Thunder Between Your Knees, Lightning in Your Hand
What it's like to ride a Harley-Davidson for the first time
Now I know what sort of revelations and transformations a sky diver goes through the first time he jumps from a plane. The push of a button, a sound of thunder and sixty seconds later, I'm in the embrace of a gleaming, made-in-America sculpture, falling parallel to the road, arms and legs spread like a parachutist in magical defiance of both gravity and the ground. A 60 mph wind is trying to fling me over backwards and the polished aluminum V-Twin engine throbbing between my knees has conjured up images of John Wayne kicking me in the butt 4,000 times a minute and growling "Suck it up, pilgrim, you're riding a man's motorcycle now."
Note: I originally wrote this story for the April 1995 issue of the Robb Report. Information about the motorcycles will have changed, obviously, but the feeling is the same.
After a few moments of panic, forced to open up and embrace the wind, sun and sky by the Harley's
The opening was often better than the show, and the truth of the matter is that, for a few thousand bucks and a bit of gumption, you can live both lives, be both the businessman and the outlaw.
And I found that getting to that escapist frame of mind, known to devotees as "in the wind" -- a place accessible only by motorcycle -- no longer required revving a four-cylinder sewing machine to 11,000 rpm and traveling everywhere at speeds so vehemently extra-legal that a visit to either jail or the hospital loomed as very real possibilities every time I pulled on my helmet.
Like many men my age, I spent years playing the techno-bad boy on a succession of thinly-disguised Japanese racing bikes with names like Ninja and Katana (dismissed disdainfully as "rice rockets" by Harley riders, who call their bikes "hogs").
But, accumulating good sense and the cumulative aches and pains of time have driven me to change, and the instrument of my transformation was a Harley-Davidson "Wide Glide," a motorcycle you might remember calling a "chopper" in your youth.
The mechanical specs included an OHV V (2) Evolution V-Twin engine displacing 80 cu. in. and producing an unspecified but entirely adequate amount of horsepower. The bike weighs about 600 pounds, gets about 43 mpg around town and 55 mpg in the highway, comes in a choice of three one-color and three two-tone paint schemes and has a 12 month, unlimited mileage warranty.
And riding it is just as straightforward. Everything there is to learn about the physical act of herding a Harley is apparent in the first few minutes. The engine is more torque than horsepower, so roaring away from a stoplight is easy, but the chances of you ever seeing the other side of eighty miles an hour are slim. You can't go into a turn too fast, because if you lean it over too far you'll scrape those beautiful chrome exhaust pipes, but it does respond to being properly ridden, settling into a sweet, smooth groove when you hit the right line through a turn and power out with a roar.
There are, of course, other things you learn only through experience, such as making a religion of visiting the men's room whenever you stop for gas, because if you don't, you'll find yourself looking for a bush a few miles down the road.
At stoplights you find that sitting there with the brakes on doubles the amount of engine vibrations transmitted up through the frame, and in motion you find that riding a Harley is a substantial workout for the muscles in your stomach, middle back, hands and forearms. And at the end of a long ride, be prepared for the ringing in your ears to remind you of your immediate past for the next half hour.
Because this is not your typical toy, content to sit quietly in the dark awaiting your next flicker of interest, be prepared to find yourself out in the garage at night with an old towel, polishing the spots off your paint and the smudges off your chrome because you can't stand to see any imperfection in that jewel-like finish. Be prepared also for extended, Harley-centered discussions and for being on a first-name basis with your local Harley dealer as you spend dozens of hours and hundreds of dollars selecting from among the dazzling array of accessories available to transform your own stock factory bike into that just-right, one-in-the-world expression of your personality.
And the biggest and most delightful surprise of all is that every day since they gave me this bike to test, and I do mean every day, I've found some reason to ride it somewhere. In some cases it was an errand that I would normally have jumped in the car to do. In others, it was a conscious decision to stop what I was doing and explore the back roads or take a ride out to the coast and watch the sunset.
The beauty of it is that while playing hookey usually gives me the guilts, the mind-set generated by this roaring, thumping hunk of hardware makes it easy to dismiss even the most pressing problem as irrelevant to what's really important in life --the road, the wind in my face, the visceral reality of a life lived in the immediate.
While the kinetic and mechanical parts are easy, it gets more complicated when you factor in the emotional and psychological. For instance, if you're the
CEO of a company with a big blue-collar work force
and you're in need of a way to connect with them, to humanize yourself, try
showing up at work some morning on your Harley.
