. Now, as one of the two makes dominating the market, Harley-Davidson was able to tighten its control over dealers: factory representatives toured the country, checking up; franchise agreements were for one year only (screw up, lose your franchise); and no dealer was permitted to sell any other make alongside Harley-Davidson, even the little Cleveland, which sold to a completely different market. Of course, if you toed the line, there were rewards to be had, as the Harley-Davidson had a good reputation and sold well; but if you didn't, you wouldn't be a Harley-Davidson dealer for very much longer. One thing that restricted dealers' freedom was that Indian and Harley were the only two manufacturers selling bikes in large numbers. And despite the fierce rivalry between them, the two actually met regularly to fix prices. It was of course illegal, and had to be done in secret, but in 1922 Frank Weschler (of Indian) and Arthur Davidson met and agreed to sell at the same price the following year; it became an annual event in their respective diaries. But Harley-Davidson was really in better shape than Indian by the early 1920s, whether or not they were selling more bikes. It was more efficient, had a tighter grip on its dealers and a simpler model range.

Nevertheless, Indian often seemed ahead on model development: it had been first with a flat-twin (which Harley-Davidson countered with the Sport Twin) and in 1925 launched the 21ci (350cc) Prince, a single-cylinder machine in the British mold. A Prince, a 350cc BSA and a New Imperial were shipped into Milwaukee for evaluation, and soon after Harley-Davidson's own 350cc single appeared in 'A' (side-valve) and 'AA' (overhead valve) guise. The former sold well as a basic utility bike, while the AA (nicknamed 'Peashooter') did very well in racing. It also highlighted another aspect of the Harley/Indian wars: Indian was invariably first in bringing out a new model, which Harley-Davidson would soon counter. Not only the Sport Twin and The Two Cam became something of a legend. The problem for Harley riders was that Indian side-valve twins were far faster than the older foe (inlet-over-exhaust) Harleys, even if they didn't have the same stamina. The Two Cam answered this by using a separate cam for each valve. Thus allowing tuning for more light, higher compression, higher revs and more power.

Available in 61ci (1000cc) and 74ci (1200cc) forms, it wasn't cheap ($50 more than the equivalent 1 cam) but it was said that a good 74 would reach 100mph (161km/h). No longer need Harley-Davidson riders be embarrassed on club runs! In fact, the Milwaukee machines, despite their earlier racing success, had gained a reputation as old men's machines - reliable and dependable, but without the performance of an Indian or Excelsior. The 45ci (750cc) Indian Scout was a particular problem for Harley dealers, and the Founders' response (which Walter Davidson had promised to shareholders in 1927) was the model D, better known as the 45. Like the Scout, it was a 45ci side-valve V-twin. Unlike the Scout, it was slow and gutless, unable to reach 60mph (97km/h) where the Scout could top 75. A carburetor kit had to he rushed into production to improve power, and to add salt to the wound, the distinctive vertically-mounted generator was prone to failure. The 45 had clearly been rushed into production without proper testing. In time, it developed into a thoroughly reliable machine, powering the wartime WLA and the three-wheel Servicar. But it was a long way from the care and diligence with which the first single had been developed. Was Harley-Davidson losing its way?

It must have seemed so to loyal riders and dealers when the new VL was unveiled in 1929. This replacement for the long-lived FL models was almost all-new, the bore, stroke and capacity being all that remained the same on this side-valve V-twin for which the factory claimed a 15 to 20 per cent power improvement. Unfortunately, the real increase was just one horsepower, and to make matters worse the VL weighed a whole 120lb (54kg) more than the FL. In a bid to overcome this lethargic performance, the engine had been given relatively small flywheels which did allow good acceleration up to 50mph (80km/h) or so, but that was about it. Top speed and hill-climbing ability were sorely lacking on this big twin, and the light flywheels also caused finger-numbing vibration. Some customers wanted the FL and Two Cam reinstated; others wanted their money back.

As with the 45, Milwaukee had to come up with answers, and fast. After much burning of the midnight oil, the solution came in bigger, heavier flywheels and modified cams. This did the trick, but the bigger flywheels needed bigger crankcases which in turn demanded a larger frame. In other words, every VL made up to that point (there were 1,300 of them) had to be completely rebuilt. It cost Harley-Davidson $100,000 in new parts, caused much heartache to the dealers (who were expected to do the rebuilding at their own expense), and did much damage to the hard-won reputation for reliability. Better was to come, but there were more hard times to get through first.

1930s: Slump to Recovery[edit]

