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EXPLORATIONS - November 20, 2002: Harley-Davidson at 100 - 2002-11-19

((Sounds of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle))


Many people around the world know exactly what that sound is. This is Mary Tillotson.

((Motorcycle sounds))


And this is Steve Ember with the VOA Special English program EXPLORATIONS. The sound you just heard is the engine of a Harley-Davidson Motorcycle. Today, we tell about this famous American company. And, we tell about the year-long party that is celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company.



The history of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company began in nineteen-oh-three, in a small wooden building in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Twenty-one-year-old William Harley and twenty-year-old Arthur Davidson built a machine that looked like a bicycle with a small engine. A friend of the two men bought one of the first motorcycles they made. They only made three motorcycles that year.

On the door of the little wooden building, they painted a small sign. The sign said, “Harley-Davidson Motor Company.”


The little company grew very quickly. In nineteen-oh-six, it opened a new factory on Juneau Avenue in Milwaukee. The company now had a total of six workers.

Two years later, in nineteen-oh-eight, the city of Detroit, Michigan bought the first motorcycle to be used by a police department in the United States. It was a Harley-Davidson. In nineteen-twelve, Harley-Davidson exported a motorcycle to another country for the first time. That country was Japan.

By nineteen-twenty, Harley-Davidson was the largest motorcycle company in the world. More than two-thousand dealers sold Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Most were in the United States. However, dealers sold the Harley-Davidson motorcycles in more than sixty-seven countries around the world.

The motorcycle Harley-Davidson produced in the nineteen-twenties no longer looked like a bicycle with an engine. It was a fast, powerful machine that provided good transportation. Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders were winning races and setting speed records throughout the United States.


Something else happened in nineteen-twenty that would have a lasting effect on the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. The motorcycle became known as a “Hog.” The company tells this story to explain why.

A motorcycle racer named Leslie Parkhurst broke twenty-three speed records on his Harley-Davidson. Mister Parkhurst’s racing team had a pet animal they took with them to the races. That pet animal was a small pig, also called a hog.

When a member of the team won a race, he would take the pig for a ride around the racetrack. The racing fans loved the show. They would shout, “The Hog won again.” Today, if a motorcycle rider tells you he rides a Hog, you know he is talking about his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.



Harley-Davidson has made other products besides their famous motorcycle. Beginning in nineteen-twelve, the company began selling clothing for motorcycle riders. Most of this clothing had the name Harley-Davidson printed on it.

In nineteen thirty-eight, Harley-Davidson began making a special motorcycle jacket for the New York City Police Department. The jacket was made of heavy leather material. Harley-Davidson still sells a very similar jacket today. It is still popular with motorcycle riders. It is also popular with people who just like leather jackets. Harley-Davidson also sells pants, shirts, shoes, boots and just about everything else a motorcycle rider might want.


The Harley-Davidson Company has faced financial problems several times in its history. The nineteen-thirties was a period of severe economic problems known as the Great Depression. In nineteen-twenty, Harley-Davidson sold twenty-seven-thousand motorcycles. However, in nineteen-thirty-three, all of the American motorcycle companies sold only six-thousand machines. About one-hundred other American motorcycle companies failed during the Depression. Harley-Davidson survived.


During the nineteen-sixties, a new threat faced Harley-Davidson. Japanese motorcycle companies began selling their machines in the United States. Companies like Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki became popular. These companies produced good motorcycles that were not very costly.

At the same time, Harley-Davidson had tried to expand too quickly. Their motorcycles were more costly than the others. The factory had production problems. Oil often leaked out of the engines. The engines often failed.

People told a joke about Harley-Davidson. They said you had to buy two of their motorcycles -- one to ride and one for the extra parts you would need to repair it.


In nineteen-sixty-nine, Harley-Davidson officials sold control of the company to a much larger company. They planned to use the money they received in the sale to improve their products. Harley-Davidson struggled to stay in business during this time. The company says people who loved their motorcycles continued to buy them and helped keep the company from failing.

In nineteen-eighty-one, thirteen top officials at Harley-Davidson bought the company. They started making improvements. They began developing a much better product. Two years later, Harley-Davidson asked the International Trade Commission for help. The International Trade Commission agreed and gave protection to Harley-Davidson for five years. This protection added to the price of large Japanese motorcycles.

Less than four years later, Harley-Davidson asked the International Trade Commission to end the protection. No company had ever done this before. By lifting the protection, Harley-Davidson was saying it could compete with any motorcycle company.


Today, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company is one of the most successful companies in the United States. It produces about two-hundred-forty-three-thousand motorcycles each year. It sells all of them. The company has about eight-thousand workers. About half of them ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. These riders include the top official of the company, Jeffrey Bleustein. Harley-Davidson workers not only make the product, they use it. They also help the company by suggesting improvements.

Forbes Magazine is a top financial and business publication in the United States. Each year it lists the companies that it considers to be the most successful. Last year, Forbes Magazine named Harley-Davidson its Company of the Year. That same year, Harley-Davidson announced that the company had made a record-breaking profit during the past fifteen years.



Harley-Davidson and the people who ride their famous motorcycles are busy celebrating the one-hundredth anniversary of the company. They are doing this by holding a year-long birthday party. The party began in July of this year and will end in August of next year. The celebrations this year are local birthday parties. Harley-Davidson motorcycle riders around the world are making plans to celebrate in many cities next year.

For example, in March, the party will be held in Sydney, Australia. In April, the party will move to Tokyo, Japan. In June, riders in Europe will travel to Barcelona, Spain to celebrate. In July, Harley-Davidson owners will ride to Hamburg, Germany for the party.


In August of next year, Harley-Davidson riders will begin what is called the “Ride Home.” Harley-Davidson riders will cross the United States from four directions. Most of these riders will come from the United States. However, many will come from Europe and Asia.

There will be birthday parties held by Harley-Davidson dealers at several cities during the trip. Plans call for the “Ride Home” to end in Milwaukee, Wisconsin by August twenty-seventh.

A four-day celebration and birthday party will follow. More than two-hundred-thousand Harley-Davidson riders are expected to attend the events. Top company official Jeffrey Bleustein says Harley-Davidson is very excited about sharing the company’s history with family and friends from around the world.

((Motorcycle sounds, fades to theme))


This program was written by Paul Thompson. It was produced by Caty Weaver. I’m Mary Tillotson.


And I’m Steve Ember. Join us again next week for EXPLORATIONS, a program in Special English on the Voice of America.