Why police depts. are ditching Harley

Before I say anything else, this post is not about bashing Harley. This is borne out of my frustration that they won’t innovate and give American riders more options. Like my post about Triumph, or BMW still making boxer engines, heritage and innovation don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

Michigan State Police objectively prove Harleys suck. Article and inflammatory headline courtesy of RideApart.

Now granted, this was posted by Wes Siler:

It’s no secret that I utterly loathe cruisers, they’re just everything that’s wrong with the world summed up in two wheels. No specific brand, if they’ve got forward controls, too much chrome and an inverse relationship between power and engine size, then they’re all the same in my book.

I mostly agree with Wes, although I’m actually intending to go much easier on Harley and point out their strengths in this post, but there are some significant things about the above link that really should be addressed. First, the testing was done by state governments (Los Angeles jumped in on the article later, providing their testing results). Second, BMW with a much smaller engine outperforms the larger H-D mills, and Police depts. seem to think that performance matters.

“Great,” you say, “but there’s such a thing as speed limits and I’m not going to be chasing down crooks.” All likely true, but it overlooks the practical real-world reasons to be concerned about performance on your daily motorcycle: safety.

Obviously we don’t all need twitchy rockets of weaponized two-wheel speed for our daily commute. The public roads are not a MotoGP course, and street racing is incredibly dumb and dangerous. But having enough power to quickly scoot out of a vehicle’s blind spot or ergonomics that foster good handling (read: the opposite of forward foot pegs) for an emergency swerve are two aspects that are nothing but beneficial. I’ve often popped up to 90-100mph for a quick squirt past a semi-trailer only to back off to 70-75 for reasonable riding. It’s not stunting, it’s safety. And the cops’ testing gave H-D fairly poor ratings in the ergonomics department, mostly due to the forward foot positioning (harder to turn). It’s nice to sit in a relaxed posture when you’re on straight, flat, boring roads in the American midwest, but relaxing on a bike is what gets you killed. There’s definitely room for cruising, but a whole lot more of us need to be alert and aware.

Corollary- there are 1.6 motorcycle crashes in North Dakota every day. Considering the state’s small population, I am surprised (the entire state has fewer people than my home town). Considering 95% of the bikes I see are cruisers being ridden with no helmets, I’m less surprised and more concerned.

Now I’m going to say (write) something I never thought I would: Harleys are comparatively slow and poor handling, but that doesn’t mean they’re bad bikes. Just bad bikes for certain applications. While a BMW 1200 can outperform a big Harley, the Harley motor isn’t very stressed and should last a good long while. The crappy build quality reputation just isn’t true today (and hasn’t been for quite a while). And while most Harleys are tacky or ostentatious, the Softail Deluxe and Softail Classic really do capture a beautiful heritage look that Harley markets so hard. Belt drive is durable and maintenance free. And H-D leathers are high quality, full grain pieces of gear. I desperately wish Harley would take the quality they already produce and simply add CE-rated armor for impact protection. I would love to see the “cool kid” of motorcycling lead the way in safety.

For leisurely riding, Harley makes a durable, long lasting, and comfortable motorcycle.

Where Harley falls down is that in many ways they become less of a “real” motorcycle company and more of a lifestyle brand. H-D riders are famous for asking others when they’ll get a “real” motorcycle, and while that’s more a problem of culture than hardware it’s indicative of ignorant riders and a Motor Company that doesn’t really care to educate them (or perhaps can’t). When it comes to “real” motorcycling, the biggest problem is subjective definitions and exclusionary thinking. MotoGP and World Superbike are awesome examples of technology and testbeds for future tech and safety gear, but is it “real” motorcycling as applies to the public road motorist? The long straight roads of flyover country may be the majority of America’s geographical makeup, but when cities house the majority of the population it’s hard to accept that as “real” motorcycling.

I’ve long thought the most “real” example of motorcycling is the motor cop. This is a guy (or gal) who rides a motorcycle in the hazards of traffic professionally. Daily. Road grime, sunburns, bad weather, gravel, potholes, inattentive cagers, sun glare and reflections are all obstacles this officer faces for an 8+ hour shift on top of their duties responding to calls, accidents, trauma, etc. If there’s anybody who can give a boots-on-the-ground report about what’s needed in a “real” motorcycle, it’s these guys. And it’s telling that fewer and fewer departments are choosing Harley-Davidson.

The thing is, I truly believe Harley could give BMW a run for their money if they wanted to.

