Ride Free – A Memoir by Willie G. Davidson Book Review

Ride Free - A Memoir Book Review

The word “iconic” is a word I tend to try to avoid because it is so overused in current journalism that it has lost much of its meaning. This, however, is an exception. Now in his 90th year, Willie G. Davidson is a truly iconic figure in the motorcycle world. He has done a lot of living and, as the grandson of one of the company’s founders, his life has been inextricably entwined with America’s best-selling motorcycle brand. Willie G.’s new book, Ride Free – A Memoir, is more than an autobiography—it is an intimate, personal history of Harley-Davidson and a man who poured his life force into it. Further, the term “iconic” also applies to many of the Harley-Davidson products of his creative designs, such as the Super Glide, XLCR, Fat Boy, V-Rod, and many more.

Ride Free - A Memoir Book Review - Willie G. Davidson
Willie G. Davidson.

Willie G. is not simply a gifted designer who became H-D’s head of product design sixty years ago; he is also an accomplished artist and great writer with perhaps more in-depth knowledge of the Motor Company’s 120-year history than any living soul. Indeed, 20 years ago, he wrote the definitive Centennial company history, 100 Years of Harley-Davidson.

As you might expect, 100 Years of Harley-Davidson is loaded with historical narrative detail and lavishly illustrated with motorcycles, events, and personalities that were key parts of Harley-Davidson’s first century. Ride Free — A Memoir is something quite different. Certainly, there is a great deal of insight into the company’s history, told from Davidson’s unique perspective. But, much more than that, he reveals more about his personal life before and during his professional life inside the company.

Ride Free - A Memoir Book Review - Willie G. Davidson, Artist

The book is rich in seldom-seen detail. For example, Davidson gives the background on his creation of the ever-popular red, white, and blue Harley-Davidson “1” logo. Willie G. also sheds light on the long-standing legend among some Harley-Davidson fans that American Machine & Foundry (AMF) nearly sank the company during its period of ownership of H-D from January 1969 to June 1981. Turns out that even the very origin of the takeover story had an added, little-known element revealed in Ride Free – A Memoir.

An excerpt: “The Harley faithful tend to look at AMF as the big bad wolf, but they did a lot of good, keeping our company going through difficult times. The problem was, it seemed like every positive came with a negative in some other area. With Jeff Bleustein leading the charge in engineering, AMF was pumping a lot of money into rebuilding our capabilities, bringing in people with valuable expertise from other industries, looking at problems we were having with our brakes, with our clutches, trying to improve the performance and reliability of key components.”

Willie G. also addresses tough product development decisions that had to be made. Among the biggest was the cancellation of the Nova project, which would have brought bikes with Porsche-designed, liquid-cooled V-twin, V4, and V6 engines into the product line. Launched in the mid-1970s, fueled by AMF capital, Nova was being advanced simultaneously with the development of the Evolution V-twin engine. Davidson explains in Ride Free — A Memoir that, after the $80 million buyback from AMF by Willie G. and a dozen investors, there just wasn’t enough in the R&D budget to bring Project Nova to market.

Willie G. Davidson watercolor.

These insights and many more, both personal and professional, make Willie G.’s Ride Free — A Memoir a significant and unique contribution to motorcycle literature and history. Even if the reader is not necessarily one of Harley-Davidson’s devoted fans, or not even a motorcyclist, the book is a revealing study of life in a major manufacturer, of hard choices, toughness in the face of setbacks, tenacity, and stunning success despite long odds. Students of business, industrial design, manufacturing, and art will all find Ride Free — A Memoir to be an instructive textbook on life in the fast lane written by somebody who spent his entire career there.

Ride Free — A Memoir Fast Facts

  • Title: Ride Free — A Memoir
  • Author: Willie G. Davidson
  • Published: 2023; paperback; Forefront Books, Dist. By Simon & Schuster
  • Format:  288 six-by-nine-inch pages; 59 images in two photo sections; 15 reproductions of Willie G.’s watercolor paintings in a separate section.
  • ISBN: 978-1-63763-086-0 (print edition), 978-1-63763-087-7 (digital edition)

Ride Free — A Memoir Price: $28 MSRP