A History of Harley-Davidson



17 JUNE 2020


Far more than a motorcycle manufacturer, Harley-Davidson kickstarted a culture that has permeated multiple industries throughout the decades, from fashion to transport, crafting an unforgettable aesthetic. It is undeniable that the iconic biker brand has a vibrant history; from humble beginnings, the Bar and Shield logo earned its place in Hollywood movies, was and still is adorned by rockers and biker gangs and can now be spotted in wider circles as trends have begun to favour the trademark graphics and dark colour palettes.


Harley-Davidson: An Early History


While it is easy to think of the Harley-Davidson biker as a creation of the second half of the 20th century, the motorcycle manufacturer dates back to well before. Established in 1903, the ‘Harley-Davidson Motor Company’ takes its name from its founders, William S. Harley and the Davidson brothers, Harley’s childhood friend, Arthur, and his siblings, William and Walter, who developed their motor-bicycle from Harley’s 1901 blueprints for an engine designed to fit a bicycle frame. Finding this lacking power and thereby needing the pedals still attached, they constructed new designs that forged the basis for the familiar motorcycle we know and love today. Building three of these models in 1903, the group worked in the Davidson’s 10 x 15-foot garden shed, located on Chestnut Street, Milwaukee, scrawling ‘Harley-Davidson Motor Co.’ to mark the beginnings of a global business (see fig. 1).



Figure 1. A replica of the original shed, this reconstruction is based on historical photographs. It sits just outside the Harley-Davidson Museum.


In 1904, the first Harley-Davidson dealer, C.H. Lang of Chicago, opened and production rose to eight units, before doubling the year after and amounting to fifty in 1906. To cope with the influx of orders, the company expanded with the recruitment of six employees and relocated to a new factory across the road from the sturdy shed, measuring 28 x 80-feet. Moreover, with the higher demand came a fervent desire for improvement, measured in power. On 4th July 1905, a Harley-Davidson motorcycle won its first race in Chicago, completing a 15-mile course with a time of 19:02 and sparking a quest for speed. Particularly encouraged by Walter Davidson, as his competition riding credits amounted, the company soon introduced the famed V-twin motor at a 1907 motorcycle show, building the first model in 1909 following the success at the 7th Annual Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability Contest. At this event, Walter scored a perfect 1,000 points and went on to set the FAM economy record at 188.234 miles per gallon three days later, further building upon the widely renowned admiration for the company.


Not only promoted through word of its accomplishments, the Harley-Davidson branding and marketing has always been impeccable. Recognising and exploiting trends, the company followed popular culture closely from their 1906 motorcycle catalogue title, called ‘Silent Gray Fellow’ after the nickname given to the Harleys by riders who appreciated their Renault Grey finish and quite motors, to The Enthusiast’s May 1956 cover featuring Elvis Presley (see fig. 2). Most obviously, however, is the iconic Bar and Shield logo,


Figure 2. The 1956 The Enthusiast cover featuring Elvis



First used in 1910 and trademarked one year later. With the vibrant orange thought to be a statement of freedom and courage, the logo is recognised as an appropriate depiction of the core values that the company promote. Further using it to mark milestones, adding a ‘V’ on the 50th anniversary and wings fifty years later for the 100th anniversary, the Harley-Davidson branding has skilfully promoted the company through merging popular culture with captivating, sentimental imagery. It is no surprise, therefore, that it pierced the fashion industry.


The Evolution of ‘The Biker’

Far from the classic style of the founders, almost exclusively photographed wearing a jacket and tie, the stereotypical biker aesthetic that Harley-Davidson has come to be associated with is many steps away from the gentlemen, heavily leaning in the direction of the metalhead or the rocker. What these riders aim to stylistically represent is an independence from societal norms, from that which is considered proper. Just as the bright orange lettering bursts out from the logo, both the brand and its loyal enthusiasts place huge emphasis on freedom; as George and Billy summarise in the hit-film Easy Rider, “What you represent to them is freedom.’ ‘What the hell is wrong with freedom? That’s what it’s all about.”


