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.
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