Love, Hate and Harley-Davidson

Sacred cows make the tastiest hambuger.
-Abbie Hoffman

I’m going to make somebody, somewhere very mad by writing this. I don’t mean to. When I say I “hate” Harleys, it’s really just hyperbole at my utter frustration with the brand. I mean, they’re an American icon like baseball and apple pie. I desperately want to love them, and in some dark recesses of my brain I do. What American doesn’t want to be proud of their country and believe we’re the best? I want the American motorcycle to the best, most sought after, amazing machine in the category.

It is not.

Harley, for all it’s mystique and nostalgia, has become a company marketing nothing but mystique and nostalgia. It’s image-based marketing. There’s nothing wrong with marketing intangibles, and every company who can, does. From Porsche to the Marine Corps, if there’s a certain “je ne sais quoi” it gets marketed because that will form an emotional bond with the brand far better than dry statistics or gas mileage. Nobody fantasizes about owning a Prius, for example, but early Saturns had the owner’s club and tried to bring you into “the family”. This was a smart attempt to form a bond. The difference is the USMC, Porsche, Apple, Ducati, Starbucks and any other brand with a rich history but are also continuing to make excellent products and remain at the cutting edge. They earn their status every day. Harley basically relies on romanticism of the past.

Now, let be very clear: a Harley is not a bad bike. They’ve come a long way from the oil dripping pieces of garbage they were in the 70’s and 80’s, and now have great reliability with 25,000 mile major service intervals. Considering just 5 years ago Ducatis required a valve job every 6,000 miles, it’s no small point to consider Harley was more trouble-free. And belt drive is ideal for their purpose.

It’s all the other stuff that bugs me.

Silly as this may seem, their use of the historic “1” logo of late is almost offensive. Why? Because Harley-Davidson had a great history in racing (XR750) and earned that #1, but when the competition got turned up they quit. This is what is so maddening to me about the Motor Company: rather than continue to innovate, improve, and be the best they just ceded and gave up. I think it’s shameful that we should consider a company with that attitude “the great American motorcycle”. If any Harley fan really cared about the company, rather than some b.s. image, they’d have been at the gates of the factory with torches and pitchforks when Buell got shut down. Here you have H-D employing the only innovative American bike builder at the time and rather than turn him loose to create great bikes, start bringing in a younger and different demographic, and gods forbid something beside a rolling La-Z-Boy… they shut him down. They kept forcing bureaucratic Harleyness on Erik Buell, designing by committee and causing the very cost overruns and delays to market they cited as reasons for shutting down the brand. Nevermind the fact that it was sales of the core Harley brand that were seeing huge declines. Harley tucks tail and walks away from competition when they used to dominate in at least one (dirt/flat track) arena. Instead they stick solely to an engine with a 6,000 RPM redline, force Buell to begin using Austrian Rotax motors to stay competitive, and make a great racer like Nicky Hayden ride foreign motorcycles.

What makes that even more comical is if you look around on Harley’s website, they have a video talking about how technologically advanced their bikes are, because they hide the electrical harness. You know, pretty much what every other bike manufacturer does.

While Harley doesn’t make a bad bike, it irks me that they really only make 3 4 models. The Sportster that really doesn’t live up to it’s namesake, the V-Rod, and Dynas or Soft Tails in varying degrees of fancy dress. A Harley rider told me that saying that “showed my ignorance”. I counter by saying that hanging saddle bags on an identical bike and calling it a new model [Now it’s a “bagger”. Hard to put into words how stupid that is.] is akin to Ford proclaiming that an F-150 Lariat and XLT are totally different vehicles. The only Harley that can turn without dragging bits on the ground is the XR1200, and that originated in the European market! I think Harleys have the nicest switch gear on the market, but I don’t want a parts bin bike. Quit using a fork from 10 years ago, and brakes from 20 years ago, combined with a new gas tank and telling me it’s a whole new motorcycle. Hanging a fairing in place of a ginormous windshield does not a new model make.

Again, I don’t have any problem with the bike itself. Retro is in; just look at the Mustang, Camaro, Challenger… Even the Triumph Thruxton. Retro is undeniably cool, and I’d be gutted to see Harley abandon their heritage entirely. They’re timeless like Ray-Ban Wayfarers. The thing is, they don’t have to abandon their heritage to make new or a variety of models. I’m not particularly in love with Honda motorcycles (and they’ve certainly had their missteps in recent years), but there’s a company that makes the Goldwing, Shadow, CBR series, standards, scooters, motocross bikes… No matter what style of riding you want, Honda has something for you! That’s a product line-up and diversity!

