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EXPLAINING THE WHOLE “HARLEY THING”

Why do people even buy these things?

IMAGE BY NICK EDARDS

Hell, I guess someone oughta have a crack at explaining this phenomenon. And that someone might as well be me. I’m thinking I’ve made enough bones on that rocky road to offer an informed opinion on this rather perplexing occurrence.

 

Harleys are iconic motorcycles. No-one can argue that. But the reason they have achieved this status is unique. No other legendary motorcycle manufacturer achieved its place in the pantheon of glory everlasting for the same reason.

 

It was not race wins that made the Harley legend; though Harley did win a bunch of flat-track and board-racing events a million years ago. I think we’d see Rossi return to MotoGP and secure another title before we’d see Milwaukee have a crack at the big time. Or the WSBK.

 

Nor was it great technological leaps eagerly copied by other manufacturers that made Harley one of the world’s most recognisable and revered brands. It did not even invent the V-twin engine which powered all of its storied heritage. The V-twin was invented in Europe, and Indian beat Harley to the draw in the USA with that configuration by two years.

 

So neither motorcycle racing or motorcycle technology made Harley great. It seems astonishing it survived into the modern era at all, doesn’t it?

 

Actually, no. Harley had something no other manufacturer had. It had something that cannot be invented in an engineering workshop, or celebrated on a racetrack as proof of concept. And it was that something, an X factor, if you will, that has cemented Harley-Davidson into the annals of human history in a way no other bike manufacturer will ever achieve.

 

That X factor was (and still is) its outlaw cachet. Up until the American wild boys started their clubs, went on their runs, started raising Hell, and affronting the very conservative US society they were sticking their middle finger up at, Harley was just another bike maker.

 

The birth of this sub-culture was a uniquely American occurrence. Outlaw clubs can now be found on every continent on earth. But just like America gave the world rock’n’roll, it also gave the world outlaw clubs. They were born in the USA, and like rock’n’roll, what they were and what they offered, has resonated with men all over the world.

 

And they are what made Harley the icon it is. Which is an occurrence certainly unprecedented in motorcycling history. A group of customers – largely antisocial, often violent, certainly exciting, and undeniably aspirational in that dark hidden place lurking in every man’s soul – made a motorcycle into so much more than the sum of its parts, simply by buying it.

 

What’s even more amazing is the Harleys these men bought often remained stock only for as long as it took them to get the bike into their sheds. Once inside that shed, the stock Harley was transformed into something utterly unique, but still absolutely recognisable as a Harley. The sound it made and the configuration of its engine made it instantly recognisable as a Harley – even if no two looked alike.

 

And so began Harley’s eternal marriage to the outlaw motorcyclist. And it was a marriage. It certainly wasn’t a love affair. Harley was a relatively normal multinational vehicle manufacturer. As such, it could hardly acknowledge publicly it owed its amazing cachet (and success) to a bunch of tattooed beer-drinkers, knife-fighters, hellraisers, and meat-eaters, could it?

 

But the good Lord knows they would have been back-slapping each other like Italians at a christening each time an event like Sturgis or Daytona came up and hundreds of one percenters would arrive to party with hot bitches, punch people who needed punching, and have run-ins with the law.

 

That’s what being an outlaw was all about. And outlaws only rode Harleys. But you too, could ride a Harley. Anyone could.

 

And riding a Harley when weren’t an outlaw allowed you to bask in that dangerous glamour without going to jail, getting stabbed, or having babies with a slut you think might have been called Misty.

 

Thus did the marque became the epitome of cool. It was an astonishing thing, when you think about it.

 

People tattooed the logo onto their skins. Songs were written about the bikes, and they appeared in Hollywood moves ridden by all the coolest and most dangerous of characters. Girls would put on make-up and their shortest skirts when a big pack of Harleys rode into town, and fathers would check their firearms.

 

The outlaws who were busily cementing themselves into the psyche of western society – while inadvertently providing Harley with a marketing wet dream – were invariably young, unapologetically male (back when that was a good thing), and lived a lifestyle many young men secretly or even openly admired.