Twice in its lifetime Harley-Davidson has come close to closing. The most recent was 1985 when its major financial lender pulled out. But 50 years before, there had been talk in the boardroom of voluntarily throwing in the towel. With the benefit of hindsight, this seems odd: the company was challenging Indian for market leadership and had overcome the sales slump of 1920 and some troublesome new bikes, which were now settling down nicely. The reason was more fundamental than any of this. The slump following the Wall Street Crash of 1929 had hit motorcycle sales hard: Harley sold nearly 21,000 bikes that year, over 17,000 in 1930 but a mere 3,700-odd in 1933. It was a disaster. The four founders were now old men; they and their families were financially secure and they'd worked hard all their lives. Why carry on? Well they did: whether it was loyalty to the workforce, some of whom had been there since the start, or simply a refusal to throw away 30 years of work. Bill Harley and the Davidsons decided to stick with it. Not only that, but they put a lot of money and time into an all-new bike that for them was a real leap into the unknown. This was the Knucklehead, a real milestone bike for the company that finally enabled it to leap ahead of Indian. But in the meantime, men were laid off, salaries were cut by 10 per cent and the Founders reduced their own remuneration by half. The side-valve VL and 45 were gradually improved, the 45 in 1932 with a redesigned frame that did away with that odd vertical generator, which had led to the derogatory phrase, 'three-cylinder Harley'. Renamed the R-series, it was also given a boost when Indian temporarily dropped the Scout which had been taken over by the du Pont concern, in a move towards rationalization. The upshot was that the 45 had the middleweight market cornered. Meanwhile, the genius of tuner Tom Sifton and others was coaxing it into winning a few races, to the extent that the factory later produced its own 45 racer, the WR. Another sign of faith in the future was the introduction of a range of bright new colors: for years, Harleys had only conic in dark, drab hues that reflected their workaday image. Now, there were eye-catching reds, oranges and creams, two- tones and stylish art deco tank logos. Once again, Indian was the spur to action. The du Pont Empire was based on chemicals, which gave Indian access to a whole range of paints. Harley-Davidson had no choice but to follow suit. The same went for the VLH of 1935. Indian had a big-engined 80ci (1300cc) V-twin, the Big Chief, which Harley-Davidson did not. This would never do, and the VLH had its crankpin moved outboard to allow a 41/4-in (108-mm) stroke and the biggest Harley motor yet. But while all this was going on, the engineering department (such as it was, manpower having been depleted by the various cuts) was hard at work developing the Knucklehead. It actually took five years to reach production, partly because of the skeletal engineering department, partly because of teething troubles with oil leaks and the new dry sump lubrication system. When it was finally unveiled in 1936, at the annual dealer conference, everyone seemed to know it would be a hit. It was new from stem to stern: the 6lci (1000cc) overhead-valve V-twin had a shorter stroke than its predecessors. So it was able to rev higher and harder than any previous Harley. It had a proper recirculating oil system in place of the outmoded total-loss system, which meant a constant supply of fresh, cool oil, better able to cope with high-speed runs. It had big valves and a high compression. It had 40bhp at 4,800rpm and could top 90mph (145km/h). There was a new four-speed constant-mesh gearbox, new clutch, new frame, new swoopy styling. The '61 E' was its official title, but it was nicknamed 'Knucklehead', suggested by the shape of the rocker boxes.

Even so, the Founders, now increasingly assisted by their respective sons, tried to insist that the new bike was for limited production only, and dealers were forbidden to order them as demonstrators. Maybe they were wise, for the Knucklehead didn't have a trouble-free first year: it went on leaking oil until valve spring covers were introduced, and the springs themselves broke, but these really were teething problems. In any case, Joe Petrali set a new speed record with one of the new bikes of 136.15mph (219km/h), thanks to a tuned engine and high top gear, while police officer Fred Hamm broke the 24-hour record, riding a standard Knucklehead 1,825 miles (2937km) in 24 hours (an average of just over 76mph/122km/h, including stops). It was official; Harley-Davidson finally had a bike that was both reliable and fast.

The Knucklehead's success rubbed off on the other bikes. In 1937 the 45, 74 and 80ci (750, 1200 and 1300cc) side-valve all received the new lubrication system (which was just as well, the total-loss being a museum piece by now), and the new bike's streamlined styling. The 45 became the W-series, and the V was now the U-series. While the Knucklehead stole the headlines, something completely different was doing good business for the company. The three-wheeled Servicar used the front end of a 45 married to a two-wheel rear end and a load-carrying box. Originally intended for garage mechanics to collect cars for repair, it proved ideal for traffic police and meter maids, becoming something of an American institution. It remained in production until 1973.

1940s: Wartime Diversions[edit]

Just 10 years ago Founders contemplated closing down Harley-Davidson; the family firm was back on the crest of a wave. It had survived two major slumps and the difficult, competitive years between them, and had finally overtaken its arch-rival and transformed itself from producer of plodding side-valves into a maker of fast performance machines. The Second World War was to keep the factory busier than ever, with thousands of bikes and countless pieces of subcontract work. But in 1941, the USA hadn't yet declared war on Germany, and plans for next year's peacetime Harleys could go ahead. The 80ci (1300cc) side-valve received aluminum cylinder heads in 1940, or better cooling, and 1941 saw a 74ci ( 200cc) version of the Knucklehead, whose new centrifugally controlled oil pump finally solved the old problem of too much lubrication in some places, not enough in others. Not many of them reached civilian hands though. Also under discussion was a 45ci (750cc) overhead- valve engine, which was logical, given the success of the Knucklehead. It had been discussed for some years, and Bill Harley was a strong advocate of the idea. Three prototypes were built, one of which was taken on a 5,000-mile (8050-km) proving ride into Texas and back. There were no major problems, and the new baby Knucklehead looked promising; but it would have cost as much to build as the bigger side-valves, and the idea was dropped. It would be nearly 20 years before Harley-Davidson finally produced an overhead-valve 'baby' V-twin - the Sportster. In any case, even by the late 1930s. The Board had had more pressing things to consider, notably the potential of big orders from the army for a standard do-everything motorcycle. Harley's solution was the WLA, basically a militarized version of the standard W-series 45. With its low compression motor, big oil bath air filter and off-road skid plate, the WLA was a truly ragged workhorse. The extra weight of all the army equipment depressed top speed to around 50mph (80km/h), but that hardly mattered unless you were being chased by BMW-mounted Germans. What did matter was that nearly 90,000 were supplied to the forces, along with a WLC version for the Canadians, which introduced thousands of servicemen to motorcycles in general and Harleys in particular.

There were plenty of other military projects at Milwaukee, not all of which saw the light of day. The XA produced, basically a copy of the contemporary BMW, because that's what the army wanted. A civilian prototype of this flat-twin, shaft-drive bike was actually running in 1946. Though it came to nothing, the XA motor was also mooted for a mini-Jeep, which could he parachuted into battle zones, for a generator set, and as an updated modernized Servicar.

