“They’re built to last.” “You can customise them.” “They hold their value.” “You can find parts easy.”
What a load of old bollocks.
People don’t buy Harley’s because they’re built to last. People buy Harley’s because of the way they make them feel.
And whether you’re attached to the history, the heritage, good old Americana, or the fact that Harley’s are the only bikes you ever owned, it’s all down to personal connection.
It’s about the soul of the bike.
And it’s about feeling part of something bigger.
Let’s not forget, we all like a story. And Harley-Davidson has a story so potent with nostalgia and legacy that, for many people, it makes the thought of owning anything else unthinkable.
Harley-Davidson In The War
Speaking of stories, you don’t have to look too far in the archives of Harley-Davidson to find several stories that would make any American melt with patriotism.
For a start, Harley’s rolled around in 1903 – right around the time the Wright brothers took to the skies in North Carolina. So by the time WWI came around, Harley-Davidson had already been dripping in Americana for a decade.
But probably my favourite story is that of Harley’s playing their role in combat:
I love that.
But it doesn’t stop there. Because throughout the war, 20,000 Harley-Davidson’s were used to reach places Jeeps couldn’t get to. And they brought back thousands of soldiers, wounded and maimed, from places unreachable by 4x4s of the time.
Now, even if you’re not a Harley person, that’s some pretty powerful history. And it makes you want to be a part of it.
Harley-Davidson’s Make A Statement
After the wars, the Golden Age of the 1950s roared into existence – and Harley-Davidson exploded onto movie screens across the States. The bad boy image was formed, and the Harley-Davidson became an iconic symbol of those who rebelled against the system.
A few years later, with the Swinging 60s well underway, Honda crashed the party with their smaller, lighter, less expensive, and more dependable machines. And so began the decline of Harley-Davidson.
But not for the hardcore Harley riders.
For these individuals, cruising on a Harley-Davidson Low Rider became a political statement. It became a cultural assertion and an expression of social standing. And most of all, it became a clear and concise way of shouting “fuck you” to the world.
Where white-collar workers commuted to the office on nice new Honda’s, Harley riders were the antithesis.
For the kids of the 60s watching outlaws on Harley-Davidson’s, the bad boy seed had been planted. A romance was born.
And who can blame them? Because let’s be honest, who doesn’t want to be a badass on a Harley?
Twenty, thirty, or forty years later, these kids of the 60s still vividly remember the cultural importance of those rider’s on Harley’s.
And with the mortgage paid off (and a little extra cash in the bank), they still feel the pull of Harley-Davidson motorcycles to this day.
Related: Why I DIDN’T Buy A Honda NT1100
The Sound Of The Harley Thump
Ask any Harley rider why they ride a Harley-Davidson, and one of the reasons they tell you is the sound.
Ironically enough, Harley’s didn’t start off loud. The original single-cylinder offering was designed in such a way that oil-ladened components were encased – therefore preventing noise.
In fact, Harley were so proud of this that it was marketed as “the silent grey fellow” due to it being “so silent that it cannot be heard across the street.”
How times change!
Fast forward a few years, and Harley-Davidson’s legendary V-twin motor was born. And with it came the notorious ‘bang, bang, pop’ (lovingly referred to as potato-potato) that’s still synonymous with Harley’s history and meaning to this day.
In fact, it’s so synonymous with Harley-Davidson that they even attempted to trademark it back in 1994.
Of course, it was contested and ultimately ended up with numerous litigations. So in the end, the file was dropped.
But it just goes to show how iconic the sound of the Harley-Davidson became. It was the sound of America for generations.
The Feel Of A Harley-Davidson
It’s all too easy to look at a Harley-Davidson at idle and make assumptions about the barbaric shaking, jostling, and vibrations.
Let’s be honest, it doesn’t look good.
But here lies the problem with outsiders who form an opinion on Harley’s based on revving it at a standstill.
Because that’s not what a Harley is meant to do. A Harley-Davidson is supposed to be ridden. And once it’s moving, all of that vibration is converted into forward motion. It no longer becomes an issue.
And not only does it not become an issue, but the result is a buttery smooth ride combined with a heavy, planted feel that’s both comforting and completely natural.
Harley-Davidson’s weren’t developed for you to look at. They were designed for you to ride. That’s why Harley-Davidson’s are great for touring.
But mechanics and engineering aside, there’s the emotional aspect, too. In other words, how it makes you feel when you ride it.
For many, riding a Harley-Davidson is a thing of pride and passion. For others, it’s the feeling of being badass – a consistent reminder of the rebels in those movies from years gone by.
Whether you’re actually badass is another matter. But who cares?
