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Davidson, Arthur - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Arthur Davidson, Social and Economic Impact

harley company motorcycle william

(1881?-1950)
Harley-Davidson

Overview

Arthur Davidson, along with William Harley, formed the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company in a converted shed in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1903. Today Harley-Davidson is the only remaining motorcycle manufacturer in the United States, and much of the company’s success is due to Arthur Davidson’s early work in setting up an extensive network of dealerships that handled the company’s products exclusively. Over the years, the “hog,” as the bike is affectionately known by its riders, developed a reputation as the preferred transportation of rebels and outlaws, but it has also gradually been transformed into a sporty recreational vehicle for “weekend warriors” who hit the road after a tough week at the office.

Personal Life

Not much is known about the early life of Arthur Davidson, except that he hailed from Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and was born about 1881. His father was a cabinet maker who helped Davidson, his two brothers, and William S. Harley build the first Harley-Davidson “factory” in a converted shed in the Davidsons’ backyard. Davidson was 20 in 1901 at the time when he and boyhood pal Harley first set about constructing a motorized bicycle.

Arthur Davidson was a small-built man with sandy hair. He had an outgoing nature, perfect for his role as the firm’s sales and advertising manager. According to Herbert Wagner in Harley-Davidson 1930-1941: Revolutionary Motorcycles & Those Who Rode Them, “He was an out front brassy little guy. A handshaker. He loved people. He could sit down to a stranger on the train and know his life story in five minutes. He loved a good joke and loved telling stories, and he was good at it, too.”

Known for his business savvy, Davidson was recruited to serve as a director for various companies, including the Koehring Company, the Kellogg Seed Company, and the Wisconsin Pharmaceutical Company. He was a Milwaukee Boys’ Club board member and was active in the YMCA. Davidson also held many roles with the Boy Scouts Association of America and was awarded the group’s highest honor for distinguished service. An avid outdoorsman, he was a lifetime member of the Izaak Walton League. During the last six years of his life, he was president of the American Motorcyclist Association, shaping much of its policy and helping it to expand. Around this time he also served as president of the Motorcycle and Allied Trades Association, a collection of people affiliated with the motorcycle industry. Davidson and his wife died in a car accident in late 1950.

Career Details

Davidson was trained as a pattern maker in a Milwaukee manufacturing firm, where his friend Harley worked as a draftsman. At this shop, they met Ole Evinrude, a German draftsman who would become known for his superior outboard boat motors. Like many young men, Davidson and Harley enjoyed puttering around with building things. Other shops across the United States and Europe were churning out motorized bicycles, which eliminated the need for pedaling, and this caught their interest. Evinrude helped the friends out by giving them De Dion engine drawings from a French factory where he used to work.

Davidson then made the patterns for a small aircooled engine while Harley designed the bicycle. Working in a basement shop with little time or money, they soon realized they needed an experienced mechanic. They called upon Davidson’s brother Walter, a machinist for a railroad in Kansas, to come home to Milwaukee. He was already planning to return for the wedding of another brother, William, and the men had promised him an exciting ride on the new machine. Walter was thoroughly disappointed to discover that his brother wanted him to help build it, but agreed to join the operation. William later signed up as well.

With William and Walter Davidson now on board, the four men outgrew their basement and moved to a friend’s workshop, where real tools-such as a lathe and drill press-were available. They soon needed even more room, so the Davidsons’ father fixed up a ten-by-fifteen-foot shed in the backyard as the first factory, with “Harley-Davidson Motor Company” painted on the door. The Harley-Davidson company web site proposes two reasons why Harley’s name comes first: perhaps because he built the actual bicycle, or maybe that, since the Davidsons outnumbered him three to one, they figured it was a gentlemanly gesture. Harley went on to function as chief engineer and treasurer of the company, while Arthur Davidson became secretary and general sales manger. Davidson’s brother Walter held office as company president, and brother William was works manager.

Arthur Davidson was instrumental in the company’s staying power throughout the century due to his initiative in setting up a network of dealers that would sell only Harley-Davidson motorcycles. He also helped establish the Harley-Davidson Service School to provide quality mechanics for bike owners. The company firmly backed their products and made sure that dealers’ profits came first. Davidson was known as the financial brain of the firm, and dispensed business advice to dealers who were having money problems. This became especially necessary during the Great Depression. Harley-Davidson survived during these difficult domestic times, in large part because of foreign sales. An unexpected boon to Harley-Davidson was the rise of Henry Ford’s Model T automobile in the mid-1920s, which was cheaper than a motorcycle and put dozens of competing motorcycle companies out of business. Harley-Davidson kept up sales because the U.S. Postal Service and police departments continued purchasing the bikes for business.