While all this was going on, a new generation of Harleys and Davidsons was taking over. William Davidson had died just before the war in Europe began: Walter Davidson died in February 1942 and Bill Harley the year after. Arthur, the sole survivor of the four Founders, was killed in a car crash in 1946. But William's son (another William) took over the helm of the company, while Harley's son controlled the engineering side: Harley-Davidson was still very much a family firm as it faced a very different post-war world. For the first time it was to encounter a significant threat from imports. Harley-Davidson now accounted for 75 per cent of US motorcycle production, but there was a growing trickle (soon to become a flood) of British motorcycles being shipped across the Atlantic. Indian tried to meet these head-on and failed. Harley-Davidson preferred to pretend that the threat did not exist. So instead of coming up with a mid¬range competitor for the Brits (a modern vertical twin, with foot gear change and rear suspension, was discussed), the company concentrated on what it did best, big V-twins. For 1947 the Knucklehead became the Panhead (the rocker covers now looked like upturned saucepans) with aluminum cylinder heads for cooler running and hydraulic tappets for quietness. In a now-familiar scenario, the tappets proved troublesome at first, with fluctuating oil pressure upsetting the valve timing; but overall the Panhead was a real improvement. There was even bigger news the following year when Bill Harley's 1907 Springer forks were dropped in favor of conventional telescopic ones, and the bike was named Hydra-Glide in their honor. The first of the 'Glides' had arrived. Gradual updates followed, with foot shifting (1952), rear suspension (1958), 12-volt electrics (1964) and electric start (1965).

So it was business as usual, except for the S-125, or Hummer, which went on sale in 1947. This little 7-ci (125-cc) two-stroke was basic in the extreme, with 3bhp, three-speed gearbox and suspension worked by rubber bands. It was really a pre-war German DKW, offered to the US as war reparations. Indeed. BSA got it as well, as the Bantam, and there was even a Russian version. In its Harley-Davidson guise the ex-DKW was actually quite a success, at least at first. Although some traditionalist Harley dealers refused to sell what they regarded as a pipsqueak machine that didn't deserve to be called a motorcycle, it sold in steady, though not spectacular, numbers for over a decade, by which time it had grown to l0ci (165cc) and had telescopic forks.

1950s: A Challenge from Imports[edit]

The Hummer was all very well, but it wasn't the middleweight Harley for which dealers were clamoring. Faced with a nimble 30-ci (500-cc) Triumph or Norton, the ancient 45 looked like an overweight dinosaur. Throughout the 1950s, Harley held on to its traditional club and touring market, selling about 5-6,000 big twins a year to these riders. But it was missing out on the new sports bike market; by 1950, imports had captured 40 per cent of US sales, prompting Harley-Davidson to ask for a swinging import tariff to be imposed. At the subsequent hearing, some unpleasant facts about how the company had restricted its dealer’s freedom of action came to light and the request was refused. Harley's answer to the imports was unveiled in 1952, and the new K-series, which finally replaced the long-serving 45, was a real enigma. Why? Well on one hand, it had an up-to-the-minute chassis, just like the imports it was designed to compete against: telescopic forks, swinging-arm rear suspension, unit-construction gearbox with foot-shift, it was all there. But its power unit was a development of the old side-valve 45. Though, opinion is divided among Harley historians as to how new it was; the K-series really did look like old wine in a new bottle. Side-valves were outmoded before the war, so it was mystifying that Harley-Davidson stuck with them into the 1950s. It wasn't as though the firm was short of expertise (its prototype OHV 45s had been running in 1940); nor was it short of money (it spent $3.5 million on new plant in the late 1940s); it wasn't short of time to develop a new engine; and finally, there really was an all-new prototype to meet the imports, with an all-aluminum 60-degree V-twin with ohv, twin carburettors and high cams. Whatever the reason, Harley dealers were stuck with the K. Ties, whose sales matched their disappointment. It could barely exceed 80mph 29km/h) where the Triumph Thunderbird could top 100. Things were improved after a couple of years when Harley boosted the capacity to 55ci (883cc), but it was still no Thunderbird beater. Meanwhile, the whole of motorcycling in America was changing, and not just because of British imports. As we've seen, Harley's traditional club market carried steadily on. which was an organized, orderly sport, with clean-cut men and women wearing smart uniforms. But there was a new strand of biking on the way which had first come to public attention back in 1947, thanks to the supposed 'riot' at Hollister, California. The new bike gangs that were forming at the time, often composed of ex-servicemen, had a very different ethos to the orderly clubs. For them, motorcycling was at the centre of an outlaw lifestyle which rejected mainstream if to cut weight and boost performance. But in time, it became a statement in itself. This was the start of the custom bike movement, and Harley-Davidson, much as it tried to distance itself from the outlaw clubs, was right at the centre of it. Ironically, it has since embraced a highly stylized, sanitized version of the same thing. The difference is that new Harleys are sometimes bought by 'weekend outlaws', who wear black leather at weekends but are back in suit and tic come Monday morning. The tourers and custom bikes are two distinct families (bikes within Harley-Davidson's current range. The third is the Sportster, which made its debut in 1957. Just like the Knucklehead of 1936, this was a milestone bike for Milwaukee. There was actually nothing radical about it, based as it was on the running gear and basic engine unit of the K-series. What it did have was a new top end with overhead valves and a 7.5:1 compression, which produced 40bhp at 5,500rpm. It wasn't enough to heat the 40ci (650cc) British twins, but it did equal them, That was taken care of the following year with the higher-compression XLH Sportster that claimed 55bhp at 6,800rpm. Once again, Harley finally had a bike that was as fast as anything else on two wheels. The other thing it gained that year was a look we all associate with the Sportster. Its origins lay in the stripped-down XLC (no lights or battery) of which just 200 were built for competition, The road-going XLCH added that style, with high-level staggered pipes and a tiny 2,2-gallon (10- liter) fuel tank taken from the Hummer 125, It may not have been as practical as the standard Sportster, but it looked like a lean all-engine machine, and it outsold the frumpy XL by two to one, But even with the XLCH, the Sportster wasn't an instant hit. It was actually outsold by the big twins until 1969, and throughout the early 1960s, less than one in five Harley sales was a Sportster. However, in the long run, that didn't matter, as the Sportster opened up a new market for Harley-Davidson, one which is still going strong.

