Co-founder, Harley-Davidson Motor Co., 1903
One of the original founders of Harley-Davidson, William S. Harley was working as a draftsman at the time he and Arthur Davidson built their first motorcycle. Harley served as Harley-Davidson's chief engineer and treasurer until his death from heart failure on September 18, 1943.
Born in Milwaukee on Dec. 29, 1880, Harley began working in a bicycle factory at the age of 15. A childhood friend, Arthur Davidson, also went to work at a young age. Both boys were mechanically inclined and learned as much as they could about bicycles and, later, motorized bikes.
Harley was known to be ambitious. He was the sole college graduate among the four founders of Harley-Davidson and was known for his riding skills. After years of hands-on learning and formal education, Harley became a draftsman.
Harley and Davidson began tinkering with gasoline engines and rigging the engines to their bicycles. The two men, along with Arthur's older brother, Walter, built their first motorcycle they felt was practical for road service in 1903. It was after this first motorbike was built that Harley enrolled at the University of Wisconsin to study engineering. He worked his way through school by waiting tables and working part-time as a draftsman at a Madison plant. Upon graduation, he actively rejoined his partners, Arthur, Walter and William Davidson, the latter a toolmaker who had become affiliated with the company in the meantime.
Harley had a rare gift for the practical. He rode many endurance races, testing out his own designs. Being an avid rider, Harley knew what the riding public wanted. His keen judgment and ability had a profound influence on motorcycle design.
During both world wars Harley was the contact between Harley-Davidson and the War Department. He served on the AMA Competition Committee for 24 years. He enjoyed the annual trek to Daytona Beach, Florida for the races, where he had a chance to meet and talk with hundreds of riders from around the world.
An avid outdoorsman, Harley enjoyed fishing, hunting and golf. Later in life he took up wildlife photography and sketching.
© 2002, American Motorcyclist Association