HARLEY-DAVIDSON | AMERICAN IRON, INGENUITY & PERSEVERANCE, PT. II

 

Back in October I ran a piece inspired by my trip to the Harley-Davidson museum and storied archives where I was given a personal tour by their archivist extraordinaire, Bill Jackson. I never posted the complete story, rather referring readers to visit Harley-Davidson’s The Ridebook a site described as “The riding manual from the voice of those few who cherish the search for a new scenery with the wind in their face. A glimpse into a stripped down lifestyle, free of the clutter and filled with style, quality, and the essentials.” There are some great shots and stories that deserve to have a home on TSY now that The Ridebook project is complete. Having grown up with H-D’s and the biker culture, I was honored to be chosen to contribute.

One nagging question that I still have is – how is Harley-Davidson connecting with the new generation of riders out there? Have they stayed relevant as a brand, do they continue to innovate (don’t say V-Rod), and do they have the same hunger and tenacity that got them where they are, and what will the history books say about this chapter of Harley’s history? After writing this piece I heard from a lot of disenfranchised folks out there that view H-D as a sad imitation of its former self. One heartfelt rant really took them to task– “What Harley ‘Was’ and what Harley ‘Is’ today are two entirely different things. They used to be Motorcycles. Now they’re fashion accessories. They used to be the innovators. Now they’re a Sad Parody/Pastiche of their former selves. They used to be about selling Motorcycles. Now they’re about selling a ‘Lifestyle’… And they USED to be all built in the good ol’ USA (albeit with overseas sourced parts here and there). Now Harley-Davidson has committed the Ultimate Treason, building complete Motorcycles in India of all places. Toss that last fact in along with ‘The Company’ screwing Eric Buell, the last of the true American M/C innovators and Geniuses, and I’m sorry to say that as an American there isn’t a Hell of a lot to be proud of, or brag about the Harley-Davidson of today.”  Strong words, but he wasn’t alone.

H-D was the badass bike back in the day. If you rode a Harley– you were not to be messed with. Now if you’re on a Harley, you may just be another fat, old, rich, white dude. It’s a sea of ol’ Fat Boys riding Fat Boys out there. (No offense, I’m getting there my own damn self.) One golden rule of branding is to not grow old with your customer, because when he dies you do too. Has Harley-Davidson done a good job of staying relevant and innovative? I know lots of guys who are nostalgic for the brand and love to rebuild the old Panheads, Knuckles, and Shovels who wouldn’t touch a new Harley. How much of the greatness was Harley-Davidson the machine, and how much of it was the the hardcore spirit of the lifestyle (vs. today’s hobbyists) that made it great. When I really stop and think about it– it was the guys on the bikes, more than the bikes themselves, that made Harley-Davidson a badass brand. I don’t remember a lot of stock Harleys ridden by bikers back then. Lots of chopping and customization was going on. It was the spirit of the rider that made it what it is. Always has. So does Harley still draw that same hardcore spirit of independence and individuality? Maybe that lifestyle (and chapter in Harley’s past) was a moment in time that will never be again, and the comparisons are unfair and just need to stop. I’d love to hear from the riders out there– speak up.

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1920 — Ray Weishaar is seen above with the famous team Harley-Davidson “hog” mascot on the tank of his bike. (That pad on the gas tank was for Ray’s comfort while racing– not the pig’s.) The ones originally responsible for harley-Davidson’s “HOG” handle were a roughneck group of farm boys that rode for the H-D racing team back in the 1910s-1920s who took their little pig mascot “Johnny” on a victory lap after the 1920 Marion race victory–- giving them the name “Hog Boys.”  They deserve a great deal of respect– like I said, more than one paid the ultimate price and left it all on the track for the sport that was their life– racing motorcycles. These guys also had their careers interrupted by our great country’s call to serve in WWI. More than likely, many of us today cannot begin to fathom the depth of their personal commitment and sacrifices. In the early days, Harley-Davidson fiercely frowned on motorcycle racing– feeling that the danger and mayhem was bad for brand image. Over time they changed their stance on racing (as any businessman would), when they saw it draw new customers into the dealerships and adopted the sentiment– “Win on Sunday, Sell on Monday.” — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives

