NEW YORK — Detroit may have been the birthplace of the American automotive industry, but when it comes to motorcycles, the locus shifts about 300 miles west to Milwaukee, Wisc. While the latter city is perhaps most famous as the beer capital of the world, it’s also where the iconic Harley-Davidson brand sputtered and rumbled into life.
William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson grew up in the same neighborhood in the 1880-90s, bonded in part by a shared fascination with mechanics and design. Harley had worked in a bicycle factory since he was 15 and Davidson was a manufacturing pattern maker. In 1901, a chance visit to a vaudeville show proved life-changing for both when they saw an act starring a woman riding a three-wheeler driven by a single-cylinder engine.
Soon after, the two men began trying to build a similar engine to power a bicycle and recruited a few friends to assist. These included machinist-engineer Ole Evinrude, whose name is now famous for boat motors, as well as Davidson’s brother, Walter, a railroad machinist. They first developed a bicycle outfitted with a belt drive and an engine, but it was not powerful enough. “By 1903, they started over with a new, larger engine and frame designed to fit together,” according to the Harley-Davidson company website. After moving their budding business from the Davidson family basement to a 10-by-15-foot backyard shed, they sold their first motorcycle. Within a year, they doubled the size of the factory, and in September 1907, they incorporated the Harley-Davidson Motor Company, which soon built a second and third factory to meet demand. Dealers joined the ranks also, selling Harley bikes and organizing community rides.
Today, Harley-Davidson doesn’t merely produce motorcycles — it touts a lifestyle centered on finding freedom and adventure on the open road. With about 200,000 Harleys sold worldwide annually since 2019, the brand is beloved by riders, especially for its customized bikes, dubbed “choppers,” which became part of California culture in the 1950s.
Harleys are deeply entrenched in pop culture as well, appearing in many television shows and movies, such as Peter Fonda’s ride-or-die Captain America Harley in 1962’s Easy Rider. An especially memorable Harley cameo came when Arnold Schwarzenegger rode one in the second Terminator movie to save young John Connor, who is destined lead the resistance against a future cyborg uprising. That very bike, a Harley-Davidson FLSTF Fat Boy, attained $170,000 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Heritage Auctions. The motorcycle’s strong auction result demonstrates the enduring appeal of Harleys and the power of the presence the bike had on screen and in the Terminator 2: Judgment Day movie posters, which showed Schwarzenegger seated on it and carrying a Winchester shotgun.
Harley’s so-called “bar and shield” logo, dating to 1910, is world famous. The logo is simple but powerful, with a horizontal bar inscribed “Harley-Davidson” laid vertically across a shield bearing the words “Motor” and “Cycles.” Reportedly, the shield signifies stability and strength.
Signs are favorite targets across various collecting fields, with early porcelain and neon signs typically among the most wanted. Examples that were displayed outdoors at Harley dealerships and show their wear well command strong prices. A circa-1930s bar and shield porcelain neon sign sold for $70,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2023 at Dan Morphy Auctions. The sign, marked Everbrite, was once displayed at a Harley dealership in Racine, Wisc. Spruced up with fresh neon and a replaced transformer, the sign looks just as good as it did when it was brand new.
While collectors need to stay alert to avoid reproductions, fantasy pieces represent an interesting segment of the Harley-Davidson market. These intriguing confections have their place, and certain collectors are open to acquiring them so long as the sellers are scrupulously honest and transparent. A good example of the form is a nostalgic tin sign with a clock that incorporates early-style Harley and cycling images in its design. The 80-by-47in single-sided sign, likely made for a collector with a passion for early bikes, brought $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Matthews Auctions, LLC.
Rocker cans for motor oil are collectible in their own right and have a loyal following among petroliana mavens. Even those in rough shape can draw serious sums depending on the age and brand. A five-gallon Harley-Davidson rocker oil can, which shows its age but is still attractive, made $4,750 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Matthews Auctions, LLC.
Every collector has their own approach to seeking Harley-Davidson memorabilia. Some may choose to focus on signs while others are more into the bikes themselves. There is no wrong way to build a collection, and there is enough Harley-Davidson material on the market to outfit a whole room or garage or even a whole house. A perfect addition to the space that’s come to be known as a “man cave” would be a 1999 Sega Harley Davidson Motorcycles pinball machine that realized $3,250 plus the buyer’s premium in December 2022 at Merrill’s Auctioneers and Appraisers.
Collectors with less room to work with can avail themselves of smalls, such as pins, patches, lighters, toys, steins and barware. The near-universal popularity of Harley-Davidson has given rise to a truly staggering range of collectibles. Its brand name can be found on jewelry, knives, clocks and figurines — there’s even a Harley-Davidson Barbie doll. If you can imagine it, it likely exists.