Click the image to learn more. A man wearing a Harley Davidson jacket races an automobile driver at a track in Cedarburg some time in the 1920s.

Motorcycling and Milwaukee have long and intertwined histories. In 1903, the Harley-Davidson factory was founded by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson. Throughout the early twentieth century, the Harley-Davidson brand expanded its customer base and factory and employee size and began selling motorcycles outside the United States.[1]

The popularity of motorcycling grew with the formation of motorcycle racing leagues and tracks that were built in and around Milwaukee and throughout the United States. Walter Davidson, the brother of Arthur Davidson, was a prominent motorcycle racer, which helped expand Harley-Davidson’s popularity.[2] Motorcycle racing was an extremely dangerous sport due to high speed of early motorcycles (up to one hundred and twenty miles per hour), the construction of the tracks, and because racing motorcycles did not have brakes. Indeed, racing motorcycles originally had to be towed at the start of races.[3]

However, racing was not the only way motorcycles became popular in Milwaukee. Since 1910, the Milwaukee Police Department has included motorcycles as a main fleet vehicle for their officers. More than a century later, the Milwaukee Police Department still orders custom motorcycles to meet their specific needs.[4] Because of their utility, motorcycles have become commonplace at local law enforcement agencies, as well as at law enforcement agencies throughout the country.

As the popularity of motorcycles rose, motorcycle clubs began to form in the 1930s. They became much more popular after the Second World War and the Vietnam War, as veterans returned home.[5] Clubs not sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association are considered outlaw clubs. Currently in Milwaukee there are two major outlaw motorcycle clubs that are not sanctioned by the American Motorcyclist Association and considered to be a gang by the Justice Department—the Outlaws MC and the Hell’s Lovers MC.[6] Both of these motorcycle clubs were founded in Chicago but spread to Milwaukee by the late twentieth century. Both of these groups have committed violent crimes in and around Milwaukee, as noted by Michael Grogan in You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club in & around Wisconsin.[7]

Milwaukee also has a large leisure motorcycling culture, with many people coming from across the country to visit and ride near Lake Michigan. Harley-Davidson of Milwaukee also hosts an annual motorcycle rally called the H.O.G. National Rally—occasionally held in Milwaukee—that attracts thousands of people during Labor Day weekend every year.[8]

Milwaukee has been the capital of the motorcycle industry in large part due to the presence of the Harley-Davidson Factory and global headquarters. In 2016 the North American headquarters of Royal Enfield motorcycles opened in Milwaukee, with its permanent location in the Third Ward. Milwaukee’s history as the epicenter of motorcycling in the United States is what made Royal Enfield establish their headquarters in Milwaukee.[9] The establishment of the Royal Enfield headquarters combined with the Harley-Davidson factory and headquarters ensures that Milwaukee will remain at the heart of the motorcycle industry and culture in the United States.

Footnotes [+]

  1. ^ “H-D History,” Harley Davidson website,, accessed September 10, 2017.
  2. ^ “H-D History,” Harley Davidson website,, accessed September 10, 2017.
  3. ^ David Schonauer, “The Early, Deadly Days of Motorcycle Racing,Smithsonian Magazine (April 2011), accessed September 15, 2017, and “H-D History,” Harley Davidson Museum website, accessed September 10, 2017.
  4. ^ Ben Handleman, “Milwaukee Police Department Has Long History of Riding Harleys,”, August 27, 2013, accessed October 20, 2017.
  5. ^ William L. Dulaney, “A Brief History of ‘Outlaw’ Motorcycle Clubs,” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies (November 2005), accessed October 30, 2017.
  6. ^ Lolly Bowean, “Frank Rios, 1947-2009: Motorcycle Buff in 1967 Co-founded Hell’s Lovers, One of Chicago’s First Integrated Biker Clubs,” Chicago Tribune, January 11, 2010, accessed October 22, 2017.
  7. ^ Seth Ferranti, “A Look at the Outlaws Motorcycle Club,” Huffington Post, December 6, 2016, Accessed October 22, 201; Michael Grogan, You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club in and around Wisconsin (Wales, WI: Badger Wordsmith, 2016).
  8. ^ “Milwaukee Rally August 30-September 3, 2017,”, Harley-Davidson website, accessed November 10, 2017.
  9. ^Royal Enfield Motorcycles Establishes North American Headquarters in Milwaukee,” InWisconsin website, Wisconsin Economic Development Corporation, accessed October 22, 2017.

For Further Reading

Dulaney, William L. “A Brief History of ‘Outlaw’ Motorcycle Clubs.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies (November 2005). Accessed October 30, 2017.

Grogan, Michael. You Gotta Be Dirty: The Outlaws Motorcycle Club in and around Wisconsin. Wales, WI: Badger Wordsmith, 2016.

Explore More [+]