Key in, ignition on. Kill switch off, starter on.
After a brief cough, the starter motor kicks the engine awake. With a twist of the throttle the engine roars itself to life, emitting a divisive sound. Adjectives such as ‘loud’ or ‘obnoxious’ come to mind. In fact, entering the phrase ‘why are har’ into Google auto-completes to the question, ‘why are Harleys so loud?’
And at an average of eighty decibels unmodified, which is equivalent to a passing freight train at fifteen meters, Harley-Davidson motorcycles are not exactly quiet. But ask a Harley-Davidson rider to describe the sound and a category of words ordinarily reserved for describing orchestral symphonies is brought forward.
Soulful, unique, beautiful. They harbor a love for their motorcycles.
However, modest is not a descriptor that’s used. And not much about Harley-Davidsons are modest. Large wheels, loud exhaust, and piles of chrome make for head turning machines.
For decades that has been what has moved Harley-Davidsons from showroom floors into garages across America. Buying into an image, a culture, gaining access to a family bonded by a shared love.
That identity has kept Harley-Davidson alive and well since the companies inception in 1903. But with their stock now at a five year low, Harley-Davidson is finding itself unable to connect with the newest generation of motorcycle riders. This is largely due to increasing competition from Japanese manufacturers, and although the company is desperately attempting to rebuild their image to save their business model, they may be disenfranchising some of their most devoted customers along the way.
This is not the first time Harley-Davidson has hit a snag in their sales numbers. In the early 1980s their sales were down, and the company was searching for a way to get people onto their motorcycles.
“The story goes: In a board meeting a marketing executive took out a piece of paper,” explains John Becker. “On it he wrote down three letters; h, o, g. Hog: Harley owners group.”
Becker is a member of the Golden Gate Harley owners group chapter as their media liaison officer, and also works for the dealership, which sponsors the chapter in his self-described retirement job.
Every Harley owners group chapter must have a dealership sponsoring them in order to be officially recognized. This means that worldwide, the Hog organization is the largest factory sponsored riders group in the world. The decision to directly tie dealerships to the community, while simultaneously adding corporate resources to building that community was a brilliant one, and is largely credited for making the Harley community what it is today with over one million Hog members worldwide.
If you need proof of the strength of the community the program has built, ride over to Rainbow Pizza in San Mateo, California on the third Wednesday evening of the month. The meetings start at seven, but if you arrive a half hour early you’re already too late.
You might picture a gathering of fifty some Harley-Davidson riders as a sea of leather and denim clad bodies topped by grimacing faces that return your gaze with unwelcoming looks. But attend a Golden Gate Hog chapter meeting, and you’ll realize you were only half right.
A sea of leather and denim clad Harley-Davidson riders with bright eyed faces and wide smiles, as they greet old friends and prepare to eat the largest single serving pizzas you’ve ever seen is all there is to be found.
Over the course of the meeting, many mundane topics are covered: Membership fees, upcoming events, promotions at the dealership, and so on. But in no way are they covered in a mundane way.
Joking comments are shouted from the audience. The director, Allyn L., opens the floor to stories from other members over the past month. Tales of all sorts are told—from taking a British Harley fan on his bucket list ride across the Golden Gate Bridge to the process of finding a lost riding vest.
It’s a family, and a large one at that with one hundred and seventeen members. But instead of being connected by bloodlines, they’re united by a shared love, shared memories, and plenty of traded jabbing jokes. It is, however, an older family.
“This group is a bunch of old farts” laughs Leslie F., the chapter’s secretary. And a quick glance around the room to see the amount of grey in the hair of the chapter members confirms her joke is based in reality.
It’s no real surprise. Statistically the older and male base of motorcycle riders are Harley-Davidson’s bread and butter. According to figures published by the motorcycle industry council, Harley-Davidson has a fifty-five percent market share on male riders over thirty five years old.
But when it comes to younger riders, many of them are choosing to look elsewhere in the motorcycle industry for their bikes—particularly to Japan. One of those riders is Adam Rosney.
“Japanese bikes are smoother, cheaper, more reliable” says Rosney. “I went with a Yamaha because they just never let me down.”
Rosney now rides a Yamaha Star Bolt, but grew up riding dirt bikes and racing motocross. He used to ride a Yamaha R6, a bike that is classified as a superbike—essentially a street legal race bike. But was eventually drawn in by the cruiser culture.
“Just cruising around with your buddies, hitting up cool little restaurants and bars” explains Rosney. “That’s really what it’s about.”
But when it came time to choose a cruiser, he went with a Yamaha for their reliability and price. According to Rosney he walked out the door with his Star Bolt for roughly nine thousand dollars. In comparison, a Harley Iron 883, which produces similar power with a similar look, has an MSRP of $8,999. The difference is that the Yamaha price included dealer fees and a warranty, which means all the service so far on Rosney’s bike have been covered.
