History of Harley-Davidson: 1950-1959: Milestones and Legendary Models
The 1950s were a pivotal time in Harley history as old competition fell by the wayside while a new threat emerged.
World War II was a booming period in Harley-Davidson history, and yet the company knew that it needed to continue to evolve in a post-war world. So even while it was supplying the military with a steady supply of motorcycles, Harley continued to develop its Panhead engine, which replaced the Knucklehead in 1948. The Panhead would soldier on all the way until 1965, but its distinctive look still holds a special place in the heart of bikers.
On the heels of a new engine, the debut of Hydra-Glide front forks in 1949 was so revolutionary that Harley-Davidson didn’t need to make too many revisions for a number of years. And yet, the 1950s proved to be a pivotal decade for both the legendary motorcycle manufacturer and its impact on American pop culture. After all, this was the decade that saw the rise of rock n’ roll, the civil rights movement, and the great “space race.”
Larry Headrick rode his Tom Sifton-prepared Harley-Davidson to three individual wins and the AMA Grand National Championship in dirt track racing. His success that season took the racing world by surprise, and his championship win still stands as one of the biggest upsets in AMA history. Sadly, Headrick’s racing career was short-lived. Following the 1950 season, he was struck by a car, his leg shattered. The injury promptly forced Headrick into retirement. Meanwhile, Harley-Davidson riders won 18 of 24 National Championships in 1950, setting six new racing records along the way in a truly dominant effort.
In 1952, Harley-Davidson introduced a new hand-clutch/foot-shift option for its Big Twins. At first, the idea had a difficult time gaining traction with bikers, as new ideas often do. But within a few short years, the vast majority of riders had made the switch. Harley continued to offer hand-shifted models until 1978, but few people actually bought them.
In 1952, Harley-Davidson introduced the side-valve K model, which replaced the W-Series 45. The new K-Series utilized an integrated and redesigned Flathead V-twin engine and transmission, telescopic forks, and Harley’s first-ever rear suspension system. The K model was designed specifically to compete with smaller, sportier imported offerings at the time. The K-Series was one of the most important bikes in Harley-Davidson history, as it eventually evolved into the iconic Sportster.
Harley-Davidson’s reputation took a bit of a hit as they fought to protect their brand from foreign competition. In 1952, the company was charged with restrictive practices after requesting that the U.S. Tariff Commission place a 40% tariff on all imported motorcycles.
Harley-Davidson’s racing success and motorcycle racing’s popularity inspired the release of the 1952 film The Pace That Thrills. The film’s plot centers around a newspaper reporter caught in a love triangle between two racers, who battle it out on and off the track for her affection.
1953 was an important year for Harley-Davidson for two big reasons. The first of which is the fact that it marked the legendary company’s 50th Anniversary. To celebrate, H-D unveiled a special logo that prominently featured a “V” to honor the engine that was so instrumental in getting them this far. A bar overlaid reading “Harley-Davidson” was flanked by the words “50 years American made.” Interestingly enough, the special logo can be found on the front fender of all 1954 models. Why Harley chose to do this on 1954 models instead of 1953 bikes is a mystery, especially since subsequent anniversary models use 1903 as the company’s date of origin.
The Death (and Birth) of a Rivalry
Arguably the biggest news for Harley in 1953, however, was the demise of its arch rival – Indian. The two fought it out in the marketplace for 50 years, but Indian had been in financial trouble for quite some time at this point. The combination of Harley’s success and a host of foreign imports contributed to the failure. From this point on, Harley-Davidson would be the sole U.S.-based motorcycle manufacturer for the next 46 years.
The popularity of smaller, imported bikes prompted Harley to take action with a new kind of motorcycle. In 1953, they introduced the Model 165, which replaced the Model S-125. It featured a new, larger 165cc engine and helped Harley continue to recruit younger riders in the face of stiff competition.
The Wild One, widely considered to be the original outlaw biker film, debuted in 1953. The Stanley Kramer film stars Marlon Brando as Johnny Strabler, a character whose persona became a true cultural icon in the 1950s. The movie shined a light on motorcycle gang violence and left a lasting impression on everyone who’s ever seen it.
The K model’s 45-inch Flathead was enlarged to 55-inches for 1954. The larger engine utilized stronger flywheels, new rod bearing retainers, redesigned ports, and bigger intake valves to bump horsepower up from 30 to 38. Also in 1954, Harley-Davidson’s special 50th anniversary logo was affixed to the front fender of all its models.
Dirt track racer Joe Leonard won the first-ever AMA Grand National Championship in 1954 on his Tom Sifton-tuned Harley-Davidson. For the first time, the championship was determined over the course of several races around the country, rather than one single race. Leonard won 8 of 18 races that season, and went on to win two more AMA national titles before moving on to a successful automobile racing career. 1954 also marked the first of eight straight years that the Grand National Championship would be won by Harley-Davidson racers.
Harley’s Hummer debuted in 1955, introducing the world to a stripped-down, basic model geared toward younger riders. The simple yet popular bike was named after Dean Hummer, an Omaha, Nebraska-based Harley dealer who led the nation in two-stroke sales. The Hummer used a redesigned B-model engine, displacing 125cc, for power. As basic a bike as it gets, the Hummer featured a magneto ignition and came without a battery, horn, brake light, or turn signals.
1954 began a seven-year run of victories by Harley-Davidson at the Daytona 200. All of which were earned by racers Brad Andres, Johnny Gibson, Joe Leonard and Roger Reiman. Every win, by every rider, came on Harley-Davidson KR models.
Elvis Presley posed for the cover of the May issue of The Enthusiast while sitting on a 1956 model KH. Harley-Davidson had published the monthly magazine since 1916, focusing on pictures and interesting stories, along with event listings and advertisements for new models, parts, and accessories. Presley purchased his new KH in 1956, posing for the magazine as a 21-year old rising star. Little did Harley know just how much of an impact Presley would have on their brand in the years to come.
1957 saw the debut of a new motorcycle called the Sportster. Sporting a 55-inch overhead valve engine, it only took one year before the new model was dubbed the first of the “Superbikes.” Since then, the Sportster has gone on to become one of Harley’s most enduring and best-selling models of all time.
The year 1958 saw the introduction of both the first hydraulic rear brake and a new rear suspension on Big Twin models. These changes prompted Harley to change the Hydra-Glide to the Duo-Glide as it moved its big touring bikes into modern times. Also in 1958, magneto ignition systems debuted on some Sportster models.
Carroll Resweber won the first of four consecutive AMA Grand National Championships in 1958. It was a remarkable feat that set a record that stood until 1998. Resweber won a total of 19 AMA Nationals races over six seasons on a variety of tracks and surfaces. Sadly, his career was cut short following an accident in 1962. Otherwise, Resweber might still hold a number of AMA records.