1903 Harley-Davidison | The Origin

H-D Motorcycle History

In the Antique Motorcycle magazine, a scholar misinterpreted information that he believes is related to the 1903 origin year of Harley-Davidson Motor Company. The source itself, a never-before-seen 1908 Bulletin for Harley-Davidson dealers, is credible; however, the speculation derived from it is not. The Bulletin states that there was at least one unmarketed prototype motorcycle in 1903. The author of the magazine piece speculates that this would mean that only one motorcycle was produced in 1903 and that it was not brought to market. The author further guesses that post-1903 was when Harley-Davidson Motor Company really began its production for general sales.

Nothing could be further from the established fact, which has been researched and proven by the Harley-Davidson Archives’ staff. Following is just a sampling of H-D Archives research that disputes the author’s claim.

An article appeared in the March 31, 1914 issue of The Milwaukee Journal, titled “Harley-Davidson Motor Co.: Its Marvelous Growth and Development, Hum Of Wheels Spins Romance – True Tale Reads Like Fiction.” It states that “The first order came immediately after the first motorcycle was completed and tested, and the business has been growing ever since the three machines were built that year.” Even in the article, “that year” is 1903.

(The Milwaukee Journal puts a motorcycle that never was marketed into the year 1902. Keep reading for more details.)

In support of and leaving no doubt about The Milwaukee Journal piece, is the May 18, 1916 issue of Motor Cycle Illustrated. In the magazine, Walter Davidson is directly quoted as saying, “We found in 1903 that there was a market for motorcycles, C.H. Lang, of Chicago, having heard of us in that year and buying one-third of our output. We made three motorcycles that year and Lang bought one of them.”

According to Walter Davidson, one of the original Four Founders, three Harley-Davidson motorcycles were made in 1903. Moreover, it is clear from all of the research conducted by the H-D Archives department that these three motorcycles were made after the one that was never marketed, which could have been produced in 1902 or the summer of 1903, prior to the fall season of production. Nowhere does it state that this first production run would have been in any other year than 1903.

Indeed, in 1904 there were engine improvements, and there were even more improvements in 1905, especially in frame technology. Yet production and sales began when it was revealed “in 1903 that there was a market for motorcycles,” and “we made three motorcycles that year” with Harley-Davidson’s first dealer buying “one-third of our output.” In fact, a 1912 Harley-Davidson advertisement boasts about one of the 1903 models as having traveled 83,000 miles without major repair!

The scholar assumes that because one prototype motorcycle was not marketed in 1903, then none were. As Harley-Davidson has now long past the 100th Anniversary in 2003, it is important to keep in mind that much of the information being published regarding the years 1901-1906 is speculative and unproven.

Photographs courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives