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May 21, 2024

Fascinating Vintage Photographs Capture Inside the Milwaukee Harley-Davidson Factory in 1918

Of the ‘Big 3’ American motorcycle manufacturers responding to US Military requests for motorcycles, it was Harley-Davidson that gave the matter the most thought. Every manufacturer had a good motorcycle to offer, and none were specialized at the kind of harsh service required by the military. Then again, motorcycling in the USA in 1918 was a pretty rough business, as paved roads only existed in the center of towns, and roads didn’t even exist in many parts of the West.

Thus, every American motorcycle was prepared for rough duty. And every manufacturer was prepared to do what it took to supply the military, as it meant good business... if the price was right. Apparently the military quartermasters weren’t willing to give carte blanche for extravagant military deals in WWI – unlike scandalous $5000 hammers today! The military was looking for good value from manufacturers, so squeezed them a bit on the price. As well, the Big 3 were competing against each other for contracts, so needed to keep prices in line.

Ultimately it was a matter of survival for each company to secure a contract for military motorcycles, whether large or small. The boys at Harley-Davidson, though, came up with a more attractive deal than Indian or Excelsior, which included free motorcycle service training schools for military mechanics, among other perks. The Milwaukee crew gave the best sales pitch, and secured the biggest contract.

These are photographs taken by US Gov’t inspectors, who visited the Harley-Davidson factory in 1918 to monitor the production methods and facilities of Harley-Davidson. The documentation of the Harley-Davidson factory, testing regime, and schools is far more extensive than with Indian and Excelsior, which must reflect their larger share of military motorcycle contracts.

Assembling room. 1918.

Manufacturing motorcycles and sidecars. 20,000 Harley-Davidson sidecars can be turned out in 12 months time by the Harley Davidson Factories. This is the final assembling operation on the sidecars. Manufactured in the plant of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Milwaukee, Wis.. Nov 19, 1918.

Battery of four-spindle automatic screw machines manufactured in the plants of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co., Milwaukee, Wis.

View of shipping platform of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Seven [rail] cars can be accommodated at one time.

Operator sandblasting sidecar frames. Note that he is not exposed to the sand blast at any time. In the plant of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. Milwaukee, Wis. Nov 19, 1918.

Close-up view of special sandblasting machine, showing how one compartment can be loaded while parts in other compartment are being blasted inside of the machine.

Enameling room showing dipping tanks. Note – each manufacturer used multiple methods of painting – dipping, spraying, and brushing.

Battery of light automatic screw machines.

Heavy automatic screw machines.

Gear shapers working on transmission parts.

Enameling room; spraying motorcycle forks. Note: the second method of painting – spraying – as used on the forks.

Cylinder machining room. Note: the Harley-Davidson factory was built of brick, and has far less natural light than the reinforced concrete Excelsior and Indian factories…

Heat treating department; there are 40 furnaces in dep’t. The dungeon of Hades! It must have been infernally hot in that room…

(Photos: National Archive, via The Vintagent)


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