A Slideshow History of the Harley-Davidson, Part 1

Click Here to Begin Slideshow As the line from the famous 1977 Grateful Dead album goes, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” My “trip” as a motorcycle rider/writer has brought me up close and personal to literally thousands of bikes of all makes, models and vintage… along with their owners. In fact, it was just two years after the album’s release that I published my first feature in a bike mag, so according to the calendar that’s nudging toward 40 years as I make my way literally and figuratively through life on two wheels. In the course of those travels, I’ve found myself covering events all over the country, as well as penning assignments for most of the motorcycle pubs in the U.S. and several overseas. In the process, with camera in hand, I’ve brushed up close to Harley history and some of it stuck. The sampling of images that follows stitches together an overview of those experiences, logging them in chronological order based on the bike’s production year, starting with the earliest offerings from the Milwaukee Marvel. To begin with, we have this WWI U.S. Army Motorcycle Sidecar Mounted Machinegun Trooper. In addition to spending time in the hallowed halls of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, peeking into their miles of photos and documents and seeing first hand its long and illustrious history, I’ve also have been collecting my own original images, some of which were created a century or more ago. Often they are postcards; billions of them were posted worldwide beginning in the late 1800s, as they were the equivalent of today’s text messages and Instagram. In this case, we’re looking at a colorized postcard from 1915 showing U.S. Army troops demonstrating a machine gun mounted sidecar combination with its three-man crew. The bike would very likely be a Harley-Davidson. While it officially first appeared in 1903 with its 27.4 cu. in. F-head motor, the company began supplying the U.S. military in 1915, its solo mount and sidecar machines gaining experience during 1916 when some 20,000 U.S. troops under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing were granted permission by the Mexican government to enter their country in pursuit of the bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. While they never caught up with him, even with their Harley and Indian motorcycles that could go where heavier vehicles could not, the American army learned valuable lessons, including those concerning the new “Motor Mobile Infantry” and “Mounted Infantry.” Oddly enough their quarry, Pancho Villa, was an avid motorcyclist himself, although preferring the Indian.

A Slideshow History of the Harley-Davidson, Part 1

Click Here to Begin Slideshow

As the line from the famous 1977 Grateful Dead album goes, “What a long strange trip it’s been.” My “trip” as a motorcycle rider/writer has brought me up close and personal to literally thousands of bikes of all makes, models and vintage… along with their owners. In fact, it was just two years after the album’s release that I published my first feature in a bike mag, so according to the calendar that’s nudging toward 40 years as I make my way literally and figuratively through life on two wheels.
In the course of those travels, I’ve found myself covering events all over the country, as well as penning assignments for most of the motorcycle pubs in the U.S. and several overseas. In the process, with camera in hand, I’ve brushed up close to Harley history and some of it stuck. The sampling of images that follows stitches together an overview of those experiences, logging them in chronological order based on the bike’s production year, starting with the earliest offerings from the Milwaukee Marvel.

To begin with, we have this WWI U.S. Army Motorcycle Sidecar Mounted Machinegun Trooper. In addition to spending time in the hallowed halls of the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, peeking into their miles of photos and documents and seeing first hand its long and illustrious history, I’ve also have been collecting my own original images, some of which were created a century or more ago. Often they are postcards; billions of them were posted worldwide beginning in the late 1800s, as they were the equivalent of today’s text messages and Instagram. In this case, we’re looking at a colorized postcard from 1915 showing U.S. Army troops demonstrating a machine gun mounted sidecar combination with its three-man crew. The bike would very likely be a Harley-Davidson.

While it officially first appeared in 1903 with its 27.4 cu. in. F-head motor, the company began supplying the U.S. military in 1915, its solo mount and sidecar machines gaining experience during 1916 when some 20,000 U.S. troops under the command of General John “Black Jack” Pershing were granted permission by the Mexican government to enter their country in pursuit of the bandit/revolutionary Pancho Villa. While they never caught up with him, even with their Harley and Indian motorcycles that could go where heavier vehicles could not, the American army learned valuable lessons, including those concerning the new “Motor Mobile Infantry” and “Mounted Infantry.” Oddly enough their quarry, Pancho Villa, was an avid motorcyclist himself, although preferring the Indian.

Getting Things Started

Fast forward to 2016, and I stopped by a new shop recently opened in Los Angeles, a place called Heroes Motorcycles under the guidance of master restorer Serge Bueno who had moved lock, stock and Harley barrels from his home in Paris. Among his selection of historic iron was this early single. The iconic milestone Harley first appeared as the Model 8D of 1908. On one of these machines, H-D co-founder Walter Davidson scored a perfect 1,000 points at the 7th Annual Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability Contest. He also set the FAM economy record at 188.234 miles per gallon. The word was out and Harley sales took off. White tires were period correct, black coloration coming years later.