1960s: Takeover[edit]

The Sportster had finally met the British bikes head-on, at least in straight-line speed, but there was another new threat on the horizon. Honda and Suzuki had started to export to the US, and these clean, sophisticated lightweights looked as they would open up another market which was closed to the company. It did have the 10-ci (165-cc) Hummer, but that was now over ten years old as well as based on a pm-war design; so to meet the Japanese something else was required. It is hard to credit now, but right through the 1960s Harley-Davidson sold lots of small motorcycles, even a 3ci (50cc) moped and a scooter! These came from two sources: developments and updates of the original Hummer, and bikes built by Aermacchi in Italy.

The Italian connection was made in 1961. Two years earlier, Harley-Davidson's own development committee had recommended that the best way to market a lightweight motorcycle was to import someone else's machine and stick the Harley-Davidson badge on it. So that's what they did. Aermacchi had been making aircraft during the war, producing scooters after 1945, then a range of four-stroke singles from the mid-1950s. A 80mph (129km/h) 250, with its distinctive horizontal cylinder, line handling and light weight was on offer by 1957 - just the thing to offer Americans who hopefully wanted to buy, a miniature Harley. Instead of just importing the bikes, Harley-Davidson decided to buy Aermacchi lock, stock and barrel, and in 1961 began to import the 250 as the Harley-Davidson Sprint. It had skimpier mudguards and a smaller fuel tank for the US market, and Cycle World was quite impressed when it tested one. The pushrod single would happily rev to 7,500rpm, it reported, and endued at 65-70mph (105-113km/h), though even then it was able to assert that there was nothing very high-tech about it. Sure enough, the Sprint was technically overtaken by Japanese bikes a few years later, but it nonetheless made a valuable contribution to Harley-Davidson's market share. Not that it came without headaches. Although mechanically reliable, the Sprint was not as well made as home-grown Harleys, and the electrics in particular gave a lot of trouble. 11 was had enough that Harley-Davidson engineers and managers were trying to co-ordinate with a factory thousands of miles away that worked in a different language, but Aermacchi also bought in many of its components from other factories. From Milwaukee, getting on top of Aermacchi quality proved an almost impossible task, In any case, head office had its own plans for the lightweight market, which slotted in tinder the 15ci (250cc) Sprint. First came its assault on the scooter market. The Topper, which appeared in 1960, used the Hummer's 10-ci (165-cc) two-stroke engine in restricted (5hp) or unrestricted (9hp) guise, allied with automatic transmission and full bodywork, It was not an elegant machine, lacking the perkiness of a Vespa or Lambretta, nor was the Topper cheap at $600. And despite encouraging sales in its first year (when 3,800 were sold), and a cameo role in a popular TV series, the Harley-Davidson scooter was not a success, and was dropped in 1964.

A similar fate awaited Harley-Davidson's updates on the Hummer theme; with a slightly larger 175cc engine, it became the Pacer in road form, or the Scat with off-road-style high-level exhaust and knobby tires. There was also the Ranger, a true off-road bike with no lights or front mudguard, higher ground clearance and lower gearing. But all three of these bikes shared that elderly two-stroke engine, and a basic frame without rear suspension. When the Japanese lightweights arrived, they underlined just how crude the Harley motorcycles were and Milwaukee dropped them in 1966. But if Harley's home-grown lightweights were failing to set the world on fire, the Sportster was a different matter. In small towns across the continent, the favourite Saturday night pastime consisted of an impromptu drag race between Harley and Triumph/BSA/Norton. A horsepower race ensued: Triumph produced the twin carburetor Bonneville, and Norton the 45-ci (750-cc) Atlas. So Harley-Davidson upped the 'touring' XLH Sportster to 55bhp, which in standard form could run a 15.5-second quarter-mile and almost reach 100mph (161km/h). It still looked like a mini-Duo Glide, but better was to come. By 1968, with yet more power (now up to 58bhp), new front forks and a 114-mph (183-km/h) top speed, the XLH Sportster was living up to its name; even Cycle World was full of praise for its handling, which three years previously it had likened to an automobile's, Also, it at last acquired the classic Sportster tank. Who cared if you needed to till up every 80 miles? It was at a time when the Sportster was a serious rival to the imported big bikes, particularly in the later 1960s, when its weight disadvantage disappeared beside new heavy superbikes such as the BSA Triumph triples and Honda CB750K. It wouldn't last, of course, as the performance race soon left the Sportster behind in the early 1970s, but by then the 'baby Harley' had acquired a following all of its own, just as loyal as the big twin aficionados, and for whom ultimate performance was less important than the way the Sportster looked and felt. A baby Harley of a very different sort was the M50 moped, another import from Aermacchi which was sold in America. By the standards of the time, it was a reasonable machine, with rear suspension and an attractive price tag. And the buyers seemed to agree. It seems a sacrilege now, but in 1965 and 1966 Harley's best-selling machine was a moped. The success was short-lived, however. After a couple of years the M50 was treated to a boost to 4ci (65cc) and a big advertising campaign, yet the 65cc Harley never achieved the popularity of the M50.

The Sprint, on the other hand, just seemed to sell better each year, despite its relatively low-tech approach. For one thing, Aermacchi/Harley-Davidson seemed able to come up with more power and new variations on the theme year after year.