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1931 — Hillclimb racer for Harley-Davidson– incredible torque-wrenching, dirt-spewing action. — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives. There’s an incredibly inspiring story from back in day of the hillclimb racing boom of the 1920s–The area in and around Somers, NY was known and  favored for its steep slopes, ideal for hillclimbs. A landowner there agreed to lease his land to the AMA only on the condition that William B. Johnson, a local black man, be allowed to compete in the events. The AMA was segregated in those days (as were many clubs and organizations), so Johnson flatly told AMA officials that he was not black– Nope. He was an American Indian.  Through either ignorance, impatience or grace, this satisfied the officials at the time– until he was finally challenged on his race at an event in 1932 that banned black competitors. Johnson promptly whipped-out his AMA membership card and proceeded to win the event. Here’s the kicker– sometime around 1920, William B. Johnson had become the first black Harley-Davidson dealer. He was a local handyman who years earlier had converted an old blacksmith shop in Somers, NY into his mechanic’s workshop. When business got tough, he approached Harley, and this rustic workshop became the home of Johnson’s Harley-Davidson shop for over 60 years. Known for his overly kind a generous spirit, he proudly toiled well into his 80s– working on bikes and helping customers. Sadly he passed away at 95 years of age back in 1985, and his dealership also closed shortly thereafter. William B. Johnson was an inspiration, and a class act all the way. 

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William B. Johnson, the first black Harley-Davidson dealer

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1937 — Hillclimb racing (yep, just what it sounds like…) were physically challenging and exciting events that pitted man & machine vs. nature. Harold Seamans (racing for Harley-Davidson) reaching the top of Mt. Garfield to win the 80 Class B National Hillclimb Championship. Image featured in the September 1937 issue of The Enthusiast with the caption, “With a tremendous burst of horsepower Class B Champion, Seamans, comes flying over the crest.” These were epic battles of determination and engineering, where wily riders stripped their bikes down to the bare essentials and experimented with custom rear sprockets, tire chains, and other gear to best match the soil and grade conditions and gain a winning edge over the competition. The sport took off in the early 1900s, and by the 1910s Harley-Davidson was the dominant force to be reckoned with– literally “hogging” all the victories.  — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives

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1943 — Many servicemen returning from WWII came home with the nagging feeling that the cookie-cutter lifestyle mainstream society was selling them (with the white picket fence, 2.5 kids, and a 9 t0 5 job) was not their “American Dream.” What they yearned for was an escape from the world’s hamster wheel mentality. For many, coming home didn’t mean settling in, it meant finding the thrill to replace what they felt was missing in everyday life. You had pilots who were looking to replace the thrill of flying, and GI’s who had ridden motorcycles in wartime coming home and buying Harley-Davidsons for the rush of freedom and speed they were so desperately craving. They also missed the camaraderie and brotherhood they had with their fellow soldiers at war, so many went out and formed motorcycle clubs. — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives

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With MC’s (motorcycle clubs) gaining popularity and media exposure in the late ’40s & ’50s, you soon had the likes of the 13 Rebels & Boozefighters (pictured above) inspiring Hollywood films, fashion, music, art, and attitude. 1953’s iconic biker flick The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, was loosely based on the two California motorcycle clubs having a highly-charged clash in the small town of Hollister, CA. Brando portrayed 13 Rebels leader Shell Thuet, while Lee Marvin’s character “Chino” was based on “Wino Willie” Forkner of the Boozefighters. Fact is– the clubs were not really rivals (although “Wino Willie” was an ex-memver of the 13 Rebels asked to leave for rowdy behavior), and the Hollister incident never really happened, at least not to the extent that LIFE Magazine or The Wild One portrayed it. Yeah, some guys drank and drag-raced some– it happens. What else happened–  a counterculture was born. Rolled-up jeans, boots, and leathers became the uniform that many rebels and bikers lived in, and that polite society demonized. — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives 

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Elvis Presley aboard his red & white 1956 Harley-Davidson KH Model. The next year he bought a black ’57 Harley-Davidson FLH. Back in those days, The King enjoyed ridin’ and funnin’ with fellow Hollywood stars like Natalie Wood and Nick Adams. Elvis was well-known as a Harley enthusiast and an avid rider. There are some pretty crazy pics of him decked-out in his rhinestone-encrusted jumpsuits with that over-dyed jet-black hair helmet buffering the wind. — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives 

