Q&A: Willie G. Davidson

Willie G. Davidson designed Harley-Davidson motorcycles for a half-century. At age 82, he hasn’t let off the throttle.

When did you start riding?
I was 15. Got my first motorcycle in 1948.

Do you still ride?
Not as much as I used to. I have a brand-new bike, though. A big Road Glide. Some of the events, I flat-out just don’t have the time to ride to. At times, I’ll pick up a bike at a location. Nancy [his wife of 58 years] and I still go to all the big rallies, like Daytona and Sturgis.

What’s the best bike trip you’ve taken?
During a couple of our anniversary rides, the whole family rode together. We came out of New York once. We’ve been to California a couple of times, out and back. We also did a neat ride when Jeff Bleustein was head of the company. We started in England, crossed the channel and rode through France to the French Riviera.

You still get a rock star reception at events.
I’ve got to get a bag to put over my head [laughs]. But seriously, it’s a mutual feeling. We don’t just sell a motorcycle and say goodbye. We try to have fun with our customers.

You spend time painting in your office at the H-D Museum. How long have you been doing watercolors?
Off and on for 60 years. Watercolors are unforgiving. It’s a mental process. All the white spaces need to be planned.

How many bikes do you own?
We have 30-plus in our collection. Our house [in the town of Delafield] was designed so that I could have the vehicles on display. I consider them the ultimate mechanical art. Rolling sculptures.

There’s a motorcycle in your office.
It’s a 1946 Knucklehead. I consider the Knucklehead to be the great-grandfather of everything we’ve done. The world’s running tight on those. A lot of collectors have gobbled them up.

What influenced your motorcycle designs?
You’ve got to feel good on the bike. And when you park it, you have to say “I love it” just looking at it.

You were part of the 1981 management buyout of the company from AMF that many believe saved the company.
I was almost totally broke, but I put all I had into the company. It was my life. There was no way I was going to be part of the shelving of Harley-Davidson. I had faith we could make it work.

In your early days, you sported horned-rimmed glasses and suits with pocket squares. Now it’s leather vests, bandanas and your signature beret. Ever put on a suit and tie?
For weddings and funerals. That’s about it.

Do you see a time when you’ll have to give up riding?
With reaction time and the normal things that happen to a body, I suppose. That doesn’t mean that I don’t have to be a part of what we do here. Maybe I won’t do real long rides. I guess that’s natural.

Condensed and edited from a longer interview.

‘Point of View: Willie G. Davidson’ appears in the August 2015 issue of Milwaukee Magazine.

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Rich Rovito is a freelance writer for Milwaukee Magazine.