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Motorhead Memo: Part 2: Growing pains

By Kip Woodring

Motorhead-web

They say that when Mahatma Gandhi was asked what he thought of Western civilization, he replied that he thought it might be a good idea. Probably apocryphal, but such a brilliantly acerbic remark shouldn’t be wasted, so I’d like to think it was originally and more properly applied by someone to the notion of manufacturing in what came to be known as the “American System.” What was actually new about the notion was that it was not manufacturing, it was more like “facturing” without the “manu.” Since manufacture means “made by hand,” it was what had already been happening for nearly 2,000 years. “Facture,” as in made, seems more accurate, particularly when applied to a factory. Let’s face it: we don’t live in a society where things are made by man anymore, things are made by machines. That includes machines like motorcycles. More about that in a minute.

Machine manufacturing, in the general sense, was mostly what we got out of the Industrial Revolution. Steam engines started doing all the heavy lifting and pulling and digging and more, but it still took lots of human sweat, toil and skill to handle everything from harvesting crops to making watches. When you think about it, in a very real sense crude steam engines, simple machines and simpler tools enabled man to keep his hands free for more important tasks. Today, we take this very much for granted but back then it was almost witchcraft. At least that’s what we’ve been taught. Let’s see how it holds up under scrutiny.

The iconic little wooden shed that was the first place H-Ds were made wasn’t a factory and didn’t last long. Ironically, the growth of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. was so spectacular that by 1909, the little shed was called back into service, and new motorcycles had to be created outdoors! (No fun in the winter!) In the meantime, as the photo shows, William, George and Fred were building not just motorcycles but more factory space. The five-story part to the left wasn’t completed until about 1920, but the “yellow brick” two-story section was operational and swamped! Sawtooth, to the far right, built in 1909, was the most modern machine and fabrication shop in the industry, yet along with Yellow Brick was gone, obsolete, before the Juneau Avenue (Chestnut Street then) plant was finished.

The iconic little wooden shed that was the first place H-Ds were made wasn’t a factory and didn’t last long. Ironically, the growth of the Harley-Davidson Motor Co. was so spectacular that by 1909, the little shed was called back into service, and new motorcycles had to be created outdoors! (No fun in the winter!) In the meantime, as the photo shows, William, George and Fred were building not just motorcycles but more factory space. The five-story part to the left wasn’t completed until about 1920, but the “yellow brick” two-story section was operational and swamped! Sawtooth, to the far right, built in 1909, was the most modern machine and fabrication shop in the industry, yet along with Yellow Brick was gone, obsolete, before the Juneau Avenue (Chestnut Street then) plant was finished.

Last month (for those of you who missed it) we learned that “mass production” for most of the 18th and 19th centuries amounted to hiring enough people to build, mostly by hand, as many of “whatever” as was required to meet demand, treating efficiency (or the lack thereof) as a constant and hoping the labor force would be skilled enough to make the product well. The Springfield Armory, initially, was no different. As demand increased for weapons, they hired skilled labor who used simple tools to get the job done. Same deal in the U.S. watch industry when it was launched. Skilled people are expensive. Tools are too. But here’s the thing: once a tool is paid for it keeps on producing for free for a long time. Finding someone who knows how to build a gun (or a watch) from scratch gets real hard, real quick. They simply don’t grow on trees. Of necessity more than genius, the armaments folks figured out that developing better, more sophisticated tools meant they could build more guns without hiring gunsmiths! A little training on how to run the machine, and anyone could do it! “Anyone” is cheaper than “someone,” so spending on machines made sense—skilled labor not so much. The watch industry in this country started out trying to hire experienced watchmakers and soon went bust. Not enough of that skill to go around and, worse, when you hired someone of average or less-than average skill the product was crap. There were two models for successful watchmaking in the world in the middle 1850’s, the English and the Swiss. The English for 200 years led in technology and craft. They had an ancient guild that trained candidates in the “art” of horology and, perhaps, more importantly, kept a great many secrets about the craft part. Their watches were considered the best, but hand making every single part for every single watch, one at a time, meant they weren’t exactly easy to find parts for, or to repair, or even consistent. No two alike, and none too alike, in many cases. The Swiss did things a little differently. Their system amounted to having farmers make specific parts all winter, then delivering those parts to a particular location for assembly. It worked well because a rural family had extra seasonal income when the crops were frozen over and if, say, all they made was hands or gears they got pretty damn good at it. Meanwhile, American watch companies stumbled onto the same sort of solution the armament guys had. The breakthrough was hiring (you guessed it) an engineer from the armaments industry to design and build the machines required to make watches. Not having watchmakers in charge, with all that ingrained and irreversible experience, inhibiting habits and mental baggage involved meant the company could build watches from first principles. It wasn’t easy, but once the machines were designed and proven to be precise enough (yes, this is heading somewhere) the difference was dramatic and the success immediate! The man hours required to make a watch dropped from more than 18 hours by skilled craftsmen to less than five by machine operators! Even better, from about 1860 to nearly 1970, machine-made American watches were the best ever produced and made by the millions. (As were our guns!)

Though we’ve briefly covered the conventional aspects of the Industrial Revolution—factories, mass production, assembly lines, interchangeable parts and machinery—still there remained the missing piece of the puzzle that makes the American system the system. How do we explain the fact that results of how we were making things here over 150 years ago is what every factory on earth is still emulating? Well, maybe a peek at the state of the art when Bill Harley and the three Davidson brothers got in the game will help us discover just that.

Inside Yellow Brick, there was technically mass production going on, just not on a massive scale, yet. Doing things this way, a man at a bench wrenching individual motorcycles together one at a time, wasn’t efficient compared to what was to come. But it was an assembly line of sorts. The car guys at this point had already figured out how to bring the work to the man on the move.

