A Ride Through Time: The History of Harley Davidson's Headquarters
Few stories are as fascinating as the origin of Harley Davidson. From hardscrabble beginnings, the American motorcycle company has left an indelible mark on automotive history. Harley Davidson’s bikes will forever symbolize freedom, innovation, and power.
Inspired by the history of their motorcycles, Competition Distributing wanted to take a ride through time and explore the factory that created these powerhouse hogs. In this piece, we’ll delve into the early years of Harley Davidson, exploring the technological and machine updates that helped shape its legacy.
1903-1905: A Small Wooden Shed Shaped the World
The spark for Harley Davidson started in 1903, ignited by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, along with Arthur's brothers William A. Davidson and Walter Davidson. William and Arthur both had a spirited passion for bicycles. When William was 15, he worked at a Milwaukee-based bicycle factory. Through his late teens and early twenties, he was promoted from cycle fitter to drafter.
This progression led him to work as a draftsman at the Barth Manufacturing Company. There, he designed his first internal combustion engine, based on the French de Dion-Bouton engine. It wasn’t long before his passion for bicycles and knowledge of combustion engines coalesced into making motorcycles.
To see if he could turn his vision into something tangible, William teamed up with Arthur, a fellow draftsman from Barth, and a friend whose father owned a lathe. For the next few years, they worked on a motorcycle prototype in their spare time. While this early model flopped, they learned a critical lesson in the failure: They needed a machinist.
Arthur wrote a letter to his brother Walter, making it clear his expertise was needed. Despite being greeted by a pile of unassembled parts, Walter saw the vision too. Intrigued and enamored with the dabbling prototype, he quit his railroad job in the southwest and found work as a machinist in Milwaukee so he could help build the business.
The three of them moved their project from the Davidson’s basement to a meager 10 x 15-foot wooden shed in Davidson’s backyard in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Working nights to finish the first prototype, it was Walter who actually built the very first Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Ultimately, that postage-stamp-sized shed in the Davidson’s backyard become the birthplace of the first five Harley-Davidson motorcycles. However, it didn’t stop there.
In 1904, the trio built an addition on to the shed, eventually producing another eight motorcycles. One year later, the shed doubled in size again, and so did production. In 1905, Harley-Davidson dealer Carl H. Lang of Chicago sold three of five prototype bikes.
1906-1909: The First Factory
Not long after this new trio had formed, it evolved into a quartet, with William Davidson joining the team in 1907. William, a skilled mechanic, sped up the process of building new bikes. As a tool maker, he was well-suited to identify and purchase the presses and other equipment needed to refine the manufacturing process.
In the meantime, William Harley had enrolled in the School of Engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. He graduated in 1907, promptly returning to the rapidly growing Harley-Davidson Motor Company. His schooling as an engineer proved to be one of the critical factors in the company's enduring success.
During the construction phase of the factory, the staff size increased to six full-time employees, and Harley Davidson released its first motorcycle catalog nicknamed the "Silent Gray Fellow."
Harley Davidson's manufacturing process was very hands-on. Each motorcycle was meticulously handcrafted, with the founders and their new craftsmen involved in every stage of production. But demand was growing fast. By 1907, they’d increased output to 150 machines.
In 1908, they tripled their production to 450 motorcycles. The following year, they doubled their factory size, reached a team of 35 employees, and produced 1000 machines. At this point, they needed a more efficient manufacturing process.
1910-1912: A Stronger Building
At the end of the decade, Harley Davidson finally had the means to invest in a more robust factory. They built a five-story, reinforced-concrete building, which housed 149 employees who churned out nearly 3200 motorcycles.
Even as the factory was under constant construction, Harley-Davidson® motorcycle sales tripled between 1910 and 1912. While technology was certainly advancing through mechanization, the production process still included basic machine tools and equipment, such as:
- Drill presses: Used to create holes in metal parts for assembly.
- Hand tools: Including wrenches, hammers, and files for shaping and fitting various components.
- Lathes: Used for turning and shaping metal parts, like crankshafts and axles.
- Milling machines: Employed for cutting and shaping parts to precise dimensions.
- Welding equipment: Used to join metal components, such as the frame.
Over time, Harley Davidson took a page from the Henry Ford playbook and optimized their production process with a specialized assembly room. As their product offerings expanded, Harley Davidson identified core components they could use across various models, such as engines, frames, and wheels. This approach improved efficiency b, ensured consistent quality across their motorcycles, and streamlined manufacturing overall. With increased speed came reduced costs, making Harley motorcycles more accessible to the public.
1913-1917: Destruction Leads to Creation
The demand for Harley Davidson motorcycles was skyrocketing. To keep up with
The motor company used photography extensively as a sales tool for dealers. Upon the studio’s completion, Harley-Davidson boasted of having “the most completely equipped commercial photograph studio and darkrooms west of New York City.”
The Harley-Davidson factory had evolved into a robust production facility, equipped with assembly lines and standardized parts. These advancements allowed the company to meet the increasing demand for their motorcycles while ensuring consistent quality. By 1915, they were producing over 16,000 motorcycles per year.
But with the new factory, the company also focused on “providing the best possible working conditions for its employees.” The design incorporated more windows to provide ample natural light and ventilation and numerous precautions to make the building “absolutely fireproof.” With an increase in women working for Harley, they also built a “girls’ restroom,” which was rare for a factory at the time.
While construction slowed after 1913, innovation and production were never faster. Instead of building new structures, they consolidated and automated as many manual operations as possible.
The company's output reached new heights as America became engaged in World War I (WWI). American generals saw motorcycles as agile machines capable of handling rugged terrain, transporting wounded soldiers, and running mounted artillery. The U.S. Army was demanding entire fleets of motorcycles. America’s need for motorcycles became so great that the government purchased nearly all of Harley-Davidson’s Model J bikes.
1918: The Automatic Shop
With tens of thousands of Harleys now stationed all over the world, civilian interest in the two-wheelers soared after the war. In 1918, the company broke ground on a building across the street from the original factory to house “automatic machines.” Publications would call it the “Automatic Shop.”
Between 1919 and 1926, Harley Davidson built another multi-story building near the “Automatic Shop,” three smaller buildings on the south side of the street. By 1926, the Juneau Avenue factory campus (as it’s known today) was complete.
Throughout the final construction process, Harley Davidson became the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world, selling more than 27,000 motorcycles in 67 countries.
Through innovative thinking, continuous improvement, and a commitment to quality, Harley Davidson laid the foundation for their enduring success, eventually becoming one of the most iconic names in motorcycle history.
Keeping History Running
Harley-Davidson’s factory has evolved dramatically since its small wooden shack in the Davidson’s backyard. Today, the company now has factories in York, Pennsylvania; Manaus, Brazil; Bawal, India; and Pluak Daeng, Thailand.
To help riders preserve this legacy, Competition Distributing supplies parts for vintage Harley-Davidson motorcycles. If you need help keeping your ride up and running, browse our store or let us know if you have any questions.