In 1898, in Walthom, Massachusetts the first US built motorcycle was rolled out. It was manufactured by the Walthom Manufacturing Company, which had been building bicycles prior to then and had already developed a reputation for building a very nice automobile, the Orient Buckboard. The new creation was dubbed the Orient-Aster. Aster was the name of the manufacturer that made the engine used in the motorcycle.
In the year 1901, The Hendee Manufacturing Company of Springfield, Massachusetts starting producing a motorcycle called the Indian. The Indian was equipped with a single cylinder, gasoline engine, produced by the Aurora Firm. The motorcycle began to catch on and sales began to climb.
In 1902 Charles Metz, one of the two founders of the Walthom Manufacturing Company, left to open his own motorcycle manufacturing facility called the Metz Motorcycle Company. He produced a motorcycle that could do a mile in 70 seconds, quite a feat at the time. With the success of his motorcycle, in 1905 Charles Metz decided to join in a venture with the Marsh Motorcycle Company of Brockton, Massachusetts to create the American Motorcycle Company. The Marsh-Metz motorcycle, known as the MM was produced here.
Production of Merkel Motorcycles was started in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1902. These motorcycles had a reputation for speed. During its brief history, Merkel introduced many things that would one day become standard on all motorcycles. The Merkel was the first to use spring loaded front forks and monoshock rear suspension. It used ball bearings in its engine instead of bronze bushings.
In 1903 Harley Davidson began production of motorcycles in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
In 1906 American Motorcycle Company produced a 1000cc motorcycle that produced 4 horsepower.
In 1907, Indian built its first V-twin engine and began to have very strong showings in races. Probably its most famous rider was Irwin "Cannonball" Baker, who in 1914, rode an Indian from San Diego, California to New York in 11 days and 12 hours!
By 1908, Harley Davidsons were breaking speed records and winning races. The name Harley Davidson was catching on and sales were climbing.
In 1909, Harley Davidson introduced its first V-twin, a 1000 cc engine producing 7 horsepower. The V-twin would become almost its trademark in the decades to come. In the year 1910, Harley introduced its now famous logo. In 1917 nearly one-third of all Harleys manufactured were sold to the US Army for use in World War I. Harley had become the biggest motorcycle manufacturer in the US.
In 1917, the last of the great Merkel Motorcycles was produced and the company closed its doors.
By the 1920s, there were only two large motorcycle manufacturers in the U.S., Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycle. Each continued to improve its product line over the years.
In 1921, the Metz Company failed, after producing motorcycles for 23 years.
In World War II, both Indian and Harley produced motorcycles for use by the military. At the end of the war, these motorcycles could be bought as surplus at very reasonable prices. Many men learned to ride them while serving in the military and some bought them after the war.
The war years had not hurt Harley, but Indian appears to have suffered somewhat. By 1949, the Indian Scout had been discontinued. By 1950, the Indian Chief had been discontinued. The company was then importing smaller motorcycles and selling them with the Indian name on them. The company finally closed in 1962, leaving Harley to face the hordes of imports that were now entering the U.S.
Among the competition in place were the Japanese; the British motorcycles and several other European motorcycles had been in the U.S., some for a number of years. Among them were BMW, Moto Guzzi, Norton, Triumph, BSA and Ariel. The Japanese offered Honda, Suzuki, Kawasaki and Yamaha. The little Japanese motorcycles proved to be very rugged and reliable. In time, over two decades, they would evolve into Harley look-alikes with much bigger engines than they originally boasted. They finally became a serious competitor to Harley.
In 1964, a motorcycle called the Hodaka made its debut. It was a little dirt bike manufactured in Athena, Oregon. The Hodaka was never intended to be a large road machine, but it was a fist full in the dirt! In spite of its performance, Hodaka closed its doors in the late 1970s.
Today, after all the attempts at success by others, Harley-Davidson is the one motorcycle manufacturer that has survived American motorcycle manufacturing history.