William G. Davidson, better known as Willie G., is the grandson of William A. Davidson, one of the original founders of Harley-Davidson. Willie G. is best known for shaking up the staid design department at Harley-Davidson with new and innovative ideas that helped usher in a new era for the Milwaukee-based company. He was part of the group of employees that bought the troubled company back from AMF and helped guide it to financial health during the 1980s.
Davidson, naturally, grew up around motorcycles. He remembers as a young child the excitement of being given rides in the sidecar of the motorcycle his father was riding. Davidson graduated from the University of Wisconsin with a degree in graphic art and then attended the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena, California.
While in California, Davidson discovered the burgeoning world of motorcycle customizing, which would become a major influence in his later designs. After his education, Davidson worked in the design department of several automobile companies, including Ford. During this period, he began designing custom motorcycles as a hobby.
In 1963, he was asked to join the design department at Harley-Davidson and he accepted the position. Early on, Davidson often met with resistance from upper management because of the design direction he wanted to take the company. The older and more conservative managers saw young Davidson’s designs as radical and unpractical.
One of Davidson’s early designs that made it from the drafting table to the production line was the FX Super Glide. The Super Glide was Harley-Davidson’s first attempt at a factory custom, a production motorcycle with some of the style of the custom motorcycles being built in shops across the country. It was a response by the company, through Willie G., to the spreading popularity of choppers, cruisers and other customs. The Super Glide is considered to be a milestone in the history of Harley-Davidson. The original FX led to many variations that would produce some of the company’s best-selling machines.
Davidson was promoted to Vice President of Styling in 1969. As one of the 13 company executives who raised the money to buy Harley-Davidson back from conglomerate AMF, he was crucial in saving the company from bankruptcy. The new owners not only saved Harley from following the path of all the other U.S. motorcycle manufacturers, but built it into one of the most successful, profitable and fast-growing corporations in the country over the past 15 years.
Today, Davidson is highly visible at numerous rallies across the country and has become a legendary symbol of the family and of Harley-Davidson.