And while Harleys are basically a man's machine, most of them have two
seats, and there's such an event-oriented social aspect to riding once you get
really involved that your significant other may well want to be included, so be
prepared for a change in the nature of your relationship. And be prepared, at some point, for her to
demand a Harley of her own.
All of these considerations, and rewards, are unique to involvement with no other motorcycle but a Harley-Davidson. And if you're one of those guys who drives a big-buck exotic car for the ego gratification of having people wonder if you're famous, forget it. Anybody likely to be impressed by a Harley will be looking at the bike, not the person riding it. The distilled truth of all this is that a Harley owns you every bit as much as you own it; it's a partnership that benefits both, a symbiosis between man and machine that exists nowhere else in the retail world.
All this is pertinent to our story because these motorcycles are not about a particular number of cubic inches of displacement or square inches of chrome; a Harley is something else entirely. It's a gestalt, a lifestyle, an extended family of asphalt philosophers. This is an American icon sculpted in chrome, the living remains of an earlier America when craftsmanship was the prevailing ethic and nobody had ever heard of Honda.
A Harley is Iron John up on two wheels and that drum in the forest is really the muted thunder of a two-cylinder Harley-Davidson engine echoing among the trees. A Harley is the last of the open range, the final refuge of the drifter that lurks in the secret hearts of all men, the gateway to a different life.
In your leather jacket and helmet, on the road on your Harley, you are not the same person you've been all day, all month, all your life. A Harley is an alternate-reality generating device on two wheels that you can put away at night so you don't have to give up everything you worked so hard for all your life. A Harley is as immune to trends as a Corvette, and both have inspired similarly large and loyal followings, with just a few stress cracks showing along the fault lines that separate young and old, blue collar and white collar.
The opening of the late 70's TV series "Then Came Bronson" said it best. Once a willing cog in the machine of business, Bronson inherits a Harley Sportster when his younger brother dies, goes through a spiritual reversal, decides life is too short to waste, packs a bedroll on his bike and hits the road. On his way out of town, a bone-tired businessman in a company car pulls alongside our hero astride his Harley Sportster and says, "Where you headed?" Bronson replies, "Oh, just down the road, I guess."
You can see the pain and longing in the businessman's face as he says, "Man, I wish I was you." To which Bronson replies, "Well, hang in there," and roars off down the highway to adventure.
The key to that transition has been manufactured for the last 92 years in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It started in 1903 when Bill Harley and Arthur, Walter and Bill Davidson rolled the first hand-crafted Harley-Davidson out of a 10 x 15-ft. shed in the Davidson's back yard. They built three motorcycles that year, and it took until 1909 for them to develop the new V-Twin engine that, after much evolution but with the basic concept still intact, still powers the company's products to this day.
By 1911 there were 150 brands of motorcycle on the roads of America, and Harley-Davidson had already found favor with both the police and the military, participating in border skirmishes with Pancho Villa as early as 1916. As motorcycles became more reliable, the U.S. military used them to support the infantry in WWI, and by the end of the war, more than 20,000 Harley-Davidsons had been called to duty.
The years following WWI saw major advances in motorcycle design, and Harley-Davidson was a technology leader. A Harley became the first vehicle to win a race at a speed in excess of 100 mph in 1921 and front brakes came into standard use in 1928.
Like the rest of America, the Great Depression savaged the motorcycle industry and only two major manufacturers, Harley-Davidson and Indian, survived. Thanks to a strong dealer network, widespread use by the police and military and conservative corporate management, Harley-Davidson was the one that prospered, building more than 90,000 motorcycles for use in WWII.
Harley-Davidson was a family-owned business until 1969 when it was purchased by the American Machine and Foundry Corp. (AMF), and after surviving two world wars, the depression and a corporate takeover, the company's closest brush with extinction came at the hands of the Japanese during the motorcycle boom of the mid-70's. It even went so far as to diversify into manufacturing snowmobiles for a few years.
But Harley-Davidson was lagging technically, strapped for cash and producing bikes that were old designs with new reliability problems. By 1980, the end appeared to be in sight, but the cavalry came riding over the hill in the form of a $70 million leveraged buyout by a dozen Harley-Davidson executives.
The company fought back, modernized its designs and production, embraced the concept of niche marketing with a vengeance and hauled itself up by its own bootstraps back to prosperity. Market share for superheavyweight (engines 850cc or bigger) motorcycles climbed from 12.5% to 20% from 1983 to 1986, and to 50% in 1995.