The 1966 CRS was a serious scrambles version, with 28bhp at 8,500rpm (it could rev safely to 9,500) and no lights or speedometer. In racing CR-TT form it made 35bhp at 10,000rpm and a streamlined Sprint set up a new 250cc record, at 176mph (283km/h) on the Bonneville Salt Flats.

That record, set in 1965, helped to boost Sprint sales to 3,000 a year and they rose to 5,000 in 1966 and 9,000 the year after. A 21-ci (350-cc) version appeared in 1969, though in a less frenetic state of tune, with 25bhp. Most of the Japanese opposition was faster, but the Sprint was becoming something of a niche bike, offering a different riding experience. It certainly went on selling a steady 4-4,500 a year right up to 1974. For a basic pushrod single with a four-speed gearbox and roots going back to the mid-1950s, it had a remarkable performance.

With all these small bikes coming and going, the big twins were rather left to fend for themselves in the early 1960s, but change did come mid-decade. Twelve-volt electrics in 1964 prefaced the fitting of electric start the following year, coupled with one of motorcycling's all-time classic model names — Electra Glide. Although regarded as a new model in its own right, the Electra was really just the standard FLH with mph-bution starting, though the name at least has proved very durable. It also added 751h (34kg) to the weight, and to cope, the engine was updated into the Shovelhead in 1966.

As before, this was evolution, not revolution, in this case, the fitting of a Sportster-style top end to the big twin, which gave a useful power boost to 60bhp. It went up again in 1968, to 65bhp at 5,400rpm, thanks to a Tillotson carburetor and improved porting. Otherwise, it performed in much the same way as any Harley big twin before or since, happy to rumble along at 70mph (113km/h) until the tank ran dry. At the time, the Japanese had yet to come up with their own V-twin Harley look alikes, so the Electra Glide was still offering a unique riding experience.

This was time for the traditionalists, but Harley-Davidson was getting further and further out of the main stream. So while the motorcycle market expanded around it, the company was getting pushed into a backwater. The Aermacchi bikes had increased sales and turnover, but not profits, and the company was fast running out of money. So in 1965, for the first time since it was set up, the family Tim went public. It was careful to keep control (various family members made up seven of the nine-strong Board) and the influx of cash was spent on new equipment and a big advertising campaign. But it was only putting off the inevitable. Within a couple of years., the company was back to square one and ready to accept that a takeover was the only way to survive, There were two suitors, Bangor Punta was keen, but had a reputation as an asset-stripper. The American Machine and Foundry Company, on the other hand, had a strong engineering background; it promised that Harley's existing management would keep control, and chairman Rodney C. Gott was a Harley owner! After some courtroom wrangling, Harley-Davidson shareholders accepted the deal, and Harley-Davidson became a subsidiary of AMF in January 1969. It was a family firm no more.

1970s: Have We Got Trouble![edit]

When Willie G. Davidson styled the Super Glide in 1969, he may not have known that he was opening up a whole new era of Harley history. The Super Glide was a milestone bike for the company, even though it was no bigger or faster or more advanced than any previous Harley-Davidson (let alone any other motorcycle). What it did do was to mix and match existing components to produce something new. Or at least, something that looked new. This worked again with the Low Rider in 1977, and enabled Harley-Davidson to get through some very difficult times when it couldn't afford, or didn't have time, to introduce genuinely new bikes.

Grandson of the original William Davidson, Willie G. had joined the family firm back in 1963 after working as a designer for Ford and Brooks Stevens. He was a professionally trained designer who happened to have grown up with motorcycles, so he was ideally placed to interpret what Harley riders wanted, and put it into practice. And the Super Glide was a perfect example of what he could do. Harley-Davidson had long tried to distance itself from the custom movement because of its associations with the outlaw element. But the reality was that thousands of Harley riders were modifying their bikes in this way, and it was a golden opportunity for Milwaukee to produce a ready-made custom bike. The Super Glide was therefore the first factory custom. The idea was simple: Harley married the frame, engine and gearbox of the touring FL with the lighter-weight forks, 19-inch (48-cm) front wheel and small headlamp of the XLCH Sportster. Despite the incongruous 'boat tail' glass fiber rear end that most owners junked, it looked long, low and handsome, and opened up a new market for the customizers who wanted an off-the-peg custom bike.

Not that the rest of the range was neglected. The XLCH Sportster was opened out to 997cc (the return of the classic 616 engine size) though there was no attempt to supertune it. Milwaukee had accepted that it could never keep up in the horsepower race, and it was pointless to try. The buyers evidently weren't worried, and bought 20,000 Sportsters in 1973. The small imports from Aermacchi were more of a problem. The Sprint, which had sold well for a while, had long since been overtaken by more sophisticated Japanese lightweights, and Harley-Davidson's answer was to meet these head-on with a range of two-stroke trail bikes.

Their origins lay in the Rapido, a 7-ci (125-cc) commuter bike that was unveiled in 1968. But as the TX 125, it wore trendy off-road clothes, knobbly tires and oil injection. An 11-ei (175-cc) version soon followed, and a 15-ci (250-cc) in 1975. On paper, they looked the business: oil injection two-strokes with CDI ignition, five-speed gearbox and authentic trail bike looks. And for a while they sold well with over 11,000 250s alone in 1975; but it was short-lived success. It was a measure of how fast the Japanese were progressing that the Harley-Davidson-badged trail bikes were looking a little crude and unfinished by 1976. Question marks remained over Aermacchi quality, and in 1978 Harley-Davidson pulled out of 1taly altogether, selling the Varese factory to Cagiva. 1t has never sold a small motorcycle to the public since. So what was AMF, the new owner of Harley-Davidson, up to all this time? It had a clear goal: the motorcycle market was booming, but Harley-Davidson wasn't making many bikes. The AMF plan was to boost production dramatically, thus generating the money needed to fund much-needed new models. They certainly succeeded in boosting production, moving bike assembly to York, Pennsylvania, and more than doubling the output of engines and gearboxes at Juneau Avenue in three years. But, as Rodney Gott later admitted, it was all pushed through too quickly with little regard to quality. As a result, AMF-era Harleys soon gained a reputation for poor quality, while a surfeit of 'top-down' management meant that the long-term Harley-Davidson employees were being ignored. Things weren't going as planned, so AMF man Ray Tritten made a thorough study of the whole business, finding a lack of professionalism (in both engineering and marketing), complacency with regard to the Japanese, and inefficient production.