 

And how could they not? Here were tribes of men sworn to brotherhood, bound by a code of honour, riding loud motorcycles as fast as they would go, and surrounded by girls who looked very much like they enjoyed having sex. To the conservative western societies of the 60s, 70s, and 80s this was Kryptonite.

 

From a romantic perspective, an outlaw was what all men deeply wished they were. Reality was very different, and few men, maybe 99 per cent of them, could not deal at all with what being an outlaw entailed. It was very much a live fast, die young kinda thing. And while that’s great to look at from a distance, living it requires a commitment few men are prepared to make, and a desire even fewer men dare express.

 

But they could still buy that Harley. And having bought that Harley, they could ride it on weekends, and as they went thundering past a car full of normal people, or roared through a busy street on a Saturday night, those people looked. Some with disdain. Some with quiet desperation. Some with damp panties and sparkling eyes. But they all looked.

 

Harley understood capitalising on this phenomenon was a no-brainer. As its bikes became more reliable, and thus more attractive to a normal human, rather than tattooed lunatic who could rebuild a Shovelhead top-end with a hammer and a rock while his girlfriend showed her tits to passing cars and rolled joints, Harley’s marketing department went apeshit.

 

It actually started marketing the lifestyle rather than the product. You buy a Harley and you get all this other stuff that goes with it. Ephemeral stuff. The genius was that it was marketing a lifestyle 99 per cent of its customers could never have, and actually did not want to have for real. It was selling part-time bad-arsery. Which was an act of genius we have not yet seen equaled in the corporate world. And we won’t, because it can’t be.

 

The success of this marketing strategy depended on outlaws being outlaws. And outlaws are gonna outlaw. That is what they do. They don’t give any kind of shit what you do, because you don’t live in their world, and nothing you think or say affects them in any way at all. You lead a life of quiet desperation. Outlaws lead a life of immense highs and commensurate lows. Quiet desperation? Not so much.

 

That dangerous glamour has an atavistic appeal to people. It hits them right in the lizard brain. And it’s the lizard brain that’s slamming fat wads of cash onto a Harley dealer’s counter, then slamming more cash down when it sees there’s a costume that goes with the bike.

 

Harley even created its own “club”. The Harley Owners Group, or HOG for short. It was created and run by Harley’s marketing department, and it offered its members badges they could sew onto their leather vests, just like the one percenters had. And they could go on runs and ride in formation, just like the one percenters did. And they had office bearers and titles just like the one percenters have. And when they rode past normal people, those normal people thought they might very well be actual one percenters.

 

They were, of course, nothing of the sort. But a quick uninformed glance, coupled with the booming thunder of a hundred Harleys, certainly made it seem that way to the general public. The HOG members lapped it up. They basked in it. They sewed ever more wonderful badges onto their vests, bought all sorts of gorgeously chromed Harley parts to put on their bikes – well, to have the Harley dealership put on their bikes – and just wallowed in a strange ersatz and very part-time version of the outlaw lifestyle. If an outlaw was a full-strength beer, the HOG thing was the alcohol-free beer-tasting soft drink you buy in the supermarket.

 

But it worked. Harley sold bajillions of bikes. Even as other manufacturers developed their bikes to go faster, handle better, forge hard trails, or cut faster lap-times, Harley opted for different paintjobs, and glacial (and very minute) technological changes which were mainly driven by emission legislation rather than customer demand.

 

The vast majority of Harley’s customers were not motorcycle riders per se. They were Harley buyers. Their interest was not so much motorcycling as it was riding Harleys with like-minded people. Things like handling, performance, brakes, and suspension, were of little concern to them. As long as the bike thundered like an artillery piece, while accelerating like an old car, and handling like a fridge rolling down a mountain, they were happy.

 

The actual essence of riding was not what drove them. Intriguingly, what drove them was the chintzy aping of a lifestyle utterly and forever denied to them. And quite frankly, they wanted no part of it. It was far too dangerous, feral, and hard-eyed for these people.

 

Did Harley give a shit? Not at all. Harley, like every other bike builder, is in the business of selling bikes. If its customer base was not demanding “faster, better, madder” motorcycles, why would it build them? It was more cost-effective to sell the sizzle than the sausage.