He also appreciates the smoother ride and modern technology the Star Bolt comes with. Because of design differences between the Yamaha and a Harley-Davidson, the Yamaha puts less of a buzz into the riders hands.
And where the Yamaha is water cooled—because it uses a radiator similar to a car does—many Harley-Davidsons are still air cooled, meaning the air passing by the engine as the bike moves is responsible for cooling the engine. Air cooled engines are the reason that motorcycles were historically allowed to lane split in traffic, to keep air moving past the engine to prevent overheating. But now, water cooled engines allow for the on-board computer to more accurately keep the engine at an optimal operating temperature.
“I don’t know why you wouldn’t want your bike to run better,” Rosney laughs. “Might as well use new technology.”
But for many Harley-Davidson riders, the old-school design of their new motorcycles is part of the charm. Including Rosney’s friend, Chris Guimond.
“They’re not the most reliable, not the fastest, not the most ergonomic” Guimond continues. “But Harleys aren’t supposed to be the ‘best’ bike. They’re supposed to be a Harley.”
Like Rosney, Guimond grew up riding dirt bikes and racing motocross. But now he rides a Harley-Davidson with a massive one hundred and seven cubic inch engine, thirteen percent larger than the standard engine in a Honda Civic. For Guimond, a Harley is not about being on the most modern bike, and he actually appreciates that his bike is air cooled with old school styling.
“It feels like I’m sitting on a piece of American history” explains Guimond.“It’s about the heart and soul of riding. It’s an old school feel. It’s about freedom.”
And largely speaking, what gives a Harley so much of its character is their V-twin engine. The first Harley-Davidson V-twins were produced in the early 1900s, and they have stuck with the design ever since. The large bore and relatively short stroke of the engine creates their iconic deep sound.
Despite their differences, both friends agree that “there’s just something about Harleys”. And for Rosney, if money were no object he knows what he would be riding.
“I’d be on a Dyna” answers Rosney. “No doubt about it.”
For many younger riders, the choice to buy something besides a Harley is largely a financial one. Even now, Harley employee Mirian Acevedo began her riding career on a smaller Yamaha, only moving onto her Harley bike once she had an employee discount.
“I think the price tag and the larger engine size discourages a lot of new riders” Acevedo explains. “The motorcycle safety courses are taught on little Hondas or Kawasakis, so that’s what a lot of new riders feel comfortable on and are drawn to.”
Harley-Davidson has aptly recognized this, and has begun producing the Street 500—the smallest bikes Harley has produced in the last four decades.
They’re aimed at hitting an area of the market that Harley has been struggling to reach—new riders who are intimidated by large motorcycles. But Acevedo, who works at San Diego Harley-Davidson, notes that they haven’t succeeded in propping up sales.
“I’ve heard stories that ten years ago we used to sell twenty five to thirty bikes a day” Acevedo says. “But now we sell two to five bikes a day.”
Again, even with a motorcycle marketed for beginners, the price tag is significant. According to Acevedo even the five hundreds can end up retailing for close to ten thousand dollars. For comparison Honda’s Rebel 500, their direct competitor to the Street 500, starts at just $6,199.
But perhaps worse of all, the Street 500s are being received poorly by core customers.
“The 500 cc bikes are the joke of Harley” Acevedo laughs.
The new bikes in many ways break away from the traditions of Harley-Davidson. And until recently, tradition has been Harley-Davidson’s go to. Perhaps Harley-Davidson should reconsider going back to focusing on their core customers, and their Hog chapters.
When asked which countries the Golden Gate Hog chapter and San Francisco Harley-Davidson have received visitors from, Becker quickly rattles off a dozen countries all over Asia and Europe. A huge part of the success of the Hog program has been their ability to build a truly global community.
According to Harley-Davidson, over half of all Hog chapters exist outside of the United States. And the community and culture surrounding Harley is strong as ever; some indicators of strength are large scale events like the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally which attracted over five hundred thousand riders last year.
This sort of customer base has been hard earned by Harley-Davidson. They’re obsessed with the bikes, and more than willing to spend the money on them. Some riders estimate upwards of seven thousand dollars in modifications, while others—like Becker—have simply stopped counting.
And these are the kinds of customers that come back to the brand. Tim Barcey, or T-Bar, is another member of the Golden Gate Hog chapter. And he recently purchased a 2018 Harley-Davidson CVO Street Glide, which is estimated at $39,949.
The riders love of their bikes is only accentuated by the community they enjoy them with. And the friendliness of the Harley community can even transcend actually knowing one another.
“You see another Harley rider, and they’re automatically your friend” Acevedo explains. “It’s more than just a motorcycle. It’s a lifestyle.”
So while Harley-Davidson’s sales may not be soaring, they’ve still got a strong enough customer base to keep them afloat. The only question now is: Do they continue to pursue bringing new riders into the Harley-Davidson family, or do they double down on their existing customers and Hog chapters and maintain their traditions which have kept them alive until now?
Only time will tell. But for now, the heartbeat of Harley-Davidson rumbles on, loudly.