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Growing Up Harley-Davidson - A Book Review

Jean Davidson tells what it was like growing up a Davidson

This article is a review of a motorcycle book called Growing Up Harley-Davidson, written by Jean Davidson. This motorcycle book is available through Voyageur Press, Inc.

Have you ever picked up an old family photo album belonging to your grandmother and started looking at the old family groups, especially one where everyone is sitting around a long dining room table? Ever wondered what they might have been saying when the pictures were taken 75 years ago? Well, what if the photos were of the Davidson family of Harley-Davidson fame?

This book by Jean Davidson, granddaughter of Walter Davidson, one of the four founders of the Harley-Davidson Co., tries to give you some candid answers. This book of 272 pages has, by my count, 104 black and white Davidson family photos and drawings that go back as far as 100 years.

Are you into genealogy? Did you know that the father of the three Davidson founders' was the seventh child of his own father who came to America from Scotland in 1858? Imagine that. If there had been no seventh baby born, there would be no Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

Jean Davidson is related to Willie G. Davidson. Each of their grandfathers was a founding member of the Harley-Davidson Co. If you want to read the history of the Motor Company through the pages of a family album with accompanying text, this is a must read.

Here are just a few facts: In 1901 William S. Harley, 21, and his boyhood chum, Arthur Davidson, 20, dreamed and designed a single cylinder motorcycle. They loved to fish but hated the time it took to get to their favorite fishing holes. They thought a motorized bicycle would help them enjoy the trip and also get them there faster. They fabricated all the parts but didn't know how to assemble them, They called upon brother Walter in 1903 to build the first prototype and ride it. They built an 8 X 10 shed whereupon their sister painted the words, "HARLEY DAVIDSON MOTOR CO." That year they produced and sold three motor-bicycles. The early H-D motorcycles were built with quality. The first model was called the Silent Gray Fellow. It was quiet, painted gray, and built to be a trusted friend. Quality was to be a watchword for many years. In 1909, Bill Harley unveiled the first 45 degree 61 cu V-twin by grafting a second cylinder to the existing single.

Here's a quote:

    "The founders of Harley-Davidson virtually lived at their place of work. Work was their life. Families came second to their quest for success. If their children wanted to see them, they would have to go where their fathers worked. My grandfather once said, 'We worked every day, Sunday included, until at least ten o'clock at night. I remember it was an event when we quit work on Christmas night at eight o'clock to attend a family reunion'."

Here's another quote:

    "I used to love spending my time down on the assembly floor. The men would set me on the line as the parts came through and I would ride along. No one ever said, 'Look out!' or 'You shouldn't be down there by yourself.' I always felt perfectly safe because all the men thought of me as their little girl."

Much has been said about the time that H-D sold all their blueprints, tools and dies to the Japanese at the dawn of the 1930s. This was actually done because the market for H-D motorcycles had fallen 80 percent by 1933 and the company was hurting. The Japanese used these purchases from H-D to begin making their version of the Big Twin bearing the name "Rikuo" on the gas tank. The money received from the Japanese enabled H-D to get back to work and they soon came out with the "Knucklehead" which ensured their survival.

Apparently Jean was a wild child and at the age of 15, borrowed her dad's Electra-Glide to ride to Milwaukee to visit her boyfriend. She did not have a license but was so full of confidence that she rode 25 miles wearing only a swimming suit and tennis shoes.

When she arrived at her destination and pulled in the driveway, she gunned the engine. Everyone thought she was crazy to ride that big motorcycle and take so many risks. To Jean, she just wanted to have fun.

You won't want to put this book down. The pictures alone are priceless. There's even a story about the 1969 TV series, Then Came Bronson, where H-D attempted to change its image with its Sportster rider making a never-ending odyssey across the United States.

So learn about genealogy, motorcycles, the evolution of Harley-Davidson, the battle between Harley and Indian, and especially how a couple of 20-something kids turned getting to their local fishing hole into a world-wide empire. Read Jean Davidson's "Growing Up Harley-Davidson" and gain a new perspective on why Harley-Davidson celebrated its one hundredth anniversary in 2003.

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