Next time you’re on the road, take a survey. I bet most of the motorcycles you see — and hear — will be Harley-Davidsons. The speedy sportbike rider spends a thrilling hour every Sunday or so on the road or track, but it’s the Harley crowd doing the daily commute, the cross-country vacation, the national rally. I’ve owned a dozen Harleys myself, the first a 20-year-old Big Twin I bought when I was 17. I’m 81 now, and when I ride my vintage 1970 racing Harley to the local casino, folks jump out of their motor homes to take its picture (it’s painted in a flag pattern, red, white and blue).
Harley is America’s motorcycle.
Or was. Now Harley is under attack. Just a few months ago, President Donald Trump posed with Harley executives at the White House. He called the brand “an American icon.” But in June the company announced it would move some production overseas to avoid retaliatory tariffs that the European Union was imposing over Trump policies — including a 25 percent duty on imported Harleys. Trump’s response was swift. “A Harley-Davidson should never be built in another country — never!” he said in a tweet. “Their employees and customers are already very angry at them.” The move “will be the beginning of the end” for Harley, he said, and “the Aura will be gone and they will be taxed like never before!”
But the Motor Company, as the old and inside folks call it, is a survivor. It will take more than the president’s tweets to change that. A far greater threat is the general decline of the motorcycle as its most dependable riders age. How Harley responds to that, and not the president’s angry words, will be the key to its future. And that response might well mean making more bikes overseas, for now.
Let’s pause for some history. Between World War I and World War II, Harley-Davidson did lots of export business. When the yen plummeted, the Japanese imposed duties on Harleys, so the company licensed a plant in Japan — the first-ever true motorcycle factory there. After World War II, when making small bikes in the United States became too expensive, Harley bought a struggling Italian maker and imported its excellent products for the next 15 years. Making Harleys overseas is not new.
Yes, Harley-Davidson is as American as can be. That’s one of its strengths. In 1981, when it was the neglected stepchild of a vast conglomerate, several members of the founding families, some Harley executives and a couple of really brave bankers bought Harley-Davidson back and announced the daring deal with the slogan “The Eagle Soars Alone.” As indeed it did. New and improved products ushered in a boom, for Harley-Davidson and even the imported rivals, many of which introduced big road bikes that looked a lot like Harleys.
That was then, this is now. The president has said that Harley’s guys are a bunch of disloyal ingrates and that he would tax them till the eagle fell into the swamp — he’s said he’s so mad he planned to invite Harley’s rivals to move to the United States. One wonders if anyone on his staff is brave enough to tell him that Honda and Kawasaki are already here and have made motorcycles in the United States for years.
But Trump’s tweets are not the only threat to the Motor Company. In China and India, motorcycles sell like beer at a ballgame. In the developing world, motorcycles mean transportation. In the developed world, though, motorcycles are a hobby. And hobbies change. Buyers are older and sales are down, not just in the United States and not just at Harley-Davidson. All the makers are wondering what to offer next. Harley’s biggest year was 2006, when it sold 349,000 bikes. The total for 2017 was about 243,000, and the first quarter for 2018 showed an additional decline of 12 percent. About 40 percent of Harleys are exported. Numbers like that make the case for building at least some bikes overseas, not only to avoid the tariffs but to find the new riders.
A book I wrote on the history of Harley-Davidson was published in six languages. My Harley T-shirt collection, with examples from Australia, England, Japan and Sweden, includes one from South Africa that bears the slogan “American Quality Since 1903.” It’s going to take a lot of tariff to destroy enthusiasm like that. Harley-Davidson has outlasted 100-plus rivals over more than a century. It survived the recession of the 1920s, the Depression of the 1930s, the English invasion of the 1940s and ’50s, the inferior engineering of the 1960s and the Japanese challenge of the 1970s. You can’t know the future based on the past, but that’s still impressive. Harley has roughly 20 percent of the U.S. market, with Honda next at 14 percent, but Harley has more than half the market share for the so-called big road bike.
Harley-Davidson’s management knows all this. They’re working on younger buyers and what the new people will want, and in a couple of months they’re throwing a 115th anniversary party in Milwaukee. Will hundreds of thousands of fans be there, as they were at the 100th birthday rally I attended? I suspect they will. What if Harley-Davidson invited the president? What if he showed up? He might learn something.
First published by The Washington Post
Allan Girdler has owned a dozen or so Harleys and written 10 books about the motorcycles. His most recent book is “The Harley-Davidson and Indian Wars.”
Harley-Davidson is one of Milwaukee’s most iconic brands. It is so iconic, in fact, that the museum celebrating its history has become a local institution in its own right.
From July 12-15 the Harley-Davidson Museum will celebrate its 10th anniversary with a “Bike Night” kick-off, $10 museum admission all weekend, live music and more.
Thursday, July 12’s Bike Night kick-off will include museum trivia, a performance from the Radio Wranglers and fireworks. Friday’s festivities feature complimentary cups of coffee and prizes such as a Harley-Davidson 115th Anniversary Chrome Rally pack. A police-escorted Panhead 70th Anniversary Pandemonium Ride at 10 a.m. highlights Saturday.
Other notable attractions happening all weekend long include a free Wall of Death Stunt Show by the Ives Brothers, a special menu from MOTOR Bar & Restaurant and special museum swag available for purchase at the museum’s gift shop.
You can find more information here.