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Replicas of the iconic “Captain America” & “Billy” choppers from the pivotal 1969 counterculture film “Easy Rider” at the Harley-Davidson museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. I remember feeling surprise and awe when I learned a few years ago that Ben Hardy, the dude who created these bikes, was Black. I guess it’s because in the old school biker scene that I was exposed to as a kid, you just didn’t see Blacks and Whites riding together. I don’t remember seeing many (if any) Black brothers on a Harley at all– but they were out there (check out the history of the East Bay Dragons and Chosen Few MCs) and made rich and undeniably important contributions to American motorcycling culture. Hardy’s story is largely untold, and there are few pictures or accounts. Peter Fonda, the producer of Easy Rider, hired Cliff Vaughs to coordinate the motorcycles for the film, who then tapped Ben Hardy for the actual construction of the epic and beautiful machines. In total, four former police bikes were used in the film– backups were needed for filming. The 1949, 1950 and 1952 Harley Davidson Hydra-Glides were purchased at an auction for $500. At Buchanan’s shop, Hardy first chopped the frames to set their rake to 45 degrees, and went on to create the now iconic bikes from the ground up that would fuel the chopper frenzy. — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives

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1976 — Riders and their motorcycles near the Harley Message Board in Daytona. Dating back to 1937, Daytona’s Bike Week in March has long been the place to see and be seen. The sands of Daytona Beach evolved over the decades from a proving ground for land speed record attempts and epic racing showdowns to the ultimate indulgent gathering of bikes, babes & beer. The ’70s were perhaps the most epic years in terms of overall energy and creative expression, as the custom culture and chopper craze brought machines to Daytona the likes of which had never been seen before. The all natural chicks were also hard to beat in those days– untouched by the evils of silicone and botox. — Image by © Harley-Davidson Archives

 

17 thoughts on “HARLEY-DAVIDSON | AMERICAN IRON, INGENUITY & PERSEVERANCE, PT. II

  1. I was interested in your memo. My brothers, Roy and Red Bettencourt, belonged to the
    American Motorcycle Association in San Francisco in the 50’s. They hill climbed and raced and were in Hollister when the famed movie was made the “Wild Ones.” Both brothers said the movie was greatly exaggerated. We were having a memorial in Fort Bragg California for my beloved brother Clyde Bettencourt (“Red”) His son brought us a bag full of pictures of those days and several albums we had never seen. Also in his closet he had pins and
    a trophy or two of awards for winning some of those events. He held himself rather close and didn’t share those photos; his son, and nieces and nephews thought it was “awesome and cool” that he raced and belonged to that club. Roy was able to identify most everyone in those pictures; brother Don is supposed to scan and send me those pictures so I can share with my grandchildren. My grandson is very interested in the Harley days of the 50’s. Bev Holt Laguna Beach Ca

  2. I used to think in the late ’60’s and early ’70’s that riding a Jap bike was kind of like trying to express yourself with an electric toothbrush. I feel that way about the new Harleys, especially those latest ‘flake painted Sportys and the skinny Fatboys(?).

    No, Harley is content to grow old with their customers. I feel that Harley’s business plan today is to throw in the towel on the Company when the majority of their current customers do.

    Also, another thing that’s always struck me about Harley’s styling approach to their bikes, is that by the time they decide to do something “daring” or hip”, they’re about 3-5 years past the time they should have done it.

    • i think you’re right, but there is a bright side to the artificial harley culture dying out. when the consumer driven harley fad runs its course, all the real folks will be able to ride without being buffeted by all the bullshit stereotypes. the bikes will begin to reflect actual aesthetics of the owners, the prices will begin to drop allowing non-lawyers and doctors the chance to own them again. i get to own a sporty now because all the posers won’t ‘settle’ for anything less than the big bike; so their price fell! whoopie. used harleys and indians weren’t always so expensive.

      • Well, yeah, they were always expensive. In the late ’60’s, the minimum wage was $1.50/hr. Used Harleys and Indians were at about $500. – $600.00 for good used big twins. That was close to 3 months take-home wages back then.

        When I finally bought my first new FL Harly from a dealership in ’79, vs building them like I had for the previous 11 years, I could have bought a new fully loaded big block Chevy Caprice Classic for the same amount of money.

