Childhood friends William Harley and Arthur Davidson founded the company in Milwaukee in 1903. They began building engines out of available parts within a small wooden shack. Within a few years, they were able to open a small factory and quickly grew their company and developed the company's iconic V-shaped engine. The company soon sold their products to the American military, which bought tens of thousands of bikes during World War I. While the nation was home to dozens of motorcycle companies in the early 20th century, Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle were the only two American motorcycle manufacturers to survive the Great Depression. As a result, the U.S. military again placed large orders with Harley-Davidson during World War II.
Harley-Davidson experienced changes in ownership in the 1960s, and the company went public in 1965. A decline in finances saw AMF sell its stake back to the current owners, which included members of the founding families. The Davidson family’s involvement in the day-to-day running of the company continues, with Willie G. Davidson serving as President of Styling.
The ‘80s and ‘90s saw the introduction of famous model families that continue to this day, like the Softail, FLT and Road King lines, joining classic models like the Electra Glide. In the ‘90s Harley-Davidson also solidified its hold over Buell motorcycles, taking a controlling stake in the American sportbike/street bike manufacturer and selling Buell motorcycles at many locations.
Since the turn of the century, Harley-Davidson has retained its image as a classic American symbol of transportation. But the company is reaching out to other riders with the introduction of more performance-oriented models, like the V-Rod – significant as the first liquid-cooled production Harley. As the current riding demographic ages, Harley is working to build products that appeal to younger consumers. The company is also working to build its international consumer base, a task that became difficult in the summer of 2018 when European companies announced retaliatory tariffs in response to President Donald Trump's tariffs on foreign products.