With characteristic energy, Triuen set about cutting costs and introducing proper forecasting. He also brought in two men who were to play key roles at Harley-Davidson over the next 20 years. Jeff Bleustein was a former associate professor of engineering at Yale University and managed to transform the engineering department by bringing in more professionals. Vaughn Beals (already an AMF man) was put directly in charge of Milwaukee, and one of the first things he did was to sort out a long-term new model program.

In the short term, the V-twin would he updated to see Harley-Davidson through the next few years, which appeared in the form of the Evolution motor. But for the future (and this was the radical part) there would be an all-new family of engines, 30-80ci (500-1300cc two cylinders to six (the NOVA program). The plan was clear, a product-led recovery, funded by AMF.

But even with NOVA and Evolution going full steam ahead, Harley-Davidson still needed to survive in the meantime. Once again, Willie 0. came to the rescue with two new bikes, both of them based on the Super Glide principle of mix 'n' match existing parts, One was a flop, the other a huge success. The XLCR Café Racer, with its vaguely European looks and all-black color scheme, was just too far out from the traditional Harley look to be acceptable. It was dropped after a couple of years. The Low Rider, on the other hand, took the concept of a factory custom even further than the Super Glide. This was much closer to a real chopper, with lengthened and raked forks, low-riding 27-inch (69-cm) seat height with a king and queen seat. It was a canny blend of old and new, with tank- mounted instruments and 1903-style tank script, but with a twin disc front end and alloy wheels as well. The buying public loved it, and the Low Rider became the best- selling Harley (basic Sportster apart) over the next few years.

This was all very well, but AMF was growing impatient. For over ten years, it had been putting a great deal of money into Harley-Davidson, for very little return. Although there has been a tendency to castigate AMF as faceless big business, it really did want to make a success of Harley-Davidson. But after ten years of effort, the company was still only making small profits, and certainly not enough to fund the NOVA program, which according to a team of consultants would need $70 million to reach production. There was a time when AMF would have signed the check, but not anymore. Vaughn Beals made the recommendation; it was time to sell.

1980s: Like a Japanese Miracle[edit]

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. For Harley-Davidson, the 1980s brought near-bankruptcy, a dramatic turnaround and a new-found prosperity that it still enjoys today. Not since the 1930s had it come so close to a complete close, and never had it experienced such a dramatic reversal in its fortunes. The decade had an inauspicious start: Harley's share of the US big bike market had slumped to one-third by 1980, and just 23.3 per cent by 1983. In that year, for the first time ever, it sold fewer big machines than Honda, yet in 2000, a revitalized Harley-Davidson overtook Honda again, not only in the big bike market, but overall. For a company that until recently sold nothing smaller than the 54ci (883cc) Sportster (Honda of course, offers a complete range of bikes) it was an astonishing achievement.

But the seeds of this remarkable revival were being sown even in the darkest days of the early 1980s. Vaughn Beals' vision of a product-led recovery was showing signs of life, thanks to the revitalized engineering department led by Jeff Bleustein, First off, the FLT, launched in 1980, was almost an entirely new motorcycle, and was the first sign that Harley-Davidson was once again taking R&D (Research and Development) seriously.

The new FLT Tour Glide was Harley's response to Honda's Gold Wing, a smooth and sophisticated tourer that had been steadily eating into the company's traditional market. To meet this formidable competition, the FLT had a new steel backbone frame, which rubber-mounted the venerable Shovelhead V-twin (just about the only part of the bike that wasn't new).

Rubber block mounts at the front and the swinging-arm pivots, plus adjustable locating links at the front of the engine and the top were master strokes, they allowed vibration through when idling, but virtually eliminated it when the bike was on the move. One magazine road test likened it to the gentle thrumming one might feel through the deck of a steamship. It was a huge step forward, which has since been applied to nearly every Harley model and played a big part in increasing their acceptability to non-Harley riders. The bike's geometry saw innovative thinking too: the forks were mounted off¬set to the steering head, which allowed a steepish steering-head angle (for quicker steering) with long trail (for stability), There were a few changes to the Shovelhead in the form of electronic ignition and a quieter exhaust system, while the gearbox acquired a fifth speed. The twin headlamp fairing was new, as was the twin disc front end, the enclosed chain and 5-gallon (22-litre) fuel tank. The FLT was really another of Harley's milestone bikes, and is still part of the range, 20 years on. Later that same year came the Sturgis, which introduced another innovation - belt drive. 1t was the first production motorcycle to offer both primary and final drive by toothed belts, and the advantages were many. Belts need no lubing and have a 20,000-mile (3220-km) life; they are quieter and smooth out the drive; they allow a dry (and thus leak-free) chain case, which gives the clutch an easier time. So successful was the system that, like the rubber-mounted motor, it has since been applied to every Harley-Davidson you can buy. It is odd, however, that the new belt-equipped FXB-80 Sturgis was nm designed as a tourer (surely the first market for a clean, long-lasting final drive) but was the Low Rider, and in every other respect, this was a traditional Harley, with solid-mounted motor and a four-speed gearbox: sales though, convinced Harley-Davidson that belts were the way to go. This was all very well, but the company itself was in deep trouble, AMF wanted out, and Vaughn Beals actually encouraged the more by recommending that his employer sell its troublesome subsidiary outright. And when AMF management agreed that this was a good idea, it just so happened that Beals had a management buyout proposal ready and waiting. You had to admire the man's subtlety.