Planking a 1914 H-D V-Twin on Route 66

Back in 2010, I was able to help welcome the contestants taking part in the 3294 Cannonball Coast to Coast Run for pre-1916 antique bikes as they crossed the finish line at the end of the famous Route 66 on the wooden planks of the Santa Monica, CA pier. Of the many great bikes taking part was Rick McMaken’s 1000cc V-twin of 1914 vintage. Again WWI came into play, helping to bolster sales. Thanks to the “Silent Grey Fellows’” reputation, the factory prospered, many bikes also going to the Dutch and Russian military, including gun and stretcher carrying models. Of the 26,486 Harleys bought by the U.S., some 7,000 went to England and France where they served as convoy escorts, dispatch, scouting and reconnaissance vehicles.

North Carolina Original 1915 H-D

In 2005, I made way to the tiny town of Maggie Valley, NC…basically a gas station and a great pancake house. The big draw is one of the best motorcycle museums in the world: Dale Walksler’s Wheels Through Time, a treasure trove of American bikes and historical memorabilia. I was fortunate to spend a whole week enjoying Dale’s famous hospitality. Seen here and still in original motion, Dale takes a V-twin through its cruisin’ paces. Walksler’s museum is a must-visit pilgrimage for Harley fans with a vast display of rare motorcycles and memorabilia. The best part is Dale’s encyclopedic knowledge on the subject and the fact he’s happy to give you a personal tour. And maybe ask him to fire up one of his Crocker’s and do one of his famous burnouts.

Flathead on Display

Speaking of museums, another must-go center for all things vintage motorcycles is Yoshi Kosaka’s “Garage Company,” located in Inglewood, CA, aka Los Angeles adjacent. In addition to a veritable sea of bikes are many displays of parts and memorabilia - for instance, this flathead engine or 45 (742 cc) that showed up in 1930, growing in displacement over the years and powering H-D’s Servi-Cars until 1973. Yoshi is also known for founding the famous Willow Springs Raceway Corsa Motorclassica annual event, which draws vintage racers from all over the world for three days of enthusiast run-what-you-brung fun.

Florida Flathead Flat-out Custom

Having done the high school thing while living in the Sunshine State, I took the opportunity to re-visit in January 2014 for the first ever Iron and Clematis Vintage Motorcycle Festival, staged by the Vintage Iron club of West Palm Beach. Tons of great stock and custom bikes rallied for the event, which as a result has now become an annual event. In this case, Harley fan Raymond went for the John Deere Green look for his pristine ‘45 chopper.

1925 “Crusty Cool” Harley Peashooter

In this case, it was only a 30 minute putt from my digs near UCLA to the “Powerplant” shop on poshy retro cool Melrose Ave., an emporium of hand-made custom bikes and assorted apparel and parts orchestrated by builder Yaniv Evan, the doors flung open in 2002.

One of the bikes on display was this ’25 Peashooter. The 1920s-1960s were the heyday of H-D racing, both factory sponsored and privateers - all of which helped weld the Milwaukee Legend. The Peashooters were lightweight (215 lb.) but stout machines, first appearing in 1925 after the AMA launched a ‘21 cubic inch’ racing class. Harley made two versions: a side-valve flathead and an overhead-valve. The flat track racing ‘S’ was the racing version of the OHV, with a detachable cylinder head. The bike’s name came from the exhaust sound. Peashooters also ended up on the street, some “chopperized” like this original iron on display at L.A.’s “Powerplant” shop on Melrose Ave.

Scary Cool Ride – 1929 H-D JD Cannonballer

Around Halloween time I met up with Mike Vils at the 2015 Los Angeles Griffith Park Sidecar Rally on his self- restored ’29 Harley-Davidson JD, which he’s named “Mean Green” and now uses as his daily rider. In 2012, Mike took up the challenge of the 16-day Cannonball Run for pre-1930 bikes, riding the 74 cu.in. V-Twin JD from Newburg, NY to San Francisco. He lucked out with entry number 13. Mike’s beefed up the performance, saying, “It started out making 6 HP, now makes 30 and will go 70mph all day long.”

His plans for the bike? “Just ride the wheels off it. That’s what they were built for, not to get dusty in some museum.”

In 1925, H-D launched a modernized styling of the JD that featured a new rounded teardrop gas tank, lower seat height and wider tires. The technological advances also included iron alloy pistons in place of the earlier aluminum, and for improved engine and transmission lubrication the factory added 16 Alemite fittings. But your menu of colors was still the same as initiated in 1917: one color only, Olive Drab. Many ended up fitted with sidecars, a popular addition of the day.

