“Typical Bikemen of the 1920’s,” Courtesy of the Milwaukee Police Historical Society.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles may have had their first exposure on the dirt-track racing circuits of the early 1900s, but their legacy did not end with extreme sports. 1908 marked the Milwaukee Police Department’s creation of its novel “motorcycle unit.” Consisting of just five patrolmen, each was assigned a Harley-Davidson one cylinder with a white trim to signify their authoritative status. The brand began to appeal to this new image, marketing its bikes as a profitable way for the city to rid its streets of crime. One 1923 advertisement boasted how, in just one Sunday afternoon, the motorcycle unit racked up “36 arrests for speeding and reckless driving- $1,042 in fines paid to the city of Milwaukee,” attributing their success to the “low upkeep and wonderful durability of the Harley-Davidson.”[1] Although the Milwaukee Motorcycle unit and Harley-Davidson’s marketing strategy experienced many changes since then, the bikes are still used to patrol the city’s streets and back alleys over one hundred years later.

“1923 Harley Davidson advertisement,” Courtesy of the Milwaukee Police Historical Society.
“Original Bike Coppers Lined up Outside of the Central Station, 1917.” Courtesy of the Milwaukee Police Historical Society
“US Postal Service in Milwaukee using the motorcycle truck, winter of 1912-13.” Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Archives.

Harley-Davidson’s expansion into new markets didn’t stop there. The “motorcycle truck” was introduced in 1910, promising quick, easy, and fun transportation, most notably for mail. As a result, the US Postal Service gave it a try in Milwaukee. While the clunky nature of the tricycle design proved to be a swift failure, as they were only implemented for a couple years and discontinued shortly after, the concept of a more sleek, versatile vehicle carried on. As time progressed, so did the technology. This is exemplified by Harley-Davidson’s package truck, which held a much longer lifespan from 1915 to 1957. While it was essentially a side-car cargo container, its multifaceted carrying purposes proved useful in Wisconsin, most notably for publication services such as the Milwaukee Journal. While inventions like these seem obsolete in our day and age, they served as the building blocks for the institutions and services we’ve grown accustomed to.

“1929 Harley-Davidson J-series Motorcycles with Attached Package Trucks Used for the Milwaukee Journal,” Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Archives.

Written by James Apter, March 2022.


[1] “1923 Harley Davidson advertisement,” Milwaukee Police Historical Society, accessed February 2, 2022, https://www.mphswi.org/DepartmentHistory/MotorcycleUnit  

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