Rare 115-year-old Harley-Davidson sells for record $935,000 at auction

Rare 115-year-old Harley-Davidson becomes the most expensive bike ever sold at auction after selling for $935,000

  • 1908 Strap Tank, built at the original factory and expertly restored sells for 935k
  • The auction sale beats the record set by a 1907 Strap Tank which went for 715k 

A rare 1908 Harley-Davidson became the most expensive motorcycle ever sold at auction in Las Vegas on 28 January.

The Strap Tank motorcycle was sold for $935,000 after auction fees at the Mecum Auction, which listed the item as ‘the first of the breed, and the earliest Harley-Davidson model one will ever find, as the prototypes that preceded it are long gone’.

The 115-year-old Strap Tank motorcycle – named after its oil and fuel tanks, which are attached to the frame with nickel straps – is believed to be one of only 12 models still remaining.

Harley-Davidson started producing motorcycles in a small wooden shed in 1905, moving to a factory in 1906 and steadily expanding production to 450 motorcycles in 1908.

The auctioneers noted that the motorcycle, which had been expertly restored and still had the original tank, wheels, engine belt pulley, seat cover and muffler sleeve, was exceptionally rare.

The bike, which sold for $875,000 before fees, was reportedly found intact in a Wisconsin barn by David Uihlein in 1941, which he kept in his possession for 66 years.

The 115-year-old bike was found in a barn in 1941 and still has many of its original parts

The 1908 Strap Tank is believed to be among the oldest Harley-Davidson bikes around today

The bike produced four horsepower when it was made, which was nearly doubled with the introduction of the V-Twin a year later, also 440cc

The younger motorcycle sold for more than a 1907 440cc Strap Tank, which went for $715,000 after fees as it had not been restored. 

The 1908 Strap Tank was expertly restored with the help of Paul Freehill of Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

The record-breaking bike had many of its original parts, making it even more rare, said Greg Arnold, Motorcycle Division Manager at Mecum Auctions.

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‘We marketed the bike well and Harley is by far the most famous American motorcycle brand so we had a feeling it would do well in auction, but obviously you are surprised anytime you sell the most expensive bike ever,’ he said.

Founded in 1903, Harley-Davidson was a relatively small manufacturer in 1908, but the Strap Tank quickly earned a reputation as a robust and durable motorcycle.

It was built at the first factory on Chestnut Street, Milwaukee, which employed only 18 workers in 1908.

From that factory, the brand was able to grow into one of the most successful and best-recognized manufacturers in the world.

The company, which still has its headquarters on Chestnut Street (since renamed to Juneau Avenue) now spans the globe with factories in York, Pennsylvania; Manaus, Brazil; Bawal, India; Pluak Deng, Thailand; and, of course, Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

The Strap Tanks were built with an Atmospheric Single engine, displacing 440ccs, and had an estimated horsepower of four.

The frame was made from a single loop of lugged steel and the bike weighed 185lbs, sitting on 28″ tires. 

The bikes set a precedent with their design and coloring, informing the design of the 1909 Harley-Davidson V-Twin, the company’s first production V-twin, which produced a whopping seven horsepower.

Bikes in the early years were not mass produced and changes were subtle.

The Renault gray paint was adopted in 1906, in time for the Strap Tank, pictured.

The 1908 Strap Tank pictured is painted in Renault gray, adopted by the company in 1906

This Strap Tank sold for such a high fee in part because it had been carefully maintained, restored, and had many of its original parts still in working order, auctioneers said

Making steady improvements, the company were able to expand production and overtake their competitors by 1914, when the war effort saw the company sell 20,000 motorcycles to the U.S. military.

By 1920, the company was the largest motorcycle manufacturer worldwide, with dealers in 67 countries. While sales were hit hard by the Great Depression, the company adapted and emerged from the crisis almost unchallenged.

Again, in World War II, large quantities of motorcycles bought by the U.S. military helped Harley-Davidson to recover, but post-war cost-cutting under new owners AMF hurt the company’s reputation.

Harley-Davidson was sold and restructured in 1981 and quality steadily recovered, with the brand becoming the sales leader again for bikes over 750cc by 1990.

The company still enjoys a large and loyal following around the world, and this year will be marking its 120th anniversary with a series of global events, concerts and tours.

Perhaps most notorious are the Hells Angels (HAMC), a worldwide motorcycle club, founded in 1948 in California, mostly by former military personnel, who adopted the cheap and easy-to-maintain bikes familiar to them from the war.

Others say the outlaw group was founded in 1935; the gang’s history is by nature difficult to track precisely.

It is known that by the 1940s, after the war, the group burst onto the scene in California, riding cheap Harleys sold off by the U.S. military post-1945.

The All-American bikes represented freedom and rebellion and allowed the bikers to travel long distances cross-country together.

In the 1960s, the ‘one percenter’ motorcycle clubs received social backlash and were shunned by a number of manufacturers, but kept close to their Harleys.

The relationship with Harley Davidson has been mutually beneficial, with HAMC making it a requirement for bikers to own a Harley Davidson motorcycle.

Michael Jackson’s son, Prince Jackson meets up with friends for coffee riding his Harley Davison motorcycle in Malibu

Detail of a Harley-Davidson motorbike at an exhibition of classical motorcycles in Varadero, Matanzas Province, Cuba, on February 11, 2023

A Harley-Davidson motorcycle is displayed at the Cowboy Harley-Davidson dealership on February 02, 2023 in Austin, Texas

Developing the association with strong, macho characters, the bikes have also featured in a number of films.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day features a chase with a Harley Fat Boy.

Contrary to popular belief, the bike was not named as a combination of the Little Boy and Fat Man bombs, but so called due to its wide frame.

Bikes also featured in the 1969 classic Easy Rider, featuring Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper as they cross the country on their bikes.

The famed 1951 Panhead Chopper inspired many to create replicas after the film’s release.

Robocop 2, Rocky 3 and Pulp Fiction were also keen to include Harley-Davidson’s classic bikes.

Still, today, the bikes represent an apex of Americana culture – freedom, patriotism and pride – passed over from generation to generation and still going strong in 2023l.

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