Because for the moment you’re cruising down Route 66 with a Harley between your legs and the sound of thunder behind you, you’re a badass.
And for most people, that will do nicely.
The Harley Style
I say style, but I’m not necessarily referring to aesthetics or the coolest Harley-Davidson.
See, Harley’s have never been the most ingeniously designed machines on the planet. Mechanically, they’ve been littered with issues for years – some of them downright dangerous (look up the effects of the rubber-mounted engine and twin shocks of the Dyna!)
But whilst fixing these issues would be relatively easy and cheap, Harley resisted the opportunity to change. Ultimately, the problems became a part of the bikes. They became the very characteristics of what made a Harley, a Harley.
This is not a practice you would find from a European or a Japanese manufacturer. Always on the hunt for perfection, these manufacturers fettle in the constant pursuit for ‘better.’
And that’s why we seem to have a new model of Ducati Multistrada hit the showrooms every four and half days.
But in the case of Harley-Davidson, the imperfections that make Harley’s so unique have been left for generations. And to change them now would rip away the history, heritage, and individuality that makes it a Harley in the first place.
If Ducati left the current Multistrada for the next 50 years, even the staunchest of Ducati lovers would up and leave in search of the next big thing.
But change a Harley, and there would be an uproar from generations of riders that have grown to know and love the Harley-Davidson – warts and all.
Notice I used the world branding rather than, say, marketing? Or advertising?
Of course, HD has a marketing department, and they regularly advertise. But that isn’t the message they portray. Because what they portray is a lifestyle.
Where most manufacturers market the features and benefits of their new bikes, Harley-Davidson portrays a lifestyle choice. A choice filled with freedom, individuality, expression, creativity, and a spot in an exclusive club.
I’m no marketing expert – nor do I intend to be one. But I know that no other bike manufacturer on the planet has ever been able to brand itself with the success that Harley-Davidson has.
In fact, the only other company I can think of whose branding reaches its audience on such a personal level is Apple.
Harley-Davidson people live and breathe Harley-Davidson. They defend the company, its reputation, and its bikes to the hilt.
They buy merchandise and support the brand. And they even get the logo tattooed on their skin.
And whilst I know plenty of BMW advocates in the bike world, I’m still yet to find one that has the blue and white BMW logo tattooed on their chest.
Harley-Davidson Lets You Be You
Everybody in the world has heard of Honda. But how many non-bikers do you see wearing a Honda-branded t-shirt?
None. Not a single person. And the reason for that is simple – non-bikers don’t aspire to be a part of the Honda image.
But Harley-Davidson reaches everyone in one way or another – whether you’re a biker or not.
It calls out to the rebel that’s buried deep inside – encouraging you to stand up and be counted. To proudly be who you want to be. And to raise your middle finger to anyone who tries to tell you otherwise.
Even if you’re not that person, it makes you feel that you can be. And that’s powerful. A Harley-Davidson t-shirt shows the world you’re unapologetically you – whether you ride one of their bikes or not.
And that’s why Harley-Davidson is the only motorcycle brand in the world with retail stores in malls and shopping centres – none of which, incidentally, sell bikes.
A Sense Of Belonging
Most people on this planet want to feel a sense of belonging. And we do that by being a part of something bigger than ourselves.
In the world of Harley, this transpires as the Harley Owners Group (HOG.)
Over the years, this group has become so large that there are now thousands of chapters all across the world.
With regular rides, meetings, and events, nothing says comradery, brotherhood, sisterhood, or belonging, quite like looking out over a sea of people, all of whom share your beliefs, style, and concepts of the world.
And nothing says loyalty like the Harley-Davidson shield on the backs of thousands of riders at a bike meet.
Harley-Davidson Is America
Along with Jack Daniels, Coca-Cola and Disney, Harley-Davidson is America. It’s hard to think of anything more patriotically American.
For natives, much of that has to do with history and the role Harley-Davidson played culturally as well as personally.
But from over here in the UK, the meaning is more literal.
I’ve been planning on riding across the States for a while now. And every year, something comes up, and it gets put on hold. But it will happen at some point.
I already know the route I want to take. Starting in New York, I want to tour the deep south, listen to Blues, and sample State cultures that appeal to me.
I know the roads I want to ride, the places I want to visit, and the tourist traps I want to avoid.
More than that, I know what I want to get from the trip, too.
But when it comes to the day I finally book my bike rental, you can bet your bottom dollar that I’ll be making my trip on a Harley-Davidson.
Because if you’re going to cross America on a motorcycle, it simply wouldn’t feel right doing it on anything other than… a Harley.
Top image: Jewad Alnabi