Along with his brothers, William and Arthur, and friend William Harley, Walter Davidson, Sr., was one of the founders of Harley-Davidson and was the company's first president. Walter gave the company its first major racing victory by earning a diamond medal in the F.A.M. New York endurance run in 1908. That performance gave Harley-Davidson a great boost in name recognition and was a major selling point for the young company.
Davidson assembled the very first Harley-Davidson motorcycle that was built, but not yet assembled, by his brother Arthur and William Harley. He was so intrigued by the new machine that he immediately left his railroad job in the southwest and found work as a machinist in Milwaukee so he could help build the business. During the company's infancy, Walter assembled the motorcycles at night while continuing his job as a machinist during the day.
As the president of Harley-Davidson, Walter became known for his charitable contributions. At the same time, his frugality when it came to company spending was legendary. Once, after a business luncheon at a swank New York City hotel, Davidson looked at the tab, deducted his own meal and listed only the meals of his associates as a business expense.
Davidson insisted on the highest quality standards in the motorcycles bearing the Harley-Davidson name. He was noted for reminding his co-workers that their real employer was the purchasing public.
Davidson's frugality and business savvy earned him an excellent reputation in the business world. Davidson became a trustee of the highly successful Northwestern Mutual Insurance Company and a director of both First Wisconsin, the state's largest bank and the Milwaukee Gas Light Company.
Davidson died on February 7, 1942, at age 65 while still at the helm of Harley-Davidson.