The Buell Ulysses was available as a police model. Better lean angles (Harley apologists confuse handling with ride comfort or only point out low speed maneuver videos), foot pegs under the rider, a taller bike for a commanding view of the road… With a smoother engine and a lower price point than a BMW R1200RT-P, it would’ve been a heck of a contender.

I bought my BMW while living in Las Vegas, and a motor cop pulled up next to me to compliment it before saying, “I wish they’d quit buying us these pieces of garbage.” He was referring to his department and riding a Harley. I told him I was surprised to hear him say that, I’d heard the motors were strong, etc. He simply took his hands off his bars and pointed to them as they began to violently shake at the stoplight. “You see that?” he said. “That is no fun to deal with all day in stop and go traffic.”

Now I don’t know about vibration, but I know the liquid cooled motor H-D makes is slightly more powerful than the 1200 BMW puts in the bike most departments are purchasing. If they took it upon themselves to build a lighter bike as a challenge (weight is another reason cops prefer the BMW), I honestly think a Screaming Eagle could be the best all around motorcycle on the road simply because Harley has the experience and financial capital to do it. Get the price down in the Kawasaki range (the 3rd most purchased cop bike, to my knowledge) as a law-enforcement-only package and it would be worth it to take a loss selling to police departments if it generated interest in the brand from riders (like me) who won’t consider them now.

Harley has the engine. They need a new frame instead of the four they keep using, and they could revive the Buell XB frame or something similar. They don’t need to abandon tradition as a company- that would be suicide. But abandoning tradition for a skunkworks project could yield some amazing results.

Everything wrong with Harley, and maybe America, in a single picture.

Everything wrong with Harley, and maybe America, in a single picture.

The biggest, and perhaps only, obstacle Harley-Davidson faces is also it’s greatest strength: the culture surrounding it. There’s no doubt Harley is ubiquitous in the United States: dealers are everywhere, and they’re the number one selling street bike in America. Maybe they’re the number one selling brand, period, maybe they need qualifiers of certain size (they’re heavy bikes), I don’t know. I do know that Harley is doing just fine and turning a profit without my input, and that’s for certain. But I’ll never buy one until Harley-Davidson comes out and tells the pirate conformists, “We tell you individuality is good, and that means it’s good for hipsters and sport riders and pragmatists, too.” When the Motor Company starts advocating safety instead of bandannas, and tells their customers that they care about them and want them to be safe. When H-D says “safety is cool” and markets it as such with a serious face. When they get the loyalists to cheer for something different because it proves what American engineering is capable of. When I don’t have to listen exclusively to hideous classic rock in a dealership (did you notice Low Rider playing in the linked video?).

That’s when I’ll buy a Harley.

Because the truth of it is, more than anything else I would love to ride and be proud of an American motorcycle. And I truly do believe Harley could make great motorcycles without sacrificing their cruiser heritage or allure. Why should cruiser riders feel endangered or threatened if H-D makes an adventure bike as well, just to prove they can? Let’s face it, it’s not as if making the same four frames requires much R&D. Harley fans are the very ones who should applaud when something new like the V-Rod or Buell is introduced, not decry them and try to keep the company stuck in the 1970s (arguably the ugliest decade in recorded history). As a nation, we’re capable of so much. I wish we’d reach for excellence.

The last two sentences of the RideApart story say it best:

If objective evaluation like this can convince other police departments to stop being blinded by “patriotic” purchasing and start equipping their officers with the best possible equipment then it might be a first step in forcing Harley-Davidson to stop falling back on its American heritage and actually innovate. Motorcycling in this country would be stronger if they did.

5 thoughts on “Why police depts. are ditching Harley

  1. as weird as it sounds, Harley needs to look at Caddy and Buick to see where they need to go. Those two car companies were entrenched in their “base” and had customers literally dy8ing off on them. They needed to change and get a younger market in without losing their base and they did it.

    If they can, why not Harley?

  2. I agree with most of what you wrote, except that Harleys are comfortable. Ever sat on a Wide Glide? Least comfortable thing I ever did was take a 500 mile road trip on one. Some Harleys are comfortable, just like some BMWs, and some Triumphs… but not all of them.

    • The wide glide isn’t a 500 mile trip bike though once you get over 100 miles you need to be on something like the electraglide or ultra classic. That’s what those are designed for. The smaller bikes don’t even try it and the mid range bikes you might be able to do it with stopping every few hours.

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