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John Davidson former president of Harley-Davidson Motor Co and grandson of the company’s founder William Davidson dead at the age of 84.

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By David Schuyler

John Davidson, former president of Harley-Davidson Motor Co. and grandson of the company’s founder William Davidson, died Nov. 11 at the age of 84.

Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson confirmed his passing in a statement.

“During his 22 years with Harley-Davidson, John was instrumental in numerous business accomplishments and leaves a lasting legacy in Harley-Davidson history,” the company said in a statement. “Harley-Davidson employees and dealers send their sympathies to the Davidson family.”

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Related Dooley has ridden Harley motorcycles his entire life and was a member of his own motorcycle club for decades before retiring his own bike due to age and health complications.

John Davidson was born in Milwaukee and after earning a bachelor’s degree from Lawrence College in Appleton and serving in the U.S. Army, he joined Harley-Davidson (NYSE: HOG) at the age of 25 in the dealer relations department, according to a published death notice.

Over his more than two decades with Harley-Davidson, he held leadership roles in marketing and sales before being elected as chairman of the board and president of the Motor Company from 1973 to 1979. His accomplishments with the company included product development planning for the Evolution V-Twin engine introduced in 1984. That engine is often credited with saving the company from bankruptcy.

Davidson’s leadership tenure came under the company’s ownership by American Machine and Foundry Co. (AMF), which acquired the motorcycle maker in 1969. AMF would attempt to cut costs with layoffs and a streamlining of production, but the moves also cut into quality and into the motorcycle manufacturer’s reputation. That led up to the 1981 leveraged buyout by 13 Harley-Davidson executives. That same year, John Davidson retired from the company.

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After retirement, Davidson continued to contribute to the Milwaukee community, and his philanthropic efforts included many organizations that serve Milwaukee-area youth, such as Boys & Girls Clubs of Greater Milwaukee, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation and the Milwaukee Youth Symphony Orchestra.


John A. Davidson is the grandson of Harley-Davidson founder William A. Davidson. A previous version of this story incorrectly reported the relation due to incorrect information provided to the Business Journal.

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