Motorcycle: Faces Places - The Founders
Date: Sunday, October 31 @ 13:47:31 UTC
Topic: Motorcycle, Motorcycles, Motor Cycle
• WILLIAM S. HARLEY
"Young Bill" began work at the age of 15 in a Milwaukee bicycle factory, and even as an enthusiastic dabbler soon showed engineering skills. As able in the saddle as he was in the workshop, he later became Harley-Davidson's chief engineer and treasurer, positions he held until his death from heart failure on 18 September 1943.
On graduating from university in 1908, he had set about designing Harley's first successful V-twin, which appeared the following year, although it was 1911 before the design became as dependable as earlier singles.
Bill was later responsible for a host of classic Harleys, not to mention the first clutch, kick start and many other developments. In 1914, he established the factory's race shop, which scored 26 major wins in its first season. During both world wars, his contacts with the military were vital to the company's (and the nation's) success. Active in the governing body of American bike racing, the American Motorcycle Association (AMA), he was also a keen wildlife photographer in private life.
• ARTHUR DAVIDSON
A pattern-maker by trade, Arthur had the reputation of being the most outgoing of the founders, his energetic temperament making him particularly suited to sales. Arthur became the company's secretary and general sales manager, roles he discharged with distinction until his death in a car accident on 30 December 1950, at the age of 69. His own son, James, and James' wife, were also to die in a road accident 16 years later.
Perhaps Arthur's most lasting legacy was the establishment of Harley-Davidson's nationwide and international dealer networks. Beginning in 1910, he had no fewer than 200 American outlets by 1912, later expanding to include official Harley-Davidson dealerships as far away as Australia and New Zealand. In the early years he practically ran the AMA "because there was no-one else around". After the Second World War, he spent an increasing amount of time at his farm in Waukesha County where he raised prize-winning Guernsey cattle.
• WALTER S. DAVIDSON
Trained as a mechanic and machinist, Walter was a naturally gifted rider who brought the emergent Harley-Davidson company its first competition success. In June 1908, he entered a Harley-Davidson single in a two-day endurance run in New York's Catskill Mountains. The sole Harley in a field of 61, he scored a "perfect" 1,000 points, outstripping all of the preferred bikes. One month later, Walter was at it again, winning a Long Island economy run at no less than 188mpg (66km/litre) over 50 miles (80.5 kilometres).
Walter is best remembered, however, as Harley-Davidson's first president. Generous and scrupulously honest, he also became a director of First Wisconsin, the state's biggest bank. Walter died on 7 February 1942, still in charge at Juneau Avenue.
• WILLIAM A. DAVIDSON
If Walter was the head of the company, "Old Bill" Davidson was regarded as its heart and driving force. Perhaps the least able rider of the foursome. Bill quickly found his niche as works manager, a vital position in a company expanding as quickly as Harley-Davidson. A big, burly character equally at home hunting and fishing as on the factory floor, he had a generous but paternalistic attitude to Harley's employees. Despite his bitter opposition, the factory first became unionized in April 1937. Within two years. Old Bill was gone, the victim of diabetic complications and the first of the founders to die. His son, William H., believed the stress of losing the battle to the unions hastened his father's death.
• SECOND GENERATION
In the late 1920s, the founders' sons began to join the company. William H. Davidson joined in 1928, although he had worked on the shop floor while a student at the University of Wisconsin. A year later, he was joined by Gordon and Walter C. (both sons of Walter S.) Davidson, William J. Harley and, later, John E. Harley. Of the other sons, Allan Davidson, son of William A., worked only briefly for the company and died young; Arthur Davidson Jr. made a successful business career in his own right. Four of these "first generation founders" were to make major contributions to the American icon the company would become. William J. Harley succeeded his father as the company's chief engineer. He became vice president in charge of engineering in 1957, a position he held until his death in 1971. A connoisseur of fine wines and cheeses, he evidently needed little encouragement to visit the Harley-Davidson factory in Varese, Italy, after the take-over ofAermacchi.
John E. Harley, younger brother to William J., was elected to the board in 1949 and ran the Harley parts and accessories business, today one of Milwaukee's major profit centres. He rose to the rank of major during the Second World War, including a spell instructing army motorcyclists.
Walter C. Davidson ultimately followed his uncle Arthur as vice president of sales, earning a reputation during the Second World War as the man who could somehow get materials other companies could not. After the war, he fought Harley's increasingly rebellious dealer network, as Triumph and BSA in particular began offering cheaper and faster products in the American market. Harley's efforts to hold the fort not only backfired at the time but were to lead to legislation which would later open the door for the Japanese. When AMF look over the company in 1968, Walter saw the writing on tlie wall and took early retirement.
William H. Davidson, the son of William A., made the most lasting mark of all. A skilled rider (he won the prestigious Jack Pine Enduro in 1930 riding a Model 30DLD), he was later described as "the mortar that cemented the company". He joined Harley-Davidson lull-time in 1928, was elected to tlie board in 1931 and became vice president six years later. For the next five years, he was tlie driving force behind Harlev-Davidson's vital government contract work. When Walter S. died, William H. was ihe obvious candidate to lead llie company, becoming president "by common consent'' 16 days later, on 23 February 1942.
William H. had no doubts about where the company's future lay: "We tried lor a lon^: lime to convince people that motorcycles liad some utility value," he once presciently observed, "[but they] have never been anything but pleasure." In 1971, three years after the AMF takeover, he was appointed chairman of Harley-Davidson, but felt that the new company had "pulled my teeth" and soon resigned. Nor did he fully share AMF's ambitions, observing with typical foresight that AMF "thought Harley-Davidson could become another Honda. That's ridiculous... we were never meant to be a high production company."
• WILLIE G. DAVIDSON
Willie G. is a remarkable man from a family of remarkable men. Yet it's perhaps surprising that he began his working life not with Harley-Davidson, but cutting his teeth with Ford and Excalibur cars. By the time he joined his grandpa's company in 1963, he had a broad schooling in industrial design — although he had also found time to design a new Harley-Davidson tank logo in 1957. He has spent most of the intervening years as vice president of styling — arguably the single most important role in such an image-conscious company. In another quirk of fate in which Harley seems to specialize, the model that made Willie G.'s name, the FX Super Glide of 1971, was the first major new model produced by the much-maligned AMF. A decade later, he was one of the prime movers of the buy-out from AMF orchestrated by chairman Vaughn Beals. AMF's hold on Harley-Davidson may not have lasted but Willie G.'s has. During the week, his domain is the Willie G. Davidson Product DevelopmenttCenter, a space-age structure of steel and glass tucked behind the Sportster Engine Plant on Wauwatosa's Capitol Drive. Yet to the hiking world he's the man in the trade-mark black beret at gatherings such as Sturgis and Daytona Bike Week, ogling hardware just like any other Harley fan.
Willie G. has an uncommonly successful stylist's touch, yet he also has the common touch. To many he is Harley Davidson, and when he finally hangs up his leathers, there are two Davidsons waiting in the wings. Son Bill, who joined the firm in 1984, inns HOG, while daughter Karen runs the MotorClothes division. Harley-Davidson is truly'a family affair.
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