The negotiations dragged on into 1981, but eventually, with the help of some massive bank loans, Harley-Davidson's management bought the company back for $80 million. To celebrate, some of them (including Willie G.) rode from York to Milwaukee, calling at jubilant dealers on the way. Once more, the advertisements ran, 'The Eagle Soars Alone'. But they weren't out of the woods yet: market share was still slipping and quality was not what it should be. New products were on the way, but the company itself had to become more efficient, This happened by adopting Japanese business methods of which there were three in particular: just-in¬time inventory cut-down on money tied up in stocks of parts; employee involvement using the skills of people on the shop floor to affect decision making; and every worker was given the means to monitor his or her own quality and output. All three, known as the 'Productivity Triad', had a tremendous effect on efficiency, productivity and quality, the problems which had hugged Harley for decades. More good news came in 1983, when Harley-Davidson's third application for tariff protection against large imported bikes was finally grained; it was for five years only, but gave the company a crucial breathing space.

But for most Harley riders, this all happened behind the scenes; what really marked the 1980s was the Evolution twin. As the name implied, it wasn't all-new (a new top-end on the old Knucklehead-based crankcase) but was as much of a leap forward as the Knucklehead had been nearly 50 years before, Aluminum-alloy cylinders were lighter and ran cooler, a narrower valve angle allowed shorter, straighter ports, the valve train was lighter, the con-rods stronger and tolerances all-round were tightened up dramatically. The result was more power than the old twin, and it was quieter, more reliable and didn't leak oil. Best of all, Harley-Davidson had finally got a new engine right first time. It cannot he stressed enough that the Evolution V-twin saved Harley-Davidson, and made its 1980s turnaround possible. The other new model in 1983 was less noticeable, but just as significant. For once Bill Davis had built a Harley that cleverly hid its rear suspension units under the gearbox resulting in hardtail looks, but with at least a little rear suspension movement. Vaughn Beals (so the story goes) saw it, liked it and bought the patent. Since then, the Softail, as it was called, has been a hugely successful part of Harley-Davidson's range, combining the looks of a 1940s or '50s Hydra-Glide with a modicum of ride comfort. The Springer Softail of 1989 took that to its logical conclusion, combining the Softail rear end with a redesigned version of the Springer forks that Bill Harley had initiated in 1907. This was the ultimate retro machine.

But even as all these good things were happening, the company was facing collapse and rebellion, In 1985 Citicorp, one of the main financers of the buyout, announced that it wanted its money back, which would have meant bankruptcy, Only days before the plug was pulled, Richard Teerlink, Vaughn Beals and Tom Gelb managed to get new funds from Heller Financial. Meanwhile, long-suffering Harley dealers had become so disgruntled with the new regime (which insisted on lower margins, and new investment in training and marketing) that they formed their own independent association, Gradually, compromises were made and the rifts were healed.

Just as Evolution transformed the big twins, so it did the same for the Sportster. A 54-ci (883-cc) Evo Sportster replaced the old one-liter Shovelhead version in 1984, with a 67-ci (1100-cc XLH following on soon after (soon boosted to the XLH1200 we know now), Still with a four-speed gearbox and chain drive, Harley emphasized the little 883 as a loss-leader entry model, Even now, it undercuts some Japanese cruisers, though even in Evo form, it's slower and less sophisticated than any of them. If the 883 was a sensible cut-price way of boosting sales, the XR1000 did the opposite. Its engine, using modified XR750 parts, was expensively hand-assembled, but the handsome result was still a long way behind Japanese sports bikes. On the other hand, it did form the basis for the first Buell, which led to greater things.

Only a year after its eleventh-hour flirtation with financial collapse, Harley-Davidson was visibly on the road to recovery. The Evolution had been well received, and sales were booming, it was an ideal time to go public and to raise money by selling shares on the general market. The issue was such a success that $90 million was raised, enabling Harley to pay off many of its debts with enough left over to buy the motorhome maker Holiday Rambler. In theory, it could have used the money to resurrect the NOVA engine program, but by then it was clear that the Evolution (originally intended as a stop-gap) would see the company through many year to come: in any case, the buying public expected a Harley-Davidson to have an air-cooled V-twin engine, not a water-cooled four. By the end of the 1980s, the recovery was complete. The company made a $17.7 million profit in 1987 and $27 million the year after. In fact, it is instructive to compare the beginning of the 1980s to the end: productivity up by half, US market share doubled; inventory cut by 75 per cent, scrap/rework down by two-thirds and an annual profit of S59 million. Police business (once highly prized, and lost in the bad old days of poor quality) began to return and exports increased dramatically; not only that, it must have caused some satisfaction at Milwaukee when Japan became its foremost overseas market. When Ronald Reagan visited the York plant, it was the ultimate seal of official approval; Harley-Davidson had become the American success story of the 1980s.

