Harley-Davidson’s humble beginnings were in a 1901 Milwaukee shack, when William (Bill) Harley and his childhood friend Arthur (Arty) Davidson together developed a one-cylinder, 7.07 cubic inches (116cc) engine, designed for use in an ordinary bicycle frame with pedals. The modest neighborhood hills soon proved to be too much for their power-cycle’s small engine—without aid from the pedals—and their initial idea was virtually abandoned.
Harley had been an apprentice at a local bicycle factory as a cycle fitter in the design and construction of frames, a valuable background for a young boy of 15. In 1903, with assistance from outboard motor pioneer and neighbor Ole Evinrude, Harley went on to design a bigger engine of 24.74 cubic inches (405cc) displacement.
With an advanced loop frame pattern and the new engine, the first “real” Harley-Davidson was born. Splitting his time between school and work, Harley was able to obtain a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 1907, while also producing 150 motorcycles that year.
The first 45-degree V–Twin was introduced with a displacement of 53.68 inches (880cc), in 1907. An improved V-Twin was introduced in 1911—smaller, with better performance. Subsequently, the majority of the bikes produced would be V-Twin models, and in 1914 alone, over 16,000 machines were produced. With the advent of World War I and demands from the military for motorcycles to support the war effort, Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. By 1920, over 28,000 machines had been sold worldwide.
With the introduction of the 1925 JD motorcycle, Harley-Davidson unveiled a huskier, more muscled and masculine look. With its more powerful 74-cubic inch (1200cc) V-Twin engine, wider but smaller tires, distinctive teardrop-shaped gas tank with shift lever placed alongside it, and large contoured saddle seat dropped three inches lower on the new J-series frame, the JD was a huge success. Sidecars were a popular option, and the only real complaint was the limited choice of just one color—Olive Drab—the signature Harley color of the era. The 1925 model truly was a stepping stone toward building today’s classic Harley look.
The introduction of the 1936 Model EL—“61 OHV” (commonly known today as the Knucklehead)—is considered Bill Harley’s greatest achievement of a highly-successful career. The key elements of the original Knucklehead design were carried over to all the air-cooled Big Twin Harleys produced since that time—certainly William S. Harley’s greatest legacy.
After Harley received his first patent for a Motor Cycle Stand in 1910, his motorcycle improvements and inventions seemed endless, with nearly a patent a year either filed or granted. PatentWear’s William S. Harley design captures two of his significant patents: the V-Twin Engine, and the now-classic 1925 JD Motorcycle.