However, this formation of a counterculture, centred around the motorcycle, quickly gained overwhelmingly negative connotations, catalysed by the so-called 1947 Hollister Riot. Dramatised by the press as a booze-educed invasion conducted by swarms of destructive motorcyclists, the Gypsy Tour motorcycle rally, notably approved by the AMA, saw an unexpected number of enthusiasts flock to Hollister, California. Hard to control given the excess in numbers, this disturbance was further sensationalized in Life magazine with the infamous photograph of the seemingly drunk Eddie Davenport draped over a motorcycle; the image that prompted the outlaw stereotype (see fig. 3). Loosely based on the


Figure 3. Eddie Davenport at the Gypsy Tour motorcycle rally.


 occurrence, Marlon Brando’s 1953 performance in The Wild One cemented this biker persona. Depicting two rival gangs that wreak terror in their two-wheeled hordes, the film invested in the rebellious nature of the biker and set the tone for new societal perceptions, memorably using Harley-Davidson models to forge them.

 Just one year after the pivotal Hollister incidences, the notorious group, titled the Hells Angels, was established and added to the media frenzy surrounding the biker communities. Not the only outlaw motorcycle group, the ‘one per center’ gangs began to form; a rebel population characterised by long beards, tattoos and violent feuds. Rivalries formed, famously between the Angels and The Outlaws Motorcycle Club, yet a common denominator between these foes was their penchant for Harley Davidson bikes. In the post-WWII years, an American-based brand that promised freedom hugely attracted the outlaws and Harley-Davidson encouraged them, capitalising on the biker lawlessness with targeted marketing strategies encouraging their customers to ‘Live by’ the lifestyle promoted (see fig. 4).




Figure 4. Harley-Davidson ‘Live by it’ advert.


Harley-Davidson in the World of Fashion

 The rugged biker style was not limited to these groups and gangs, but also attracted young adults in the eighties and nineties. Paired with Carhartt items and chunky boots, the graphic t-shirts and leather jackets contributed to the grungy bad-boy aesthetic. Heartthrobs including Johnny Depp (see fig. 5) sported the rocker style that visually represented the values championed by the new youth culture, emphasised by the investment in independent movies that celebrated societal rogues. Additionally, Harley Davidson featured in Pulp Fiction (1994) and was further promoted in the 1991 action biker film, Harley Davidson and the

Figure 5. Johnny Depp in 21 Jump Street wearing a Harley-Davidson t-shirt.


Man. The iconic leather jacket with the Harley-Davidson orange shoulder panel and custom patches drew upon the nineties trend, pushing the brand at the forefront of fashion when leather was at the height of its popularity.


Unsurprisingly, the brand has, in more recent years, revisited its past supporters, investing in collaborations with the likes of ACDC and the Rolling Stones. Infamous rockers that broke all the boundaries while adorning the biker logo, the connections with these iconic bands indicate Harley-Davidson’s continued recognition and promotion of its rebellious connotations and it doesn’t shy away.





Figure 1:

Jaswinski, Brett. ‘Eight Interesting Things at the Harley-Davidson Museum’. Motorcyle.com, 5 Apr. 2018, https://www.motorcycle.com/manufacturer/harley-davidson/eight-interesting-things-harley-davidson-museum.html.%20Accessed%2014%20Jun.%202020

Figure 2:

@hdmuseum. ‘Today is the King of Rock and Roll's birthday. Here's a shot of Elvis Presley with his KLH on the cover of The Enthusiast from May 1956.’ Twitter, 8 Jan. 2018, 14:00, https://twitter.com/hdmuseum/status/950366573117739010. Accessed 15 Jun. 2020.

Figure 3:

Smith, Jerry. ‘The Riot and the Photo That Made Bikers Into Outlaws’. Jalopnik, 9 Jul. 2015, https://jalopnik.com/the-riot-and-the-photo-that-made-bikers-into-outlaws-1729051837. Accessed 14 Jun. 2020.

Figure 4:

‘Harley-Davidson – “Tattoo”’. adforum, www.adforum.com/creative-work/ad/player/6687595/tattoo/harley-davidson. Accessed 16 Jun. 2020.

Figure 5:

‘The t-shirt Harley David­son of Of­fi­cer Thomas Han­son (John­ny Depp) in 21 Jump Street’. Spotern, www.spotern.com/en/spot/tv/21-jump-street/7710/the-t-shirt-harley-davidson-of-officer-thomas-hanson-johnny-depp-in-21-jump-street. Accessed 16 Jun. 2020.


Relevant links:

Check out the Thrifted Harley-Davidson collection:

Men: https://www.thrifted.com/collections/vintage-mens-harley-davidson

Women: https://www.thrifted.com/collections/vintage-womens-harley-davidson


Thrifted.com – the UK & Europe’s leading vintage clothing store and America’s best online thrift store.