WWII – Harley-Davidson and Thompson .45 Machinegun

Here’s another WWII era original postcard from my collection, featuring tons of tanks but with a Harley as the center focus.

As early as 1937, the U.S. military visited the Harley-Davidson factory intent on finding a suitable motorcycle for the war they saw as inevitable. Toward that end, the Milwaukee Motor company sent the head of its factory service school on a cross country tour of every Army camp east of the Mississippi, logging 200,000 miles on his Harley EL “Knucklehead.” By 1939, the Army had compared various Harleys and Indians as well as a BMW clone produced by the Delco Corporation. It chose Harley-Davidson, but required that it could reach 65 mph, be able to ford streams 16 inches deep and not overheat at slow speeds slogging through muddy fields. So was born the tank tough shaft-driven XA in 1942, joining the much larger number of WLA’s produced for the military.

Harley Shows up in WWII Serbia – Original Photo

How the pristine civilian 1930s VL1200 made its way to the Balkans is a mystery, but the young soldier is plenty pleased to pose with it.

WWII Army WLA Original

Seen soldiering on at the El Camino Swap and Bike Show – note the metal ammo container strapped to the frame tube and the very, very sprung solo seat.
For many years, many of us trucked over to Torrance, CA and the annual El Camino motorcycle swap meet, perched on the roof of the college’s parking structure. In this case, the year was 2007 when we came upon this war veteran. True, the roof beneath its tires did shake a bit when a bike rolled by, but not a problem for us. However, the powers that be decided to update the building, so the show was over; the event moved out to Irwindale, which is not as accessible, but rumors are circulating that the event will be heading back to El Camino, so we’re hopeful.

’45 Harleys Go To War Again – Original Photo

Always on the lookout for unusual bike photos, I had to have this snapshot of a WWII vintage U.S. Army Flathead, soldier and Jack Russell Terrier off for a spin. These bikes came home as surplus and made possible the new phenomena called “Choppers;” the war vets looking for some of the adrenaline rush they had experienced during the war years and not interested in abiding by the boring rules of polite society. It all came to public attention with the infamous July 4, 1947 Hollister incident, described in the media erroneously as a biker riot. Then in 1953 Marlon Brando came along as “The Wild One” and the rest is history, real or imagined.

Minty Montana Knucklehead and Shovelhead

Yes, I’ve been to wild and wooly Montana several times…wouldn’t mind living there if it weren’t for the -30 degree snow storms. But the rest of the year you’ve got beautifully maintained highways, virtually no traffic and the Montana wide open spaces and wildlife. It was good enough for Evel Knievel to call home. I usually visit friends living in a town called Anaconda, named not for the giant snake, but an extinct mining company that managed to pollute the area now being reclaimed by government detox efforts. In any case, I ventured from Anaconda to the nearby historic town of Phillipsburg, aka “P-Burg,” where I found many riders enjoying the scenery. Among the classic iron was this minty, fully accessorized Knucklehead resting side by side with an equally pristine Shovelhead. Many consider the Knucklehead the most beautiful of Harley engine designs, first appearing in 1936 before being replaced by the Panhead in 1948. Knucks offered 990cc and 1208cc displacement motors.

A Customized Knucklehead Up Close and Personal

Looking Good

This Knucklehead is reconfigured as an Old School Chopper including springer front end, peanut gas tank, rigid frame and sissy bar as final touches.
I spotted this bike and rider at one of the first Venice Vintage Motorcycle Club events held in the Santa Monica, CA area. The club, made up of young professionals who like to build their own bikes on a budget, is now preparing for its 10th Rally and Show in September, which will as usual draw thousands.

Poetry in Motion – 1946 Knuckle …next to last year of production.

Just in time, I swung out my camera to catch this image as the rider took off from 2014 pre-Born Free bike rally party held at the Garage Company.

Panhead Fever

This All-American Pan, the epitome of the proverbial Kodak moment, was spotted during my aforementioned visit to the Wheels Through Time Museum. Like Kodak, the much-loved Panheads which debuted in 1948 also went off production, in this case after ‘65. Pans offered get up and grunt from 74 or 82 cubic inch engines.

Most Famous Panhead

The iconic 1969 film Easyriders co-starred Peter Fonda and his Capt. America custom. This bike was spotted at one of the El Camino swap meets and shows back in the day.

Capt. America Repro – Gotta Love those Upswept Fishtails

Untold numbers of clones have been built over the years - an ode, homage, an obsession with perhaps the best known Harley of them all. This one was built by Kiyo while at the Garage Co. Kiyo’s got his own shop now in Glendale: Kiyo’s Garage.

Hopefully you’ve enjoyed this look at Harley history so far, but don’t worry – we won’t stop here! We still have a ways to go, so check back Thursday for the rest of the story.

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