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Champions of Design: Harley-Davidson

Once favoured by the likes of Elvis Presley, the US motorcycle brand is still renowned for its style and quality.

In 1901, 22-year-old William S Harley completed the blueprints for a petrol-driven engine designed to fit into the framework of a pedal bicycle, an idea that few others were pursuing at the time. Working with his childhood friend Arthur Davidson, and the latter's brother, Walter, Harley's plans were realised in 1903, when the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was made available to the public.

The brand has flourished since, thanks to regular technological innovation. Whether through the acquisition of the Tomahawk Boat Manufacturing Company in 1962, to incorporate fibreglass into its motorcycle production, or the engine adaptations designed to keep its bikes at the top of Daytona racing, Harley-Davidson has managed to consistently produce a winning formula.

Throughout this time, it has maintained an appeal that has led many to consider it as the leading brand of the motorcycle industry. This reputation has been cemented by the famous people who have endorsed Harley-Davidson. In 1956, for example, Elvis Presley, posed on a KH model for the front cover of the magazine Enthusiast.

In 1914, the manufacturer entered the world of motorcycle racing, and within a few years the Harley-Davidson team had earned the nickname of the 'wrecking crew', such was its success.

Its achievements in races and other competitions helped to highlight the durability of its bikes, as well as their speed. This competitive success is as much a part of its identity as its famous bar and shield logo, which was designed in 1910.

The reliability of Harley-Davidson bikes is a key feature of its heritage. This aspect of the brand was first showcased in 1908, when Walter Davidson scored a perfect 1000 points at the 7th Annual Federation of American Motorcyclists' endurance and reliability contest: word of this achievement spread quickly.

Its early successes helped to make Harley-Davidson the motorcycle manufacturer of choice for the US Army in World War I and II. In 1918, almost half of all Harley-Davidsons produced were sold for military use. By the end of World War II, the company had produced almost 90,000 WLA models for the US Army.

Harley-Davidson's independence ended for a period beginning in 1969, when it merged with the American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF). The brand endured several difficulties in the 70s, but in 1981, 13 of its senior executives decided it was time to part ways from AMF, and 'the eagle soars alone' became its unofficial slogan, with its reputation for standout quality soon restored.


Andy Knowles, chairman, JKR

By Andy Knowles, chairman, JKR

Swing your leg across the saddle of a Harley and say 'hello' to your alter ego.

In today's conservative society, owning a 'hog' expresses your individuality.

On a Harley-Davidson, quantity provides its own quality. A sheer hulk of metal, macho styling and a deep, throbbing beat announce your arrival from a block away, a world apart from the frenzied conventions of modern, high-performance bikes. Though antiquated and expensive, Harleys have dominated the 'heavy motorcycle' category by epitomising the freedom of the open road.

Harley-Davidson reminds us that the progressive evolution of a retro style can deliver enduring success, an outcome doubtless helped by the five-decade tenure of Willie Davidson as head of styling.

But, like many a brand acquired by Wall Street, this champion reminds us of the perils of allowing myth to exceed reality. The business has pursued unwise tactics such as excessive brand licensing, crude corner-cutting and even the purchase of a motorhome maker to recapture ageing customers! Too often management has perpetrated crimes against the brand, as it struggles to reconcile its image as an iconoclast with investors' motivations.

Perhaps the most important lesson from Harley-Davidson is that design can provide auto-correction, ensuring that mistakes are quickly forgiven by returning to the visual DNA - the past always provides a key to the future.


1901: William S Harley completed a blueprint drawing of an engine designed to fit a bicycle.

1904: The first Harley-Davidson dealer opened.

1917: Roughly one third of all Harley-Davidson motorcycles built in this year were sold to the US Army.

1920: Harley-Davidson became the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

1945: Harley-Davidson produced almost 90,000 WLA models for the military during World War II.

1956: Elvis Presley posed on a KH model for a magazine cover.

1969: American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) bought HarleyDavidson.

1981: In mid-June Harley-Davidson broke from AMF, and the phrase 'the eagle soars alone' became a rallying cry for the brand.

1987: Harley-Davidson was listed on the New York Stock Exchange.

2009: The company announced its expansion into the Indian market.

View more Champions of Design


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