    • CONTRADICTIONS AND EGOS.
      I saw craigslist as the sensible venue to shop for motorcycles and felt they should cost around $5000. The HD dealer was open on a weekend several years ago and I just needed a new helmet. They “got” me when I wasn’t looking mostly because of the 3 following factors; Number One, simplicity – less chrome! ..The Dark Custom line; Two, the staff is surprisingly easy to talk to and more like me than I expected; and Three -perhaps most shocking- they approved me for credit. Me! It seems HD credit corp approves just about anyone. Smart.
      So here I am, a skeptical, ex-skateboarder/punker with a disdain for materialism and gaudiness, enjoying my daily rider, a big, fast, noisy, and totally reliable Harley that I peeled all the logos and extra stuff off of. They make a good bike. This argument seems like a debate over fashion and religion ….and maybe exclusivity and fear of change.
      I enjoy a taste for nostalgia yet prefer long rides and a modern suspension. I buy American whenever I can and I support my local independent mechanic. What makes it so much easier for me and my riding buddies is that we’re not trying to be a bikers.
      I’m convinced the factory is wholeheartedly aiming for the next generation, which is surely a challenge. I just hope the next generation will be less confused about who they want to be.
      Custom guys keep doing what you do. You’re in your own world and you set the trends. But then you have to live with what you set as the average klutz struggles while trying and failing to emulate it. His wise articulacy sets Irish Rich apart from most.

  3. I run a ’94 Evo and I wouldn’t want a new one if it was given to me. Not because of some sort of inverse snobbery that says only vintage is worthwhile and anything new is soulless and plastic. And certainly not because of where they’re made. No, it’s because my ’94 Evo has, for many years and 130,000miles, done everything I could want, when I want it and in a style that I want it to. It’s the best bike in the world, period, so there.
    By the way, is an Evo considered old or new nowadays?

  4. I’m no authority on bikes, far from it. I’ve always been into 4 wheels and Yank tanks (especially rods) were where my interest lay. I did, however, love choppers and Harley’s as ‘eye candy’ with the added bonus of an assault on the senses in real life. The sound of a Harley is truly ‘aural sex’ and the sensations you experience in the presence of one, or preferably many, is unique.

    I recall, in the late ’70’s, scorning the Japanese ‘mosquito’s with their nylon tyres and whining two stroke engines. The lads at work would rev their Yamaha’s and Honda’s and I would accuse them of offending my ears and advise them to invest in a real bike, a Triumph or Harley cos Norton’s were not cool enough.

    Unfortunately, along came the Gold Wing and soon after, a plethora of Japanese Harley ‘rip-offs’…. and boy did they do it well!

    In the UK, I believe the Harley has lost it’s standing among the cycle crowd. They did have a crowd of disciples in the past. Bikers were split between the racers and the hogs, rarely did their interests cross over. Nowadays, it’s rare to see a Harley over here. :'(

  5. Mickey P is right. The bike culture in the UK is mainly centred around ‘crotch rockets’, wanna be track racers. Here in the North East of England there are quite a number of Harleys, not weekend warrior riders, mainly mature guys (like me!) who wanted one when they were younger but couldn’t afford to buy one! Sold my custom Sportster a couple of years ago, ridden bikes all my life but with the volume of traffic on the road over here I figured all my nine lives had probably run out & it would be nice to live to enjoy my retirement! Miss the bike badly!

  6. IMHO the rant listed in the main text got it wrong. Consider the fact that there is a potentially huge market in India. Consider that taxes on imported whole bikes makes them unaffordable. Consider that shipping ckd (completely knocked down) made in America by Americans, motorcycles for ASSEMBLY in India means that the Motor Company sells more made in America machines and money for them flows from India to America and it makes good sense. Hardly treason! Screwing Erik Buell? Harley-Davidson is a business and if it does not make a profit it folds. Buell was making losses despite his undoubted mechanical design genius. H-D did what any company facing tight times would do; cut losing segments of its business. Sad but true. As a fan of Erik and his bikes I hated to see it happen but tough times mean tough measures.

    • Corperate wisdom from the good Dr., but, do you ride? Harley would’nt be in thier own self imposed trouble if they knew how to run a buisness in the first place. Through marketing trends Harley knew that they had to gear up for the baby boom . Through sheer corperate greed direct from “THE BOARDROOM OF BRILLIANCE!!” they forced their own dealers to shun the meat and potatos part of the buisness to sell ice cream and cake instead. Either clean up,re-locate or expand your buisness to sell every H.D. emblazoned goody or close up shop. Then go after every mom & pop shop that had your bar and shield and threaten to squash them(even though it was free advertising ). Take the only man that stood for anything respectable related to your buisness and toss him out the door too. Lots of companys lose money on one end their buisness to re-gain it in another but they do it to keep the customer base happy (besides buell being the R&D part of it).
      You think the marketing analysis department could’nt see the end of the boom coming,bullshit, their job is to look at trends years ahead of time. The babyboom was ending and the boardroom just ran it into the wall. The back-up plan was to cover their ass by crying poverty to the unions and make them look greedy.”How could this possibly happened???” “We’re going to have to have give backs or move the MoCo. out of the U.S”.. It’s the shareholders we’re responsible to or else they’ll have us replaced and we’ll do anything to keep our BIG BONUS CHECKS AND GOLDEN PARACHUTES COMING!!!”
      They killed everything to satisfy the sweet tooth. Harley Davidson is about as relevant as a 3 day old dog turd. I wrench and ride on my old H.D’s and hunt through friends and swap meets to get parts that were made by a properly run GREAT AMERICAN CO. by Execs. who actually cared about something more than just the bottom line. Produce an honest product and receive a solid customer base. Seems the fly by night customers are’nt working out that well after all.

