In Memoriam Of Walter Davidson (1876-1942)

Today, February 7th, 2012, it will be exactly seventy years that died Walter Davidson, one of the four founders of Harley-Davidson.

One of my fans from Holland named Victor Willense publishes a Dutch Blog called Bikermaniac and offered me the English version of a story he wrote about Walter Davidson.

“The Davidsons’ grandparents emigrated in 1857 with their eight children from the little town of Brechin in Northern Scotland to Milwaukee, WI USA. In Milwaukee, son William married Margaret McFarlane. Besides William Jr., Walter and Arthur (co-founders of Harley-Davidson), they had three other children.

Walter Davidson started out as train engineer in Kansas. In 1903 he helped his brother Arthur and his friend William Harley to develop the first Harley-Davidson engine. As test driver he achieved numerous victories in competitions and races. Walter became president and CEO of the Harley-Davidson company in 1907. By then, the company already had 36 employees. In 1908, Walter, still unknown to the public, rode his likewise unknown Harley-Davidson in a reliability and economy race, where he scored maximum. The press was thrilled and suddenly Harley-Davidson was the number one motorcycle brand in the USA.

Walter was a charismatic businessman with an overwhelming personality, combined with humility, humor and professionalism. He was a true tycoon and his paternal attitude was admired, feared and even hated. One of his most controversial ideas was about absolute brand loyalty. Walter believed – even demanded – that all motorcycle dealers should exclusively sell products of a single manufacturer. The competitors – including Indian, Excelsior and Cleveland – succumbed under the pressure and agreed to this heavy rule, which was settled in secret meetings. In Walter’s opinion, brand loyalty meant survival. Back then, dealers often disagreed and there was a lot of resistance.

Family policy was directed by Walter, and though his uncompromising decisions often conflicted with the dealers’ and customers’ wishes, Walter always acted with the interest of the Harley-Davidson company in mind. His personal leadership reflects upon the fame of Harley-Davidson. Looking back on what has become of the major names in the American motorcycle industry, one can only marvel at Walter’s linear vision, so often depicted as dumb, stubborn and dishonest. He was an impeccable perfectionist, a man with a vision and a future. History has proven him right.

Walter Davidson died of exhaustion and liver ailment. He was one of the most influential personalities in the American motorcycle industries. He held positions within the AMA and was also a member of several other companies. Exactly seventy years ago – on February 7th, 1942 Walter Davidson passed away at the age of 66.

5 Responses to “In Memoriam Of Walter Davidson (1876-1942)”

  1. 1 Luis Feb 7th, 2012 at 9:40 am


  2. 2 Matt Feb 7th, 2012 at 7:47 pm

    Can’t decide if he looks more like my old high school principal or my dentist. Both of which ironically ride Harleys.

  3. 3 Matthew Olsen Feb 7th, 2012 at 9:30 pm

    rest in peace Walter. THanks for everything

  4. 4 Kirkland Feb 8th, 2012 at 1:06 am

    These two H. Wagner books provide a well rounded view of the founders and their individual talents they brought to the company.
    Arthur Davidson made parts patterns from the unnamed German draftsman & Bill Harley’s designs. A pattern that began as a flat piece of paper.


    All of which would make an interesting historical film, especially the 1901-1920 years when there were so many manufacturers led by a handful of colorful people, the likes of Ole Evinrude, with all the foundry’s and buzzing activity and aftermarket parts and “parts bikes”. 🙂

  5. 5 rags Feb 8th, 2012 at 8:55 pm

    rip walter thanks

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Cyril Huze