Harley Davidson: Riding High, Falling Hard

Kinnary Nensee Kinnary Nensee Apoorva Bajj Apoorva Bajj
Feb 27, 2023 5 min read
Harley Davidson: Riding High, Falling Hard

This is a name that needs no introduction. Harley-Davidson Inc. was founded in 1903 and is headquartered in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in USA. It is one of the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturers and a brand with a loyal following. The iconic brand is famous for the chopper motorcycle style with manufacturing factories spread over York-Pennsylvania, Milwaukee-Wisconsin, Manaus-Brazil, Bawal-India, and Pluak Daeng-Thailand. Not only does the company market its products globally, but it also licenses and markets merchandise like apparel, home décor, ornaments, accessories, toys, scale models of its motorcycles, and video games based on its motorcycle line under the Harley-Davidson brand.

The Begining
The Recent History
The Fall

The Begining

The first motor-bicycle was built by 20-year-old William S. Harley along with his friend Arthur Davidson by using the northside Milwaukee machine shop which was located at the home of their friend Henry Melk. The finished bike in 1903 did not have the power to climb hills without pedal assistance and the makers wrote off their first attempt as a learning curve.

Their second attempt was successful with a bike that featured a bigger engine and loop-frame design as it marked their path to future designs of motorcycles. This prototype of the new loop-frame Harley-Davidson was functional by September 8, 1904. It, then, competed in a Milwaukee motorcycle race and was placed fourth.

By January 1905, Harley-Davidson placed small advertisements in the Automobile and Cycle Trade Journal. These advertisements offered bare engines for do-it-yourself projects. The business did well and by April of the same year, the company was producing a limited stock of completed motorcycles.

Within a year, by 1906, Harley and the Davidson brothers built their first single-storey, wooden structure factory on Chestnut Street and produced 50 motorcycles. Chestnut Street was later renamed Juneau Avenue, which also serves as the current location for the Harley-Davidson Corporate Headquarters.

History of Harley Davidson Motorcycle

By 1907, the company expanded its factory and increased its annual motorcycle production to 150 motorcycles. It was also the year that the company was officially incorporated. The company began selling its bikes to police departments as well.

Over the next few years, Harley-Davidson continued making improvements to the engine and the bike design and by the year 1914, Harley-Davidson was pulling ahead of Indian-dominated motorcycle racing and also increased their bike production numbers to 16,284 machines.

World War I proved to be a major sales push for the company as the military demanded motorcycles as the US entered WWI in 1917. It purchased more than 20,000 motorcycles from the company. To recruit more domestic customers for its motorcycles, the company launched a line of bicycles in the same year but discontinued it in 1923 due to disappointing sales. However, by the year 1920, Harley-Davidson had grown to be the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world with dealers in 67 countries. They were producing a whopping 28,189 machines annually.

A few years later, The Great Depression began which negatively impacted the company and its sales dropped from 21,000 machines in 1929 to 3703 machines in 1933. It emerged from the Great Depression scathed but alive and was only one of the two American motorcycle manufacturers that survived. It again rose to its former prominence as it reproduced a large number of machines for the US army during World War II. Harley-Davidson received two Army-Navy ‘E’ Awards, in 1943 and 1945 respectively, for ‘Excellence in Production’. It also resumed civilian production of large V-twin motorcycles that were successful on racetracks and with private buyers.

The company evolved and by 1970, it become a lifestyle brand that sold jackets, vests, T-shirts, and various memorabilia to commemorate the Harley-Davidson lifestyle. By the 1980s, people were economically progressing after a long financial hiatus that led to soaring sales for the company.

A Screenshot from the Harley Davidson Website
A Screenshot from the Harley Davidson Website

The Recent History

The decade of the 1980s proved to be immensely profitable for the company. The group that consisted of Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners grew to 90,000 members and the company registered a profit of approximately USD 3 million in 1984. This number rose by another USD 1.5 million within a few short years. Harley Davidson continued on its growth trajectory right into the 21st century. By the year 2006, it reported a profit of approximately USD 1 billion as its core owners’ group reached middle age and the stock price of the company peaked. However, it was also the last successful year of the company.

The Fall

The iconic company that had survived and grown through two world wars and The Great Depression fell victim to the economic recession of 2007 and it struggled with sales and stock prices plummeting between 2007 and 2009. This abruptly stopped the company’s new efforts to market its product to a younger and new audience that included women and children.

To survive this newest threat of the economic downturn, it reverted to producing bikes that its existing customer base wanted, resulting in loud, chopper styles and bulky motorbikes.

Harley Davidson - Total Worldwide Retail Sales
Harley Davidson - Total Worldwide Retail Sales

What they failed to take into account was that their current core customer base was aging and the brand had missed its chance of evolving with the times. By 2008, the average age of a Harley-Davidson owner was 50 years and the younger generation did not identify with the company’s bike styles or ethos. This was in addition to the high price point of the motorbike which made it unaffordable for the younger generation that did not have such high disposable incomes. The third strike against the brand was that its image was associated with middle-aged men and father figures.


The iconic company that, at one time, was at its peak and the leading manufacturer of motorbikes across the world, has failed to recover post the 2007 recession. Although its sales are better, it has not been able to capture its pre-recession numbers. The main issue is that their bikes do not attract the millennials at all. Today, a company that has survived multiple ownership arrangements, subsidiary arrangements, intense global competition, and periods of economic health and product quality is struggling for survival. Only time will tell if the company will succeed in reversing its fortunes.

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Harley-Davidson motorcycles are built to with sturdy construction and innovative engines. Many parts are also easily replaceable, allowing riders to keep their bikes in top shape without needing to replace the entire machine.

What was the first Harley Davidson model ever produced?

The first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was built in 1903 and was named the Harley-Davidson Model 1.

Does Harley-Davidson sell lifestyle products?

Yes, Harley-Davidson sells lifestyle products like jackets, vests, T-shirts, and various memorabilia like home décor, ornaments, accessories, toys, and video games based on its motorcycle line.

Some of the most popular Harley-Davidson models include the Sportster, Dyna, and Softail.

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