      Tim

  7. A guy at work says “the whole Harley thing was more fun when it was still anti-social.”
    He’s a 3rd gen rider..
    It won’t surprise me if it happens again someday, when H-D. is a much smaller company than it is today. And the anti-socials are riding beat-up old Harleys (today’s shiny new ones
    with a few miles&years on them) ..A time when the old ‘ricers have been crashed/worn out
    and new bikes legislated into safe,slow, quiet, blandness. Probably electric too :-)

  8. Hi Tim, yes mate I ride. About 30,000 miles each year. I own a ’48 Pan. a ’91 FXR and a 2012 Road Glide. As a bike journo down under I also get to ride a number of new model bikes from both Harley-Davidson and Victory, often doing big miles on them. As for the relevance of Harley-Davidson, from January 1st through mid-February 2012, a Harley-Davidson dealerships survey by Wisconsin-based Robert W. Baird, a wealth management, capital markets, asset management and private equity firm, reveals that sales of new motorcycles were up about 30% nationwide. That’s pretty relevant by my standards.

    • Sales may be up in the Antipodes , but they’re crashing thru the floor here in the US ! Stuff the surveys , they’re all not worth the paper they’re printed on . Ask the Dealerships themselves as well as paying attention to the plethora of Ads lately by local dealers offering discounts , freebies etc , just to try and get some sales out the door . You don’t offer massive discounts , price matching etc when sales are booming or even on the increase

      A little hint FYI . Anytime you read a survey put out by any US Wealth Management/Investment /Private Equity firm you can be guaranteed there’s an Agenda behind it and its not giving the facts as they truly are . More like convincing you to skim a few more $$$ out your back pocket and into theirs ;-)

  9. About 10 years ago, I desperately wanted a Sportster. I had just graduated from college and thought I had money to burn. I went into a dealership, and it just didn’t seem like the salesman had time to deal with a young man wanting a Sportster.

    At the time, I didn’t see any point in buying a used Sportster because individual used market sellers felt like their 5 year old Sportster with golden “Live to Ride” eagles all over it was worth more than a new non-“custom” Sportster (no disrespect to those who like bikes covered in eagles and cheesy slogans). I rode a used Honda to graduate school instead.

    By the time I left graduate school, I decided that I just didn’t want a Harley. It did seem that only old men rode them. Therefore, liking standard motorcycles, but not wanting to continue buying Japanese bikes (their standards had sportier style elements than I cared for) I found myself buying into the Triumph Modern Classics line of motorcycles.

    As of late, I have bought a couple of Harleys. I have finally acquired that late 1990’s – early 2000’s Sportster I coveted as a young man; I have a TC 88 that I enjoy thoroughly. However, I am not brand loyal. If push comes to shove, the Harleys will be sold long before my prized Triumph Scrambler.

    In my opinion, I think Harley should be interested in younger potential buyers, folks interested in Sportsters and Dynas. Get them to buy early, and they are very likely to remain loyal. Sell bikes with a competitive price tag. A bike that is affordable. Perhaps I’m the exception, and not the rule, but everyone doesn’t need a factory custom. A nice stripped down model with a stripped down price tag would be refreshing. Most folks are eventually going to change things on the bike to make it theirs anyway. Finally, trying to up-sell everyone to a bagger, or losing interest in the sell, isn’t going to get it.

    I apologize for the long reply, and I guess it’s all unimportant, but that’s how I feel as a 31 year old, white, male.

    In addition, the boutique / dealership thing is quite ridiculous. For a while, I thought riding a Harley was supposed to be about the open road, nomads and gypsies, knees in the breeze, oily jeans, long hair and beards. I now realize how off-base my assumption was. The other day, I breezed into an HD dealership to look at the new models, and my eyes were drawn to a Tag Heuer display. How many folks buy a Harley and an expensive watch during the same transaction? Not me. Maybe in another 20 years.

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