Ride Free: A Memoir by Willie G. Davidson

Story by Glenn Roberts//
December 12 2023

Willie G. describes his life, his work and an insider’s look at the modern history of the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company.

There’s no question that Harley-Davidson Motor Company has a legion of fans the world over, and it would stand to reason, then, that motorcycle history buffs have read more about the history of the Motor Company than any other motorcycle manufacturer. In fact, I can’t think of another motorcycle manufacturer that has more books written about them than Harley-Davidson.

Well, now there is yet another book on the market, but this one is different, as it shines some light on the inner workings of the company with a behind-the-scenes look at the world’s most enduring motorcycle manufacturer. Even the most steadfast motorcycle historian probably doesn’t know about all of the information laid out in this memoir by Willie G. Davidson.

Willie G. Davidson, museum, office, studio, painting, 151247

Willie G’s name is synonymous with Harley-Davidson. In fact, I’d bet that most motorcyclists the world over have heard of Willie G., and they can tell you who he is. Just in case you need a refresher course, though, Willie G. is a grandson of William A. Davidson, one of the four founders of the Motor Company, and a third-generation Davidson to work at the company, in this case as head of the design department.

Willie G.’s memoir begins by telling the inside history of the Motor Company, which, if you’re a history buff, you likely already know. But it gets more interesting once Willie G. becomes an integral part of the inner workings of the company.

Willie G.’s father, William H. Davidson, was president of the company for three decades, allowing Willie G. to basically grow up at the factory. He says he was born with gasoline in his veins and a crayon in each hand, so it only seems fitting that, after design college, he eventually took a job at Harley-Davidson. He began his work there in February 1963, starting up the company’s first design department, and he was the only designer in the department until 1974. He is also an accomplished watercolour artist and lover of all things mechanical.

Every Harley-Davidson design element since 1963, whether it was a motorcycle or parts thereof, a logo style or an advertising piece, came from him, or, later on, was approved through him based on his insight of the company and his goal of keeping the integrity of the company’s historical designs intact.

It’s safe to say that the Harley-Davidsons of today would not be what they are without his 50 years of design excellence. The Super Glide, Low Rider, Cafe Racer, the FX (factory experimental) line, the Softail line, the Road King, and the V-Rod are just a few of the motorcycles he designed, some of his design elements are still with us today because they’re timeless, like the Batwing fairing and the FLH saddlebags.

He was there when the company went public in 1965, for the take-over by AMF in 1969 and for the trials and tribulations that came from that merger, and he was one of 13 involved in the buy-back from AMF in 1981.

Photos of Harley-Davidson's 100th Anniversary Parade in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. Photos of the Willie G. Davidson family before the parade.

The book takes on a more interesting feel after the buy-back as Willie G. explains more of his insider knowledge of the company. For instance, the company was at the edge of bankruptcy on New Years Eve, 1985. Waiting on a call to decide which stack of papers to sign — one stack meant they found financing to keep going, the other stack was to be signed if financing never came through and would initiate Chapter 11. At the eleventh hour, literally, Harley-Davidson averted bankruptcy. It’s these kinds of intense personal memories that make this book fascinating.

If you are a fan of motorcycles and their past, this book is an important part of that history. If you’re a Harley-Davidson fan, this memoir by Willie G. Davidson is a must-read. It’s a true modern history of the company with information that you are unlikely to find anywhere else.

ISBN 9781637630860, 15.25 cm x 22.75 cm paperback, 288 pages with 59 colour images in two photo sections along with images of Willie G’s watercolour paintings,

$37 at Chapters/Indigo in person or online at indigo.ca.


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