Harley Passion and History

Shifting Gears with Buzz Kanter

SHIFTING GEARS by Buzz Kanter

SHIFTING GEARS, by Buzz Kanter, Publisher

There are few brands today with as deep and interesting a history as Harley-Davidson

Okay, let’s face it. Motorcycling has little to do with transportation. It’s more about our passion, right? And Harley enthusiasts are among the most deeply passionate riders. I mean, how many people feel so connected to a company or brand that they tattoo the logo on their body?

If that’s not enough to illustrate how deep this passion goes, how about the staggering number of people who put Harley-Davidson stickers or decals on their cars, trucks, and toolboxes? And let’s not go into the cherished collections of Harley T-shirts, caps, and jackets!

Whoever first stated “Anyone who does not study history is bound to repeat it” did not have Harley in mind. And in many ways, that’s not a bad thing when you take in all the great old Harley designs and marketing devices being reused on T-shirts, gas tank emblems, and even motorcycle designs and paint schemes. There are few brands today with as deep and interesting a history as Harley-Davidson. You don’t have to look very hard to find the many wonderful books and Harley-oriented resources worth your time and attention.

I can’t count all the amazing museums like the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee; Wheels Through Time in Maggie Valley, North Carolina; the Barber Museum outside Birmingham, Alabama; the National Motorcycle Museum, Anamosa, Iowa; the AMA Hall of Fame near Columbus, Ohio; Motorcyclepedia, Newburgh, New York; Sturgis Motorcycle Museum, and so many more.

Like most enthusiasts, I have read, discussed, and memorized vast amounts of Harley trivia over the years. Without relying on Google, I can tell you what years Harley built and sold most of its models like JDs, VLs, WLs, Knucks, Pans, Shovels, Evos, and more. I know when they added standard front brakes (1928), rear suspension (1958), and electric start (1964).

Did the last answer inspire you to send me a “gotcha letter” because you are sure the first electric-start Harley was the 1965 Panhead? Well, the first Harley electric-start Big Twin was the Panhead, but Harley first offered an electric start on the three-wheeled Servi-Car in 1964. If that piece of Harley trivia didn’t fit in with what you might have believed, I can assure you there are other Harley “facts” that might need closer investigation and additional research.

Know what happened to the old handcrafted shed where the first Harley-Davidson motorcycles were built? It was lovingly taken apart and carefully stored away after a series of new factory buildings replaced it. Some years later an employee, looking for extra storage space, tossed it out, thinking all that old wood was just a pile of junk.

If you are sure Harley-Davidson started making motorcycles 115 years ago in 1903, you might be in for a shock. Although Harley has long taken the position that it started building motorcycles in 1903, there is a lot of credible research stating otherwise. I’m not going into detail here, but I highly recommend reading an out-of-print book by Herbert Wagner called In the Creation: Myth, Reality, and the Origin of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, 1901-1909. It chronicles the very early years of Harley-Davidson’s history and is well worth the read.

In addition to reading and learning about old Harleys, I also love to ride them. I rode a 1915 Harley coast to coast in 2010 on the first Motorcycle Cannonball, an event in which I participated again in 2012 on a 1929 JDH Harley and in 2014 on a 1936 VLH Harley. Plus, I raced a 1915 Harley boardtracker in the first Sons of Speed races in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, last year.

I made my first motorcycle pilgrimage to Milwaukee from our magazine offices in Stamford, Connecticut, in 1993 on my then new Harley FXR to celebrate Harley’s 95th anniversary. I rode my 1955 Harley Panhead there for the 100th (read about it on page 90), and I plan to ride to Milwaukee on a new Harley this year for the 115th celebration. I sure hope you can be part of the fun there, too!

Ride safe, ride smart, have fun.

Buzz

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