The turnaround was due to several decisive moves by the company: the shrewd and aggressive corporate management of Chairman Vaughn L. Beals who fought for, and won, temporary protection from the predatory practices of the Japanese motorcycle industry; the adoption of innovative Japanese manufacturing techniques; and by taking control over all phases of design, manufacturing and marketing away from management and giving it instead to the people who actually had to build the bikes.
"It would not be too strong a statement to say that the employees themselves saved this company," says Ken Schmidt, Harley-Davidson's Director of Communications. "And they did such a good job at it that right after it became apparent the turnaround was succeeding, we had a steady parade of Fortune 500 companies to our door wanting to know how we did it."
But credit must also be given to the custom product innovations -- such as hybrids and factory customs (created as a desperate and successful response to having no money for new product development) -- by William G. Davidson (known as Willie G.), the jeans-and-black-leather clad grandson of the company's founder and Harley-Davidson styling guru since 1963.
"Harley-Davidson owners really know what they want on their motorcycles," says Willie G. "Everything matters from the kind of instrumentation, they style of the bars, the cosmetics of the engine, the look of the exhaust pipes and so on. Every little piece of a Harley is exposed, and it has to look just right. A tube curve or the shape of a timing case can generate enthusiasm or be a total turnoff. It's almost like being in the fashion business."
Although the company made its reputation with the image of leather-clad, existential bad-boys as defined by Marlon Brando in movie "The Wild One" (notwithstanding the fact that he was riding an Indian, not a Harley) it eventually found that this image clashed with the need to expand its market share in the only direction available – the white-collar middle and upper class.
But when they started marketing heavily to this group with events like "Biker Night at Bloomingdale's" and "Happy Harley Days/Rejoice on Rodeo Drive," and products ranging from cologne to wine coolers, long-time Harley loyalists objected strenuously to being deserted by the company they helped build, and who's products formed the core of both their lifestyle and life philosophy.
"The adoption of Harley-Davidson as a lifestyle accessory and as a tool for digging yourself out of your mid-life crisis is a purely spontaneous happening," says Schmidt. "We've always produced premium products, but we've always marketed them to the mainstream rider, and our emphasis has always been on quality rather than quantity. Demand is so great that our dealers are habitually short of product, and speculators are driving the price up. It's a process we're not happy with, but it's entirely out of our control."
So today Harley-Davidson exists as a balancing act between two polar opposites, who nonetheless share the open road harmoniously; hard-core bikers numbering in the tens of thousands and a growing group of white-collar executives in their 30s, 40s and 50s with wives, kids, homes in the suburbs and high-paying corporate jobs.
And the company's product line today reflects the diversity of their customers, with dozens of models ranging in price from $8,000 for the sporty, single-seat Sportster to $40,000 for the full-sized, full-custom models such as the Road King, the undisputed king of the two-wheel highway cruisers and festooned with enough chrome, lights and road-hugging weight to satisfy devotees of the 1959 Cadillac.
There are four sub-groups within this huge product line: the entry-level Sportster, the chopper-like Low Riders/Sport Cruisers and Softail/Factory Customs and the Touring line of big-bucks bikes designed for long-distance travel. Company statistics show no correlation between demographics and choice of motorcycles; some start out buying what they can afford and then move up, but eventually everyone winds up with that particular motorcycle that speaks to them in the secret language of the wind.
The thing to be aware of is that the Sportsters, and some of the mid-range bikes, have the engines bolted directly to the frame rather than rubber mounted, so the vibration level is much higher. They gave me a Sportster to ride after I had to give back the Wide Glide, and I didn't like it at all, not the not the vibration, not the bolt-upright riding position reminiscent of English bikes of the '60s. This would have been a different story if the order of bikes had been reversed, so test drive as many different kinds of Harleys as you can before you buy.
"For some Harley owners, that vibration is the very essence of the riding experience," says Schmidt. "But some wouldn't buy our bikes because of that, so we designed to their preferences. This adherence to the principles of niche marketing is in large part responsible for both the size of our product line and the company's ongoing success."
"You can see Harley-Davidson's future in the past and present," says Schmidt. "Harleys always had, and always will have, the V-Twin engine, sitting out there exposed for all to see. Quality will always be more important than quantity, and our motorcycles will always speak to the individual."
And that's about as much corporate-speak as this individual can stand for the moment. It's a beautiful day out and the sun's about an hour from going down, so my Harley and I are going to hit the road for the coast.
See you in the wind.