The biggest problem with Harley Davidson is the guys who ride ’em.

Yeah, I said it. And I’ve got friends who love Harleys, some who are part of the problem, and some who aren’t (Brett, you rock!). But H-D owners are the largest limiting factor to the brand’s potential and the reason why I’ll never buy one. I don’t want to dress up like a pirate and ride slowly in formation with lots of rugged individuals all acting alike on a straight, boring slab of highway in the midst of deafening roar. Nothing about that sounds like a good time. Here are some actual quotes from Harley guys to me:

HD Guy: Loud pipes save lives!
Me: Did you really just say that? ‘Cause you know what else saves lives? Real helmets and riding gear, and bikes that can stop, go, or turn worth a fart.

HD Guy: You can’t re-jet fancy fuel injection on the side of the road if you need to.
Me: That’s the point. You don’t need to.

HD Guy: An air-cooled motor has less to go wrong.
Me: Technically true. It also has a lot less power, and I think water cooled engines have been around long enough to be de-bugged technology.

At least BMW had the sense to design an air-cooled engine where the cylinders are actually out in the air. Ducati spread the cylinders 90 degrees as an L-twin, so nothing impedes air flow over the rear jug. The fundamental design of Harley’s motor and rear cylinder being cramped by components are just bad engineering.

HD Guy: The V-Rod isn’t a Harley.
Me: Really? ‘Cause it says Harley all over it and it’s made in Milwaukee. H-D was actually really smart to get Porsche’s help doing their first liquid cooled motor, because Porsche had recently transitioned from air to water cooled.

And it’s this last one that really hammers home to me that Harley owners/lovers are the worst part of the brand. There is no acceptance outside of their narrow view of what a “real” motorcycle is, or what a Harley is. This individual actually went on to say how they were proud Harley owners wouldn’t let H-D modernize. Because, somehow, even acknowledging the V-Rod as a legitimate Harley would in some way de-legitimize the brand or particular model they liked? What kind of petulant mindset is at work, here?

It’s the attacking of other motorcycles, or even one of their own that gets out of lock-step that makes me never want to be associated with the typical Harley owner. It’s no wonder the in order to produce a good bike like the XR1200, H-D had to do it away from their typical stateside clientele. Part of me will always love Harley, just like baseball and apple pie. But with so many of their owners living up to that episode of South Park…? Congratulations HOGgers: you’ve kept your blood pure and helped assure the eventual demise of the brand you claim to love so dearly, because I won’t give ’em a red cent now. If you truly loved Harley, you’d be mad that they’re not expanding their lineup and customer base, ensuring long-term success. Because now if I want an American motorcycle, I’ll buy a Motus, Honda that’s build stateside or Victory.

P.S.- Easy Rider sucked, and Peter Fonda was a drug-dealing hippie.

11 thoughts on “Love, Hate and Harley-Davidson

  1. A great article, about bikes, and I can’t disagree with anything you said. In fact, it’s pretty easy to see that any company that sells anything better be good at marketing to do so. Sadly, marketing seems to be key for most consumers, not reality.

    • Yeah, I don’t know if it really originated with him (don’t care for anything he stood for, honestly) and I hate mis-attributing quotes, but the other attribution is to Mark Twain and this just seems unlikely. The hamburger as we know it today only came into being shortly before Twain’s death. I think it’s far more likely that this was a turn of phrase that Hoffman liked and popularized. And this is why it takes me so long to write a post- because I go back and research even a quote like that, when hamburgers came into being for veracity, etc. LOL.

      • When he was Barry Freed I knew there was something I didn’t like about him but he was keeping a fairly low profile. He also had a great looking girl friend.

  2. Just the sort of thing I’d expect from someone who hates 1911s! 😉

    (yes, I know you don’t really hate 1911s)

    Seems like I read somewhere that the company that ran HD so far into the ground in the 70s is the one that is currently attempting to run Marlin and Remington into the ground. There should be a lesson here somewhere.

  3. Great job Eric. This is why I wish someone here would make an American version of Honda motorcycles.

    PS: Peter Fonda’s character knew he sold out by selling drugs. “Man, we blew it.” (not bad for only seeing the movie once.)

  4. I was going to point out that you missed a US made dirt bike…..ATK. They used to make a cool Rotax powered flat track bike. But then I went to their site.

    ATK used to make US made dirt bikes but now they are rebadging Hyosung street bikes! What a shame.

  5. “…ride slowly in formation… on a straight, boring slab of highway in the midst of deafening roar.” Immortal words. Essentially how I describe motorcycle hell.

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