 

But that turned out to be a double-edged sword. The Harley “thing” and its ongoing success hinged entirely on outlaws continuing to outlaw.

 

And that depended entirely on the tolerance of an ever-increasingly hostile police force. That tolerance was never going to last. Certainly not here in Australia, where the population has no Bill of Rights, and thus has no rights at all.

 

As Australian society became safer and more law-abiding, police turned their attention to the low-hanging fruit of outlaw clubs. The cops really didn’t have all that much else to do. And one percenters were easy pickings. They stood out like dog’s balls. And so began the war on scary-looking people. As that war played itself out, outlaws didn’t go riding all that much. They became a rare sighting.

 

Simultaneously, the HOG membership was aging. And it wasn’t being replaced by younger members, because young people did not think a bunch of old people parading around on Harleys was all that cool. Outlaws were still cool, but you didn’t see them much anymore, and when you did, they were usually being hammered by the cops.

 

Everything kind of fell off a cliff for Harley in the early 20-teens. Sales began dropping, big time. Quarter after quarter of double-digit losses. HOG became ever more ridiculous – caricatures of a lifestyle that had itself evolved to something different to what it was in the 80s and 90s.

 

But somehow that outlaw glamour was still attached to Harley-Davidson. It could still be seen, albeit you maybe had to squint. There was still something about those anachronistic, thunder-spewing V-twins that spoke to men.

 

Outlaws still rode Harleys. You just didn’t see them in big packs anymore, but lots of clubs still attracted young members, despite the police harassment. That whole “Fuck you” thing is a part of our human programming. And since when has prohibition ever worked? Outlawing outlaws? Good luck with that. They will simply evolve into another version.

 

And Harley still sells a lot of bikes. So who is it selling those bikes to? HOG? No, not really. Its membership is in decline. Many have bought their last Harley. It’s hard to think you’re cool when people laugh at you. Outlaws? Sure. But there ain’t all that many of them. Certainly not enough to keep Harley afloat.

 

So who is buying Harleys, and why are they still buying them? I’m thinking it’s the same kind of people who have always bought them. It cannot be anyone else. It has to be people whose lizard brain still whispers to them about outlaws.

 

Some of those people go off to join outlaw clubs. Others form social clubs, which again are nothing but watered-down versions of outlaw clubs. There’s just something about riding in a big pack of thundering V-twins that is hugely pleasing – even if it is just a speed-limit parade thing, rather than a 160-plus cyclone of close-riding bastards with a diamond-shaped one percent patch on their chests.

 

Others join no club, but ride around by themselves or with a very few mates, relishing the torque, the sound, and the ephemeral hint of outlawry that invariably informs every Harley.

 

You’re not buying a Harley for its performance or handling. You’re buying it for its outlaw DNA, a little of which rubs off on you when you gun it, or park it outside a country pub, or indeed, a place where pretty girls in high heels dance on tables. It’s the only kind of bike that looks right parked there.

 

But I have to tell you so you’ll know. Buying a Harley does not make you cool. Only you make you cool. If you’re not cool, and you buy a Harley, you’re not suddenly going to be cool. You may look cool (at a glance) as you ride past, but the moment you stop somewhere and get off, and people see the real you, the uncool you, you’re gonna wish you bought a Royal Enfield instead.

 

There are Harley-Davidson riders one laughs at, and there are Harley-Davidson riders one does not dream of laughing at. And that’s got nothing to do with the bike, has it? Harley doesn’t care who buys its bikes. It just cares they’re bought.

 

And I think they should be bought. And I think they should be ridden – hard, long, loud, and nasty. Because that is what they are all about, and what they have only ever been all about. Harleys are made for outlaws. But not everyone is made to be an outlaw.

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Boris Mihailovic

Boris is a writer who has contributed to many magazines and websites over the years, edited a couple of those things as well, and written a few books. But his most important contribution is pissing people off. He feels this is his calling in life and something he takes seriously. He also enjoys whiskey, whisky and the way girls dance on tables. And riding motorcycles. He's pretty keen on that, too.

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