Common Tread

Harley-Davidson Lore: Origins Through Panhead book report

Dec 01, 2016

I’m a history junkie, as well as a Harley man.

So it should come as no surprise that I own a plethora of books covering both of those topics. One of the books that lives in my collection is entitled Harley-Davidson Lore: Origins Through Panhead. It’s “written” by a fella named Herbert Wagner.

The quotation marks are not accidental. There’s a lot of research that went into this book, but precious little writing, due to the book’s format — it’s a collection of sepia-toned images, arranged chronologically. The only meaningful text arrives in the final 25 pages, which contain a thumbnail of each picture with a bit of historical information about the corresponding photo.

Harley-Davidson was excellent at documenting their history over the years. Wagner notes in the book that around 1910, photos blossomed in number, no doubt due to H-D hiring their very first photographer and creating their first darkroom. In fact, in 1912, when they built an updated studio, Harley claimed to have the finest commercial photography studio west of New York City.

Further, H-D used outside photography resources, as well. Some images in Wagner’s book came from the Pohlman Studios archives. Pohlman was one of Milwaukee’s first commercial photography studios, opening in 1919. At one point, Pohlman sold photographs made from the negatives, but their collection was later transferred to the Harley-Davidson archives. One would presume access to view and use those images is a bit more difficult these days.

Founder photo
One of the last photos of the four H-D founders. Labeled as Plate 085 in Wagner's book, this 1935 shot shows a then-new 1936 EL coming down the line. Imagine their reticence as they contemplated this grim gamble in the midst of the Depression. It's doubtful any of them realized the Knuck would become the most influential motorcycle the company ever produced. Harley-Davidson photo.

Images are organized into three sections: Origins (1903-1935), Knucklehead (1936-1947), and Panhead (1948-1965). It’s an interesting blend of images. Some are rather candid action shots, some are obviously posed and staged photos, and still others are primitive composite photos: pictures that have been touched up by artists. (Sort of an early version of Photoshop or Lightroom, if you will.)

It's great to just flip through the book, but the shots have purpose for restorers, too. It’s nice to see how oil lines or control cables are routed for a given year. I can imagine this being a boon for paint and body work, too: determining the placement of graphics on a tank for a specific paint scheme is a bit easier with a photographic guide. In a fun twist on this idea, another historian, Bruce Palmer, notes that a photo containing a motorcycle of one model year would often be “touched up” into another model year, but some of the known characteristics can be used to see where this has occurred. Sometimes, it’s minor things that give the photos away — a change in tires (and thus the tread pattern) from year-to-year, or similarly negligible details.

I got in touch with one of Wagner’s peers, Chris Haynes. Chris is a former Harley dealer-turned-historian. He related to me a special story about the Pohlman archives that should help illuminate exactly how meaningful these photos really are, even in the modern day.

“My friend Jean Davidson has penned several books with great H-D family photos of people and machines," said Chris. "It was thanks to her Harley-Davidson Cookbook with recipes and pictures that I was able to identify a woman who appeared in several Pohlman prints I had. It turned out she was the woman who everybody in the MoCo talked about. Her name was Stella Forge. She was the first receptionist for H-D. Over the years, the families [Harley and Davidson] would give her small shares of stock as presents. During an audit of company shareholders, they found out that Stella was the largest shareholder outside of the families. Stories maintain that while she continued to work as the receptionist she would wear mink coats to work.” Nifty, huh?

For Harley buffs, Wagner’s commentary on each “plate” is also invaluable. He’s the author of some other books, too. (I mentioned one of my favorites, At The Creation in an article we ran recommending literature.) Research has a habit of being pervasive; each one of Wagner’s books has more and more information as he discovers things. It’s interesting to watch an author’s progression of learning and discovery; authors and readers alike go through the same process.

Given its layout, this book is not something you have to sit down and “read.” It’s fine to leave on a coffee table and thumb through. I don’t care for the layout, though. While it is nice to see each image uncluttered on its own page, you have to keep flipping to the back of the book to read the commentary on the image.

The Shed
The very first H-D "factory." Plate 001 kicks off Harley-Davidson Lore. Some time later, the shed was taken to the Juneau Avenue factory as a reminder of the company's modest beginnings. Sadly, it was destroyed by contractors in the early 1970s. Harley-Davidson photo.

The book I have was printed in 1999. It’s a hardback with a fabric cover, and bound with a sewed binding. It’s a very attractive book, titled with a small painted aluminum plate. It measures nine inches wide by six and a half inches tall, so it’s a good bit smaller than most coffee-table pieces — but would probably make a nice addition to a smaller table, if you’re into displaying books.

I’m glad I bought this book. (I actually have two copies, one of which is for my buddy.) The first time I scored a copy, in 2014, it cost me one dollar on Amazon. This last time, it ran me four bucks for a used version in OK shape. For the price of a deck of smokes, I got beautiful images of early factory bikes and riders, with a commentary from a lifelong Harley historian — twice. I enjoyed it, and I can pass that joy along to a friend. That’s a good value in my book.