1990s: Ever Upward[edit]

If the 1980s was Harley-Davidson's turnaround decade, then the 1990s saw its consolidation. The Harley bandwagon, which set off in the mid-1980s and gathered pace in the early '90s, showed no sign of stopping in 2000, or even slowing down a little. It was a measure of how far the company had come that in 1990 it could call a motorcycle 'Fat Boy' and be taken seriously, the market had changed, and there was a new breed of affluent bikers for whom motorcycling was a weekend hobby rather than a means of transport. For them, it hardly mattered that the Harley was slower, cruder and more expensive than the Japanese opposition. What did matter was that it was way ahead of all of them on high-profile imaging — a solid no-nonsense all-American motorcycle. The way that Harleys developed through the 1990s reflected this, with more emphasis on styling than engineering. Of course, there have been engineering advances like fuel injection, balance shafts and settled wheel bearings, but the company has chosen not to invest in anything radically new, even though, perhaps for the first time, it could easily afford to. There were rumors of a 95ci (1560cc) version of the Evo in 1989/90, an attempt to overtake the 85ci (1400cc) Japanese lookalikes. It came to nothing, as the bigger engine reportedly had unacceptable bore and piston wear. That was something else that was different about Harley-Davidson — it now knew better than to launch anything substandard.

The Fat Boy summed all this up. It was the nearest thing to a new Harley model in 1990, though really no more than a Heritage Softail with a few styling tweaks and a new paint job, Frame, tank, mudguards - almost everything was finished in silver, with the 'fat' look emphasized by solid wheels, wide and heavy valanced mudguards and wide tires, All with a solidly-mounted engine, vibration and all, because that was what some riders wanted. An interesting contrast was the FXRT, also current in 1990. This had a rubber-mounted motor, proper modern (not stylized) fairing, air-adjustable forks and twin front disc brakes. The FXRP police version went down well, but Harley-Davidson sold a mere 304 civilian FXRTs in 1990, and over 4,000 Fat Boys. You couldn't have had a clearer indication of the reasons why people were buying Harleys. Then there was the 'Harleywood' phenomenon in which a new Harley-Davidson became the accessory of choice for Hollywood names. Sylvestor Stallone, Cher, Bruce Willis and countless others were happy to be seen in the saddle of a Harley and millionaire Malcolm Forbes even formed his own club for similarly wealthy Harley riders. One less affluent owner wryly observed that in Hollywood, Harley-Davidsons had become like a certain part of the human anatomy - everyone had one! Meanwhile, certain advances did trickle down through the range. In 1993, the 883 Sportster finally acquired belt-drive and a five-speed gearbox, both long overdue. It was still relatively cheap to buy, undercutting even some of the equivalent Japanese cruisers and played a crucial role in attracting new riders into the Harley fold, It was still doing that in 2000, seven years on from belt-drive, and 16 from the 883 Evolution motor introduction. It also retained a charming simplicity that was lacking in some of the bigger, more expensive bikes, The Dyna Glide of 1993, on the other hand, had a new frame, but paradoxically the sole reason was to make it look like an old one! The bike was an update of the mid-range rubber-mounted FX series, but the idea here was to emulate the 1970s Low Rider, the engine of which kept its rubber mounts, but were cunningly hidden by the new frame, The names also evoked nostalgia, and the first Dyna Glide was a limited-edition Sturgis (remember 1980), followed by the raked-fork Wide Glide. Mechanically, the Dyna stuck with the 82ci (1340cc) Evolution engine, now in its tenth year and still in a very mild state of tune.

Harley-Davidson's foray into the law courts in the mid-1990s underlined how important its image had become. With the Japanese making big, reliable, V-twins, Harley became increasingly concerned to protect those things that made it unique. The names 'Glide', 'Sportster' and 'Hog' were all registered as trademarks, and even the distinctive 'potato-potato' exhaust note (a product of the Harleys' 45-degree cylinder and a common crankpin for both con-rods) was subject to a patent application. 'The Harley-Davidson sound functions as a (trade) market and identifies Harley-Davidson alone as the source of the goods emitting that sound.' The company actually withdrew that application after a few years, but the fact that it attempted at all underlines the fact that these bikes weren't being bought for their A to B transport capability.

So strong was the nostalgia element that the touring FLs had been losing sales to the more obviously retro Heritage Softails. So Harley unveiled the FL Road King, a stripped-down tourer that harked back to the original Electra Glide, with no fairing and a detachable pillion seat. There were signs, though, that Harley-Davidson realized that all this wasn't sufficient on its own. In 1995, fuel injection appeared on the US/Canadian-market Electra Glide Ultra. with electronic engine control according to temperature, load and so on. It didn't make the bike go any faster, but it did improve economy and cold starting as well as emissions. Even sporting pretensions were creeping back into the range: in 1998, the Sportster 1200 Sport gained more power from twin-plug heads, a higher compression and new cams to add to the twin front discs and adjustable suspension it already had. But it was the final year of the century that saw Harley's biggest news for a long lime. The new Win Cam 88 motor was unveiled, at first for certain models only, but clearly intended to replace the Evolution in time. At 88 cubic inches (1450cc), hence the name) it was the largest production Harley engine yet, though the company had evidently decided it wasn't going to get into a cubic-inch war. Victory (92ci/1507cc Yamaha (98ci/1(t02cc) and Honda ( 110ci/1800cc) all announced even bigger V-twins soon afterwards. Despite its name, the Twin Cam didn't have twin overhead cams, but two cams on the shaft: in fact, it was still air-cooled and certainly contained no radical changes. But although it looked similar to the Evo, the Twin Cam was very different inside, with a bigger bore/shorter stroke, reshaped combustion chamber, new ignition and lubrication systems, oil-cooled pistons, redesigned breathing and die-cast crankcases, It was claimed to be stiffer, stronger, more powerful and more oil-tight than the old engine. Harley-Davidson also claimed that only 21 parts had been carried over from the Evolution, 'most of them screws', according to the brochure. The Twin Cam was still rubber-mounted, but for 2000 the 8813 was launched, with twin contra-rotating balance shafts for what must be the smoothest Harleys yet. So as the 21st century got underway, Harley-Davidson was facing it with a new confidence after 15 years of almost uninterrupted growth. There was record production, record sales and record profits and it seems a fair bet that it will reach the 100th anniversary of Bill Harley and Arthur Davidson's first prototype in good shape.