Catching up with The Motor Company’s Chief Styling Emeritus
I’d like to go to the Isle of Man. I’ve read about it all my life, but I’ve never been there.
WILLIE G. DAVIDSON IS MORE THAN just a living link to Harley-davidson’s co-founder William A. Davidson. As The Motor Company’s chief stylist for nearly a half century, the 84-year-old Milwaukee native played a pivotal role in forging the brand’s distinctive look. We rapped with Davidson to unravel his moto roots, his passion for all things two-wheeled (and three-wheeled), and how he’s been channeling his creative energies since retiring from the legendary motorcycle manufacturer his grandfather established 114 years ago.
1 What are some of the positives and negatives of growing up a Davidson?
I can accentuate the positives. If I was a good young man, my father [William H. Davidson] would take me to Harley-davidson headquarters here in Milwaukee on the weekends and let me wander through the great factory. That was always a big happy day for me. My dad was a great rider who won the Jack Pine [Enduro] in the early 1930s, and when I was growing up he would come home with different prototype motorcycles. He rode through the winter months with a sidecar rig, so I had a lot of pleasant motorcycling memories. If I was really a good boy he’d take me to the flat-track races, and that included Springfield and some half-mile events close to Milwaukee. I loved that and still do.
2 Tell me about your lifelong experience riding motorcycles.
I started riding when I was about 15, and I’m 84 now. I don’t know how old you are, but there are things that happen to you physically— I’m fine, I’m healthy, I’m active every day, but you have to respect your body and your limitations. I’m more careful and limited, but I actually just bought another bike. The enthusiasm is continuous; it just has to be modified according to your physical talents and what you can and can’t do. I have a nice bike collection, and our home was designed to house my collection. We have about 30 bikes in our house and 40 total, and they’re all milestone vehicles. Over the years, I’ve added all of the anniversary models [which have special paint and trim], and I just added a sidecar rig, which is kind of fun.
If I was really a good boy, my dad would take me to the flat-track races.”
3 It must be great to look back at your career and think about how many bikes you’ve created that people have enjoyed.
It’s pretty exciting. In my retirement years, I am the company ambassador. And I have an office in the Harley-davidson museum, which is run by my son, Bill, who’s an avid rider and collector as well. Our daughter, Karen, is a fashion designer and designs all the clothing for Harley-davidson Motor Clothes. So our whole family is very much involved in our motorcycle enthusiasm. That is just a continuing chapter. We go to races and events together, and I’m always fascinated by what’s happening— interest in old, interest in new, flat-track, roadracing.
4 What’s an average day of your life like now?
For my second career, I’m a professional painter. My office in the museum is an art studio that includes my favorite antique, a 1945 Knucklehead bobber, which is beautifully executed, and that sits on a rug next to a window overlooking the river. I’m happy to come into this office every day and continue my learning as an artist. I’ve always been an artist all my life, but these years are spent concentrating on painting and studying motorcycles. I do things for our museum store, design graphics, and work on some of the clothing graphics, so I’m active. I’ve been a watercolor guy all my life. I took a course when I was at Art Center many, many years ago, and I never got away from it. It’s now ramped up to where I have a little more free time to concentrate on it. I’m probably going to have a nice father/son exhibit with son Michael, who is also an avid painter and rider.
5 Where have you longed to go that you haven’t yet?
I’d like to go to the Isle of Man. I’ve read about it all my life, but I’ve never been there. I’m a racing enthusiast and my collection includes early eight valves, peashooters, all the R, XR, VR, and K models, and dirt-track bikes. They sit in a beautiful room that’s ancient barn beams and a gorgeous tiled floor, and that area is filled with historic performance motorcycles. So, yeah, the Isle of Man is extremely dangerous, I understand that, but I admire those riders. Man, I’d love to sit at the bar, have a warm beer, and watch those guys come screaming in there, downshifting, and blasting out of there. That’s gotta be fantastic.