Inside Yellow Brick, there was technically mass production going on, just not on a massive scale, yet. Doing things this way, a man at a bench wrenching individual motorcycles together one at a time, wasn’t efficient compared to what was to come. But it was an assembly line of sorts. The car guys at this point had already figured out how to bring the work to the man on the move.

At the turn of the 20th century, a new technology took hold. It had been around for close to 25 years already, but word spread a little slower in those days. And the “word” was “engines,” as in internal combustion engines! As big a game changer as cell phones and computers ever were, these engines gave the world the promise of mobility; individual, personal mobility. Then as now, mobility means freedom and to a young Bill Harley, it was intriguing. Young Bill had built a motorcycle or two from scratch before he was 22 years old. (Like those British watchmakers, eh?) His enthusiasm must’ve been contagious because the Davidsons were on board right quick and before you can say, “quit your day job” they had formed a company. History tells us that by 1907, the four of ’em actually found a dealer, sold a few bikes and the future was looking so bright William Davidson quit his job with the Milwaukee Road Railroad as (wait for it) a tool room foreman. This implies that he was more than a little familiar with the concepts we’ve been discussing. Probably didn’t know diddly-squat about motorcycles, though. What Bill Davidson knew was more important than that. He knew how to build a company… mostly.

The Juneau Avenue plant wasn’t the only place H-Ds were put together as this familiar shot of “#3” amply illustrates. Hard to believe the building blitz that took place between 1903 and 1920, just to keep up with burgeoning demand for Harley motorcycles. Naturally, just as the founders got on top of things, with facilities capable of producing 35,000 machines a year, the bottom fell out of motorcycle sales. In 1920, Harley made 28,000 bikes; in 1921 less than half of that number!

The Juneau Avenue plant wasn’t the only place H-Ds were put together as this familiar shot of “#3” amply illustrates. Hard to believe the building blitz that took place between 1903 and 1920, just to keep up with burgeoning demand for Harley motorcycles. Naturally, just as the founders got on top of things, with facilities capable of producing 35,000 machines a year, the bottom fell out of motorcycle sales. In 1920, Harley made 28,000 bikes; in 1921 less than half of that number!

That year, the story goes, with six employees, H-D managed to make 152 machines. The math says that each employee created 25 motorcycles each on average, assuming they were all skilled workers. Not bad, but Bill was looking at a demand for a lot more Harleys and in 1908 constructed a much bigger factory and more than doubled the workforce to 18 employees to build 456 motorcycles. Guess what? All that fuss and bother and each employee managed to make, yup, 25 motorcycles apiece. By the standards of the day not a bad level of efficiency, but things got worse as they got better. By 1911, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company had 480 workers (obviously not all of ’em building motorcycles) and built just over 6,000 bikes. That figures out to a mere 12–13 machines from each worker, well-built motorcycles to be sure, but with necessary divisions of labor, a little too “Swiss” in the approach to building them. Oh, another thing, when Bill Harley got back to Milwaukee with his degree in automotive engineering, in the fall, he was quite pleased that William A. Davidson hired George Nordberg, an experienced tool and die maker, as well as one Frederick Barr, a crackerjack machinist and shop expert. Both these unsung heroes would contribute to Harley-Davidson’s immersion in the American System soon enough. Working quietly, but furiously, these three, Bill D., George and Fred expanded the factory and got production efficiency up to and beyond any level they’d experienced. Machines per man per year, or if you prefer, man hours per motorcycle built, were better than ever.

There were some other obscure but critical events in the 1909 model year. First, to increase factory capabilities, the founders were building a new, self-contained machine shop (called “Sawtooth” by virtue of its distinctive roof shape), complete with power plant and state-of-the-art machine tools. They thought the Sawtooth would meet the demand for some time, yet by the end of the year they already needed a bigger factory. Second, Sawtooth meant that Harley could build an ever-greater percentage of parts themselves and depend less on outside suppliers. The exceptions were items like wheels, seats, tires and carburetors. 1909 was also the first year Harley-Davidson supplied spare parts to customers! (Interchangeable parts, although a century ago the qualifying adjective must’ve been “selectively fitted.”)

Maybe that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for reasons we’ll get into in the next installment. For now, it’s enough to know that H-D never again used more than a fraction of the factory’s potential production volume until World War II broke out! Even as late as 1936, and the advent of the OHV 61 (Knucklehead to us), the assembly line was still a series of manned benches, not much sign of automation, because it simply wasn’t needed. We’ll talk about what was needed for Harley’s survival… next time.

Maybe that turned out to be a blessing in disguise, for reasons we’ll get into in the next installment. For now, it’s enough to know that H-D never again used more than a fraction of the factory’s potential production volume until World War II broke out! Even as late as 1936, and the advent of the OHV 61 (Knucklehead to us), the assembly line was still a series of manned benches, not much sign of automation, because it simply wasn’t needed. We’ll talk about what was needed for Harley’s survival… next time.

They were just in time, as it turned out, since World War I was looming large even before the company moved into its new Juneau Avenue facility in 1920. There was a boom in motorcycles from 1907 clear up to and beyond our entry into the Great War, and H-D was showing the way to deal with it, the American System, by then. How? By resorting to ever more efficient construction techniques, keeping the workforce “right-sized” throughout the expansion period and employing ever more sophisticated machines and tooling! A good thing, since by the end of the war there were really only three motorcycle companies still standing… and the “bust” of 1921 was right around the corner, partly economic and partly because the car guys had truly gotten the assembly line up and moving, which was killing off motorcycle sales as basic transportation.

Then something odd happened!

To be continued…

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