Harley-Davidson has in business for 116 years — but the iconic American company is facing numerous challenges

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Harley-Davidson isn’t just the most famous motorcycle company – it’s also one of the most legendary and beloved brands in human history.

Harley-Davidson got its all-American start in 1903, at the dawn of the “Motor Age.” Two friends got together and combined bicycles with newfangled engines. Horses would never forgive them. Fast forward 116 years, and Harley’s market capitalisation is nearly $US6 billion.

That’s not to say that the past 100 or so years have been a completely smooth ride. Harley made it through two world wars and a very rough restructuring during the financial crisis. And now it’s up against new challenges as CEO Matt Levatich works to globalize sales amid a US market decline, recruit younger riders, and contend with the itchy Twitter finger of President Donald Trump, who has praised and penalised Harley in equal measure.

For more on the story, listen to the Harley-Davidson episode of our “Household Name” podcast.

Let’s take a look back at Harley-Davidson’s long and illustrious history:

In 1903, William Harley and Arthur Davidson founded the company that would bear their names. William’s brother Walter (shown here) became the company’s first president and an early Harley racer.

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Harley-Davidson’s first motorcycles were essentially bicycles with engines.

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Two world wars helped Harley-Davidson to create the brand’s image of freedom that it’s still known for today. The company produced bikes for both World War I and World War II.

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The motorcycles earned a reputation for performance and attitude. Here’s the world-land-speed-record holder Malcolm Campbell astride a Harley in 1935.

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Robert Craig “Evel” Knievel put Harley XR-750s to use in his widely watched stunt jumps.

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And, of course, Harley’s rebellious image was enhanced Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper, and their Harley choppers hit the road for 1969’s “Easy Rider.” (With Fonda recent death, both stars are now sadly no longer with us, as Hopper passed away in 2010.)

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Hopper took a seat on Fonda’s bike a few years later.

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Harley continues to be known for big highway cruisers that can sell for more than $US40,000.

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The Harley rider community is vast. And it likes nothing more than to gather for massive annual rides, especially the one that ends in Sturgis, South Dakota.

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The company is still proudly headquartered in Milwaukee.

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Two American factories — one on Wisconsin and one in Pennsylvania — produce the legendary V-twin engine …

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… and the all-American motorcycles that have made the company’s reputation.

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Harley hit a rough patch during the financial crisis and refocused the company on the core brand. The Buell sport-bike brand was dropped, and Harley shed the Italian MV Agusta nameplate.

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The comeback worked, but Harley has new problems: declining ridership in the US and an ageing customer base. And then there’s President Donald Trump, who’s messing with business by threatening trade wars and complaining about Harley shifting production outside the US.

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CEO Matt Levatich, consequently, has the toughest job in the business.

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But he’s pushing Harley into the future. The all-electric LiveWire is scheduled to arrive in 2019.


And Harley has been developing smaller bikes to appeal to younger riders …

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… while maintaining its cruiser game to compete with a resurgent Indian, one of Harley’s historic rivals.

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Ultimately, the company’s success could depend on getting a new generation of riders into the saddle and convincing them to “live to ride and ride to live.”

Regardless of what happens, Harley will remain Harley. It isn’t yet time for the sun to set on the greatest motorcycle brand in history.


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