Harley-Davidson University History

Harley History

Production for Harley-Davidson’s 1917 model year was devoted to making military motorcycles by nearly half of all motorcycles made. Immediately, Harley-Davidson recognized the new need for military quartermasters and mechanics to know the motorcycles front to back.

So, in Milwaukee, Wis., in July of 1917, the very first three-week intensive course was held. The students were nine corporals from Fort Sam Houston, Texas. The Harley-Davidson Quartermasters School was born.

It didn’t take long for the leadership at Juneau Avenue to realize how valuable the operation would be. After World War I ended, the name was changed to the Harley-Davidson Service School and enrollment was opened to any employee of authorized dealerships.

Judging by the numerous and diverse student records in the Archives, the Service School was an instant success. Student evaluations were rigorous, including tallies of the student’s total years of experience as a rider and repairman. A blank space even was placed on the form asking, "Was the student a troublemaker?"

The motorcycle school also evaluated students’ managerial and sales skills. Classes were offered in what was known for a time as the "Sales School." Classes were also expanded to police riders and mechanics and municipal employees, who had to maintain fleets of Harley-Davidson commercial and service vehicles.

Whatever new products Harley-Davidson would sell, classes would always be made available on those products. There was even a "Golf Car School" during the years Harley-Davidson sold golf cars.

During the World War II years, the focus of training shifted back to the military and the name "Quartermasters School" was revived. After the war, the general name "Service School" would last into the late 1990s, when the training efforts at large were consolidated into Harley-Davidson University.

Over time, the facility has trained dealers, technicians, employees and others in about every conceivable subject related to Harley-Davidson motorcycles. The School is also consulted from time to time on product development and engineering issues.

HDU, as it is now informally called, continues into the modern day stronger than ever and ready to bring people up to speed on a host of topics. Who knows if the original instructors of 1917 knew that they were founding one of the company’s longest running traditions?

Photograph courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives. 

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One of the few moto journalists based on the East Coast, Ron Lieback joined the motorcycle industry as a freelancer in 2007 and is currently Editor at Large at Ultimate Motorcycling. He is also the author of 365 to Vision: Modern Writer's Guide (How to Produce More Quality Writing in Less Time).