Next time you get pulled over by a motorcycle policeman in any state in the country, it’s very likely the officer will be riding a Harley. The relationship between cops and H-Ds goes back more than a century. More police departments use Harleys than any other type of motorcycle and by a wide margin, because they have the power, reliability and comfort they desire. So, whether it’s a California Highway Patrol (CHP) motorcycle policeman, or one from Alaska to Hawaii and everywhere in between, Harleys are a big part of law enforcement on the roads of North America.
The colorful history of Harley-Davidson, police and fleet sales is long and rich – and almost as old as the company itself. Before there was even a commercially produced Harley-Davidson V-Twin, policemen were patrolling on Harley-Davidson® motorcycles. Through the economic ups and downs of the company’s history, the police and fleet businesses have helped to keep the Harley-Davidson brand alive and flourishing.
The first Harley-Davidson police motorcycle was delivered to the Detroit Police Department in 1908. From the beginning, police departments recognized the tactical advantage provided by a maneuverable vehicle such as a motorcycle along with Harley-Davidson’s reputation for reliability.
In the 1910’s, Harley-Davidson motorcycles accompanied General John J. "Black Jack" Pershing in pursuit of Pancho Villa after he attacked Columbus, New Mexico in 1916. Harley-Davidson motorcycles also proved their value as military hardware. Shortly after the Mexican foray, the U.S. was drawn into World War I – as along with roughly 20,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Motorcycles were a great aid in dispatching messages prior to the advent of reliable radio communications. Most of these motorcycles had sidecars which could be fitted with machine-gun mounts, if needed.
Back on the home front in the 1920’s, state police forces were being organized in several states to protect rural areas from lawlessness and to enforce the Prohibition. The motorized vehicle of choice on bumpy rural roads was the motorcycle. In 1921, six troopers in the Northwest jumped on their Harley-Davidson motorcycles and the Washington state troopers were in business. In those days, motorcycle cops had to cover large territories, so they needed motorcycles that needed to be reliable. In Louisiana, for example, a force of just 16 men on motorcycles patrolled the entire state.
By 1920, Harley-Davidson had become the largest motorcycle manufacturer in the world. As mass production increased the numbers of cars and motorcycles on the road, and most speed limits were not enforced, more and more highway fatalities became a huge issue. In 1926, a special office for fleet sales to law enforcement was established. During this period, Harley-Davidson publicized the company’s goal of helping law enforcement to "curb this tragic traffic slaughter." Being faster and more maneuverable than most cars on the road, Harley-Davidson motorcycles gave police the upper hand against speeders and car thieves. By the end of the 1920s, more than 3,000 police departments and government agencies were using Harleys.
The 30’s were tough for the entire country and Harley felt it too. As with most manufacturers, the Great Depression hit Harley-Davidson sales hard on every front. Starting with the Stock Market Crash of 1929, sales fell drastically each year until 1933. But even in ‘33, Harley-Davidson aggressively marketed its product as “The Police Motorcycle” and supported national campaigns for traffic safety. The three-wheel Servi-Car, introduced in 1931, became very popular with police departments for traffic and parking enforcement and continued to serve as a Harley-Davidson standard for 41 years.
Harley played an integral role in World War II, when Harley-Davidson produced 88,000 motorcycles for the war effort, including the horizontally opposed, two-cylinder, shaft-drive XA 750 model. (They were never sold to the public and only 1,000 were made.) For its patriotic efforts, the Motor Company was awarded four prestigious Army-Navy "E" awards.
In the 1950’s, teenagers took to street racing in hopped-up jalopies. The phenomenon called “cruising” was born! To slow this trend, the Pittsburgh Police Department formed its Harley-Davidson motorcycle officers into a Hot Rod Squad. The image of a motorcycle cop parked behind a billboard became an icon of Americana. And the idea that a police officer would sit on anything other than a Harley-Davidson wouldn’t be conceivable until the 1970’s.
An important relationship developed in the 1940’s and continues to this day as Harley-Davidson and Northwestern University’s Center for Public Safety (formerly the Traffic Institute at Northwestern) have worked together for more than 60 years to provide officer training.
In the last five years, Harley-Davidson police sales have more than doubled. Today, just as in the late 1920’s, more than 3,400 police departments ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the U.S. alone. Harley-Davidson Police motorcycles are also used in 45 countries. This is a dramatic increase from the Motor Company’s 80th Anniversary twenty years ago, when just over 400 state, provincial, county and municipal police departments were equipped with Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
After the tragic events of September 11, 2001, Harley-Davidson donated 37 motorcycles to the New York Police Department, the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey and the New York State Police.
What will the future of cops & Harleys be like? Throughout the years, police and military organizations have realized the advantages of using Harley-Davidson motorcycles. Today, benefits such as high resale value and the ability of the motorcycle to enhance public relations (critical to community policing efforts) continue to increase H-D’s police/fleet business. And that’s why the company says, “There is something undeniably right about a cop on a Harley-Davidson."
Sections courtesy of Harley-Davidson, Inc.