Willie G. Davidson Retires from Harley-Davidson

03/16/2012 @ 6:18 pm, by Jensen Beeler11 COMMENTS

Grandson to William A. Davidson, one of the founders of Harley-Davidson, and son to William H. Davidson, Harley-Davidson’s second President, Willie G. Davidson is the personification of the Harley-Davidson brand as we know it, and has been the personal link between Harley-Davidson motorcycle owners and the corporate entity.

Both literally and figuratively the brand’s goodwill ambassador, Willie G. has spent the past 49 years helping forge the iconic brand of Harley-Davidson, and has defined the Harley-Davidson aesthetic by serving as the company’s Chief Styling Officer.

Announcing his retirement today in a company press release, Willie G. will stay on as an ambassador of sorts, and also retain the title Chief Styling Officer Emeritus, though his day-to-day duties at the Bar & Shield brand will be over, effective April 30th, 2012.

A fixture in the Harley-Davidson community, the Milwaukee brand says that Willie G. Davidson will still have involvement with the company as an ambassador at motorcycle rallies and events, and through special design projects as “Chief Styling Officer Emeritus,” which has largely been the 78-year-old’s role in the company to date.

“Throughout my life, I have been truly fortunate to have the opportunity to marry my passion for design with my love for this amazing brand that runs so deeply in my veins,” said Willie G. “What’s most rewarding has been to see the impact our motorcycles have on the lives of our customers. Everything we do in styling is based on the notion that form follows function, but both report to emotion.”

With so much of Willie G. Davidson’s on-paper responsibilities at Harley-Davidson remaining, it is interesting to hear news of his retirement from the company. One of the 13 executives to buy-back Harley-Davidson from AMF in 1981, much of the direction Harley-Davidson has taken in the past 30 years is owed in part to Willie G. With Harley-Davidson at a crossroads now with its brand identity and design philosophy, it will be interesting to see if Davidson’s official departure from the company is a signal of further change yet to come down the road.

Harley-Davidson’s styling department is now led by 19-year company veteran Ray Drea, who holds the title of Vice President and Director of Styling. Drea has worked extensively with Willie G. Davidson on past Harley-Davidson models, so it will of interest to see if Harley continues with the same design aesthetics, or explores a new route. Seeing this announcement come across our desks at close-of-business before a holiday weekend, we can’t but help and raise an eyebrow what this all means for Harley-Davidson.

Anytime a company loses a keystone employee, you have to think about how that change will affect the company’s ever-evolving culture. Similarly, anytime a company loses key personnel, you have to think about the reasons for their departure. Did Willie G. Davidson leave because of something coming down the line at Harley-Davidson that he didn’t want to be associated with? Is his retirement a signal of a change in ethos, power, or philosophy that he disagreed with? Or after 49 years, did Willie G. Davidson just want to take a break from creating one of the most iconic companies in America? Only time will tell.

Source: Harley-Davidson


    Godspeed “Willie G”, thank you for all you have done for us. I especially love the ’48 and ’72 models you have released in the last 5 years. And I also thank you for my 1999 XL1200C. She sure is beautiful. Ride hard, rest easy my brother.

  • “Godspeed”? “rest easy”? He’s retiring, not dead…

  • M.I.

    Good riddance. Maybe HD will finally make performance motorcycles for a broader market.

  • Doctor Jelly

    Harley is working to the future (slowly, but surely) and the future has no need for our father’s traditions. Willy G. may be a fixture at the MoCo, and has certainly had his successes in designing (along with his share of flops), but it’s hard to be innovative while keeping your style after so many years. Not to mention he is opposed to anything but classic Harley style which doesn’t bode well for him with water cooled and electric futures:

    This is similar to when the MoCo dropped their advertising company of however many decades, and all of a sudden Harley campaigns are doing well again:

    While I haven’t agreed with all their decisions (*cough*Buell*cough*) I think the fat trimming points to a good and progressive future for the company. It might be 10 years or so before we see a real turning point, but it is coming, mark my words.

  • Richard Gozinya

    Can’t ever forget the real gems that Harley’s put out while Willie G was around. The XLCR, the Super Glide Sport, the Street Rod, the Night Rod (Not the special), and the XL1200R. All sales disasters, but all built to be ridden.

  • Jonathan

    @ Richard Gozinya: I hear you! While there are a lot of complaints about the Harley “range” being nothing more than variations on a theme, perhaps the problem is with the customer and not the bikes.
    HD has a huge racing heritage – it’s such a shame to see it ignored.

  • Dean

    I’m not a Harley guy, but I gotta admit that they know a LOT about marketing and using technology to make a bike “look” a certain way (take the frame geometry on the Electraglide for example). I just wish they could take their masses of fans and nudge them along into the future a little faster.

  • Vic Friesen

    Willie. Thanks for all the good years. I’m picking up my new Ultra Classic this Wed. I hope your retirement will be as colourful and rewarding as your years with Harley. Vic


    @Mark, yes I know that. I’ve said that to people retiring before. It can be used either way.

  • MikeD

    Relevant ONLY IF they’ll start building OTHER bikes than CRUISERS, NO ! …i don’t want them trying to compete with the S1000RR or anything remotely like that.

  • irksome

    HD: “Forward, into the past!”

    Nothing about HD’s corporate mind-set will change until all the wanna-be pirates die out or buy walkers and RVs.