Top 10 Things You Might Not Know About Harley-Davidson

Tod Rafferty
by Tod Rafferty
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top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

C’mon, I hear you saying, how can there possibly be 10 things about Harley that most everybody doesn’t know? Haven’t even the smallest details been published, debated and all but resolved over the years?

But there are, indeed, many interesting factoids buried in more than a century of H-D’s history. And, as a whole new generation has come under the spell of the Milwaukee Mystique, some of them may be nearly as clueless as I was when I started studying the brand.

So, while there are likely far more than 10 things you may not know about Harley-Davidson – dependent largely on your age and level of interest in the history – the following are my arbitrary Top 10. Feel free to contribute your own historical facts (verified or not), and we may get to a level of obscurity that will be hard to top.

10. Harley Made Bicycles

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

Yep, the legendary Motor Company manufactured bicycles for a few years, beginning in 1916. In fact, most of the growing industry of motorcycle design, engineering and manufacture began in the bicycle business. The components for Harley’s bicycles were actually made by the Davis Sewing Machine Co. of Dayton, Ohio, then assembled in Milwaukee. Harley’s bicycles were stout and stylish, but they were expensive in a quite crowded market. The motorcycle showed far better prospects for profit, so H-D’s bicycle operations ceased in 1921.

9. 1903 Wasn’t Really the First Year of H-D Production

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

William Harley and Arthur Davidson finished one bike in ’03 and two more the following year. The first machine was two years in the making, with the assistance of a German designer named Emil Kroger. One of the next two prototypes was sold in 1904 to a Mr. Meyer, and after passing through four more owners in the following years, had reportedly logged 83,000 miles. The first year of “mass” production was 1905, when H-D manufactured eight motorcycles.

8. Harley Didn’t Immediately Dominate the Motorcycle Market

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

In the first decade of the 20th century, there were well more than 100 motorcycle manufacturers in America. Indian had nearly a five-year head start in terms of production bikes. Springfield’s George Hendee was a former bicycle racer and astute marketer; his partner Oscar Hedstrom was a brilliant engineer.

Milwaukee was barely sniffing Indian’s exhaust during the first five years. By 1910, H-D was producing about 3,000 machines a year, while Indian figures were double that. Indian’s successful racing endeavors and subsequent sales success were the motivating factors forcing Harley to abandon its policy of no factory-supported competition. An internal race department was formed in 1914, and the legendary Wrecking Crew went on to win countless races and bring needed notoriety to The Motor Company. Harley became the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer by 1920.

7. Harley Built Boxer-Style Twin-Cylinder Engines

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

Everyone knows H-D for its historic V-Twin engines, and amateur historians know about the company’s single-cylinder motors that powered many early H-Ds. But did you know Harley also built Boxer motors?

The 584cc W Sport (1919-22) used an opposed-Twin engine, with cylinders arranged inline with its wheels, patterned on the British Douglas. Producing only six horsepower, the W was not especially fast, but its low center of gravity gave it nimble handling. The lightweight model did not sell in large numbers stateside, but it did well overseas, with production numbers totalling nearly 10,000. The WJ (equipped with a battery and coil rather than a magneto) was the first motorcycle to ascend Mt. Baldy.

Harley’s other non-V-Twin was the XA of 1942, built at the request of the U.S. Army which wanted the benefits of shaft drive. It used a 742cc opposed-Twin oriented in the BMW Boxer fashion. Production stopped at 1,000 when the Army concluded the XA was too expensive and that the 45-inch WLA V-Twin would do the job just as well.

6. Porsche Designed a Liquid-Cooled V-4 Engine for Harley in the 70s

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

In the mid-1970s, Harley embarked on what would now be called a middleweight sport-touring bike. The Nova featured a compact liquid-cooled, 60-degree V-4 engine displacing 800cc, designed by Porsche and slated to eventually be built in sport, cruiser and racing configurations. H-D was then residing, uncomfortably, under the corporate umbrella of American Machine & Foundry (AMF), which was approaching the conclusion that it was time to cut its losses and find a buyer for Harley. Thus, after what was reported to have been a $9 million investment in the Nova project, it was shelved. Among the companies expressing interest in the H-D acquisition were Caterpillar, Bangor Punta and Fuqua Industries. Fuqua Harley?

5. Evel Knievel Doesn’t Hold the Distance Record for Jumping a Harley

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

Knievel might be the most famous jumper of Harley-Davidson motorcycles, but he no longer holds the record for the longest jump. His best leap on his XR-750 traveled 133 feet over 14 Greyhound buses in 1975. But in 2008, Bubba Blackwell broke Evel’s record by jumping his XR-750 157 feet.

While Blackwell holds the distance record on a Harley XR-750, the longest-ever jump on a Harley was made by Seth Enslow in 2010. The Crusty Demons of Dirt alum used a modified XR1200 to leap an incredible 183.7 feet.

4. H-D has Won World Championships in Roadracing

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

In 1960, Harley-Davidson bought 50% interest in the Italian Aermacchi factory, taking it over entirely in 1974. The Italian-bred two-stroke roadracers, re-badged as Harley-Davidsons, went on to earn three consecutive 250cc World Championships (1974 through 1976) with racer Walter Villa aboard the RR-250. Villa followed up his quarter-liter success by earning the 350cc title for Harley in 1977.

Harley also attempted a return to macadam scratching in the AMA Superbike ranks in 1994 with the VR1000. Developed with design and engineering assistance from Porsche, it proved an expensive undertaking that produced mediocre results. Riders Miguel Duhamel, Doug Chandler, Pascal Picotte and Chris Carr campaigned the bike but never won a race.

3. Harleys have been Manufactured in Japan

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson
Photo by Troyce Walls

Beginning in the early 1930s, the Rikuo Internal Combustion Company manufactured motorcycles under license using H-D tooling. The company name was eventually shortened to just Rikuo (apparently meaning “Land King” or “Continent King”), which built nearly 18,000 motorcycles between 1937 and 1942, many of which were employed by military and police departments. Rikuo production continued following World War II until 1958.

2. Made Two-Stroke Engines as Far Back as 1948

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

Despite its traditional reverence for big V-Twin engines, Harley-Davidson did not disregard the practical appeal of the small two-stroke. As the result of the allied victory in World War II, the spoils of war were divvied up between Harley and Britain’s BSA. This gave the Yanks the use of the trustworthy DKW two-stroke Single. The Model S 125, which later became the Hummer, appeared in 1948 with an MSRP of $325 and a claimed 3 horsepower. Though never widely popular in the states, the tiddler did introduce many youngsters to the joy of motorcycling at an affordable price. The Hummer eventually grew to 175cc street and dirt models that were available through 1967. They were replaced by the Rapido 125 and Baja 100 models with two-stroke Aermacchi engines.

1. Harley Built an Inline Four-Cylinder Engine

top 10 things you might not know about harley davidson

In the mid-sixties, with the popularity of four-cylinder motorcycles growing, especially in Europe, H-D put a transverse inline-Four through the design phase, and had a wooden mock-up made for potential chassis fitment. In the late 1960s, Harley’s marketing department decided the air-cooled, across-the-frame configuration would not be successful in the American market. Then Honda’s CB750 Four arrived in 1969 and blew the minds of gearheads the world over

I recall seeing the mock-up engine when I visited Harley’s Dick O’Brien (pictured) for an interview in 1971. It didn’t look much different from the Honda. Unfortunately, I didn’t snap a picture of it!

Tod Rafferty
Tod Rafferty

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  • Sean Riley Sean Riley on Dec 24, 2016

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