Few companies and brands are as lionized and idolized as Harley-Davidson (NYSE:HOG). The iconic motorcycle company has more than 100 years of history in its rearview mirror and has seen many trends come and go. Today, it’s the dominant big-bike manufacturer, and we’re all familiar with it — but how well do you know its story?
Below are seven facts about Harley-Davidson that you might not know. Some are critical to its history and some are just plain fun. All of them, though, reflect an essential part of the mystique behind the bar-and-shield brand.
1. The Harley V-twin engine was born in 1909.
Last year, Harley-Davidson introduced the Milwaukee Eight, the ninth Big Twin engine in its history, and the first new one in 15 years. But its very first V-twin engine was mounted to a frame in 1909, and they’ve been inextricably linked with Harleys ever since, even if that very first version was a poor performer, and only lasted one year in production.
However, Harley-Davidson didn’t invent the V-twin, nor was it the first to use it on a motorcycle. That distinction went to its rival, Indian Motorcycle, which today is owned by Polaris Industries (NYSE:PII). Indian introduced the V-twin in 1904, and began putting it on racing bikes two years later. Indian also issued a muscular new big V-twin in 2013, the Thunder Stroke 111.
2. In less than 20 years, Harley became the world’s biggest motorcycle maker.
Although it was founded five years after Indian Motorcycle, which used its racing bikes to generate a huge following, by 1920 Harley-Davidson had become the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer, with over 2,000 dealers in 67 countries. It was Harley’s “Wrecking Crew” racing team — a name it earned through its dominance of the sport in the mid-1910s, and one that Indian’s top race crew would also later adopt — that helped propel Harley to the top.
Today, Honda Motors is counted as the bike maker with the highest output, but it builds everything from small scooters to Gold Wings, from 50 cc engines to big 1,800 cc blocks. In the world of big bikes with engines 601 cc and over, Harley-Davidson is still the king, and in the U.S. still commands a 50% share of the market.
3. The first Harley-Davidson carburetor was made from a tomato can (maybe).
According to many sources, the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle had a single-cylinder engine, a top speed of 25 mph — and used a tomato can for a carburetor. Unfortunately, this one may be more fiction than fact. While online reference Encyclopedia.com cites it as part of the company’s history, and the book Everything You Need to Know: Harley-Davidson Motorcycles mentions it as part of Harley lore, others are more skeptical.
In another book, At the Creation: Myth, Reality, and the Origin of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle, 1901-1909, author Herbert Wagner discounts the story. The grandson of the company’s founder, Willie G. Davidson, is also doubtful, noting, “I can’t see them settling for something so primitive.”
Regardless, cool story, bro, and it’s one we’d like to believe is true.
4. Clothing accounts for 5% of Harley’s total sales.
Sure, Harley-Davidson sells a lot of motorcycles — over 262,000 bikes in 2016 alone — and they account for the bulk of the its $6 billion in annual revenue. But Harley-branded gear generates a hefty chunk of change too.
Although general merchandise represented just 5.4% of revenue last year, that still translates into almost $285 million worth of leather jackets, boots, T-shirts, jeans, and more. It is the apparel that helps even non-owners identify with the Harley-Davidson lifestyle, and gives its riders an edge as some of the the most die-hard, enthusiastic, and loyal brand representatives anywhere.
5. Harley once made motorcycles in Japan.
Despite its image as an icon of American manufacturing, Harley-Davidson also has facilities in India (opened in 2011) and an assembly plant in Brazil. It was recently criticized for its plans to open a new manufacturing plant in Thailand.
Yet these were not its first forays into foreign manufacturing. It licensed the Japanese company Sankyo to build copies of its bikes for the Japanese market during the Depression, with production beginning in 1935. It’s said it was the Japanese bikes that kept Harley afloat. After World War II, though, production was never quite the same, and the bike business was sold to Showa in 1950. Though the division stopped manufacturing the bikes in 1959, Showa continues to supply parts for Harley-Davidson today, notably its front forks.
6. There’s a reason Harleys are called “hogs.”
The name “hog” is synonymous with Harley-Davidson bikes, and though you might expect it to have something to do with their imposing, hulking size (or sound), in reality, the nickname was adopted because Harley racing team member Ray Weishaar owned a piglet, which became the team’s mascot. After winning competitions, team members would take a victory lap with their porcine mascot.
Coca-Cola pegs the emergence of the nickname to a 200-mile race in Marion, Illinois, in 1920, where Weishaar was photographed giving the piglet a drink of Coke after the Harley team took all three top spots.