Chronology: Arthur Davidson

c. 1881: Born.

1901: Began building motorized bicycle with William Harley.

1903: Harley-Davidson Motor Co. founded.

1907: Harley-Davidson incorporated.

1909: Harley-Davidson introduced V-twin engine.

1920: Harley-Davidson became top selling motorcycle in United States with dealers in 67 countries.

1950: Arthur Davidson died in auto accident.

Social and Economic Impact

In 1903 the Harley-Davidson company produced and sold their first three motorcycles. The next year, in an expanded shed, they built eight. After yet another addition in 1905, the men moved their factory to Chestnut Street, now called Juneau Avenue, in Milwaukee, where the corporate offices still stand. Their uncle, James McLay, a beekeeper, loaned them money to build the 2,380-square-foot shop. In 1909 they made 1,149 bikes, including 27 of their trademark V-Twin engine models with a top speed of 60 miles per hour, which failed until the bugs were worked out a couple of years later. By the mid-1910s, Harley-Davidson was the third largest motorcycle manufacturer in the country, and by 1920 held the number one position, with dealers in 67 countries. By 1953, Harley-Davidson was the only remaining American motorcycle company when its main competitor, Indian, closed its doors, and in 1995 it boasted a production of over 105,000, with demand continuing to grow.

Harley-Davidson, however, is more than a motorcycle company with a strong brand recognition. Something resembling a cult of personality has developed around these piles of chrome that belies its founders’ intentions. Originally nicknamed the “Silent Gray Fellow,” Harley-Davidson bikes were designed to be quiet, with large mufflers to subdue their noise. They were marketed as practical transportation, even for families, if a sidecar was attached. Later the motorcycles became a favorite of sportsmen when the company began entering their products in races-and often winning. In fact, one of the Harley racers around 1920 reportedly used to do his victory laps with his pet pig sitting with him on the bike, giving rise to the nickname “hog.” The Harley-Davidson web site, though, claims the term is an acronym for the Harley Owner’s Group, the company-sponsored club.

In World War I and II the bikes were used to run dispatch on the front lines, and the GIs took it upon themselves to begin chopping off parts-including headlights and fenders-to make the machine go faster. Thus the word “chopper” came to represent a customized Harley. Eventually it was expected that “hog” owners would personalize their bikes, not only by making them into choppers, but also by adding custom paint jobs or fenders and other unique touches.

In 1947, however, the image of the outlaw biker gained full momentum. An article in Life magazine detailed the horrors of a rebel motorcycle gang who terrorized a town in California. No longer seen as simply sporting enthusiasts, riders were now lumped with those known as “Hell’s Angels,” a group of bikers who took their name from a 1930s Howard Hughes film. Though this proved to be bad publicity for Harley-Davidson, the media latched on and continued to beef up the stereotype, with films like The Wild One portraying the subculture. Unfortunately, the stories surrounding biker gangs—rape, robbery, beatings, looting—were often more truth than fiction. Journalist Hunter S. Thompson in the 1960s infiltrated the ranks of the Hell’s Angels, posing as one of their members, and wrote a full-length book on his experiences called Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gang. After his exposé was published, some of the members beat him senseless.

During the 1960s and 1970s, lower-priced Japanese motorcycles, which lacked the stigma of the Harley, gained popularity among recreational bikers. By the 1980s and 1990s, however, the image of the Harley rider began to change. Though the tattoo-and-leather crowd, with their beards, booze, and bad attitudes, still roamed, more and more “yuppie” bikers began to take to the open road. This cadre of mellow executives and family men were, no doubt, intrigued by the “bad boy” element just as much as the appeal of the wind rushing past them as they sped down the highway. Harley-Davidsons could be seen lined up outside hip nightspots in major cities, expensive toys affordable only by the successful. Harley accessory boutiques sprang up in tony shopping districts. The company set up a slick web site, and in 1994 Turner Original Productions produced a special cable program narrated by actor James Caan and featuring celebrities such as David Crosby, Peter Fonda, Wynonna Judd, and a leather-clad Larry Hagman touting their love of the bike and its accompanying mystique. Finally, the Harley-Davidson seemed to be regaining its original intent as a vehicle for genteel sportsmen and women, albeit with a slight edge this time around.

Davis, Albert Porter(1890–1976) - Physician, surgeon, entrepreneur, Earns Pilot’s License, Chronology, Builds Mobile Home Park [next] [back] David, Keith (1956–)

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