The motorcycle is a Strap Tank model, named for the nickel-plated steel bands used to attach the oil and fuel tanks to the frame. It garnered $935,000 at an auction in Las Vegas late last month.
Harley-Davidson made only 450 motorcycles in 1908—and only a handful still exist today, according to Mecum Auctions. The record-breaking bike still has many of its original parts, including the muffler sleeve, engine belt pulley, wheels, tank and seat cover.
In 1941, businessman David Uihlein discovered the bike in a barn located roughly 70 miles from Milwaukee, per the auction house. He held onto the find for 66 years, then worked with Indiana-based collector Paul Freehill to restore it to its former glory. Today, the bike is mostly gray with red accent striping and a bright orange Harley-Davidson logo.
The restoration is one reason why the bike commanded such a high price, but even the auction house’s experts were stunned by how much it sold for.
“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,” says Greg Arnold, Mecum’s motorcycle division manager, to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.
The Strap Tank is the oldest Harley-Davidson motorcycle collectors can own, as earlier models have been lost to history, per the auction house. Crews built the Strap Tank model in the company’s single-story factory on Chestnut Street, now Juneau Avenue, in Milwaukee.
“These earliest Harley-Davidson Strap Tanks are the most coveted of all Milwaukee machinery,” writes Mecum Auctions. “They established the pattern for all future production, combining a clean yet conservative styling, a somber color scheme, heavy-duty cycle parts and an engine a little bigger and stronger than the rest.”
Milwaukee-based friends William Harley and Arthur Davidson, along with Davidson’s brothers William and Walter, founded the company in 1903. They started small, building prototypes in a shed. Eventually, the company grew to become one of the best-known motorcycle brands in the world.
When the company turned 100 in 2003, Robert F. Howe wrote for Smithsonian magazine that the Harley-Davidson motorcycle has “evolved into an American touchstone.”
Even the sound of its engine is widely recognized. “Not only can you hear it, you can feel it,” Tom Bolfert, who was head of the company’s archives, told Smithsonian. “It has a primal sound, like a heartbeat.”