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Inman Column: Zeus vs Harley-Davidson

I've been writing a column in the French magazine Café Racer for the best part of ten years. After they go off sale I sometimes remember to republish the original English here. Here's one written late at night when the deadline stood over me, arms crossed, breathing down my neck. Thanks to Bertrand at Café Racer for all his support over the years. Sorry I'm late with them (nearly) every time.

Back in Ancient Grecian times the gods were jealous and vengeful, y’know, like today’s politicians, but more powerful and better looking. Zeus, Apollo, Eros, Hades... They didn’t have a lot of time for humans, and seemed to spend much of their days thinking how to torment the mortals, punishing them for years on end, or pitting them against the most hideous of monsters. Many of these mythical names and punishments are familiar to us.

Zeus was both the most powerful and, it seems, vindictive of the gods. When Prometheus, a lower-ranking deity, felt sorry for humans, and stole fire to share with them, Zeus chained him to a mountain and sent an eagle to eat his self-replenishing liver every day for 30 years.

On one occasion Zeus stole Aegina, described in the myth as a daughter, so not only is she human, but we get the impression she was young, and probably a virgin, because she was the daughter of Asopos, not yet described as the wife of whoever. Asopos began an investigation into his daughter’s disappearance, asking if anyone had seen what had happened to his beloved offspring. A witness named Sisyphus came forward, saying he’d seen Zeus fly off with her. That was it. Zeus was pissed. How dare this mortal snitch on a god? Zeus sent Death to deal with him, but Sisyphus escaped. Eventually he was caught, given the never-ending trial of pushing a huge boulder up a hill, only for the roll to the bottom as soon as he reached the top, meaning he must start again.

Zeus also gave Pandora the box, filled with all the death, pestilence, sickness and disaster, telling her not to open it. You know how that went. So, yes, Zeus was a proper nasty bastard.

I mention all this because Zeus also created a job within our mortal motorcycle realm, a role that would test Hercules to his limits; a career that would make the Minotaur weep; an occupation that requires Cerebrus, Hades’ three-headed dog, to guard the exit to ensure new recruits can’t flee the instant they discover what is required of them. The name of this hellish position: Head of Marketing, Harley-Davidson Motorcycles, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The story is something like a Greek myth. For over a decade, from the 1980s into the 1990s, Harley’s head of marketing could have been a chimpanzee in a tie. After the disaster years of late-period AMF ownership Harley really got their act together. There was a management buy-out, and a Davidson, Willie G, was back on the board. Then came the Evo big twin engine, and Evo Sportster. Harley fans get misty-eyed about the Panheads and Shovelheads, and rightly so, but the Evo is something else, and it powered countless fantasies, made freedom dreams come true and made some Harley dealers very rich. It was Harley’s time. Big hair and bald eagles, Bon Jovi and blockbuster movies, Levi’s and Calvin Klein, the ceaseless Americanisation of the world, from Moscow to Manila. Plus, the Reagan government put tariffs on imported heavyweight bikes, forcing their prices up, making it much harder for foreign companies to compete in America. H-D had survived some bleak times, but, at the end of the ‘American Century’, they were printing money and posting record profits.

But, like all dynasties, empires or eras, it had to come to end sooner or later. Harley’s image had become so strong and defined it left little or no room for nuance. You were either for or against Harley’s idea of motorcycling. Their focus on the image that made them successful was so single-minded that when the tide turned they couldn’t change direction. They were one of those massive container ships that squeeze through the Suez canal. They are pretty difficult to turn around. And that’s exactly what happened. Virtually every Harley dealership in the world looks the same, and they are so out of step with current trends, that different generations or moto tribes don’t want to visit them. So, it doesn’t matter how clever the adverts are, or how many pretty young influencers ride them, or how many hooligan racers they sponsor, when the potential new customers turn up at their local H-D dealer it’s a turn-off, a corporate, self-inflicted cock-block. To get back to the Grecian analogies, their titanic strength became their Achilles’ heel.

Another concurrent problem is the by-product of building motorcycles so good at what they do, so timeless, and so willing to put up with years of abuse, without complaint, that they don’t need replacing very often. Not many people who buy a Harley are disappointed, because they’re buying into the whole image and idea, and don’t have particularly high expectations of the performance of their new bike. Their Harley gets the job done and looks exactly like they want it to. Harley benefitted from sidestepping the Japanese 1980s and ‘90s constant evolution. The Sportster engine was introduced in 1986, and only just ceased production in 2020. It would be easy to surmise that minimal development and tooling investment, plus premium price tag, and hugely successful model, caused Milwaukee to take its eye off the ball, yet it’s unfair to say that Harley hasn’t tried new things. The V-Rod was a fairly radical take on the American cruiser, but the core consumer didn’t warm to it. They tried to get into the street bike market with the XR1200, but it wasn’t good enough. And, finally, we arrive at the Pan American. Harley is too big, still, for this to be their last roll of the dice, but they are pinning a huge amount on this bike. The marketing spend, advertising on all media across the world, is bigger than any for any motorcycle I can remember, ever.

Now to the cursed role of Harley’s Head of Marketing. On paper Harley has built a bike that can compete with the BMW GS, the market leader in the adventure bike world. The Pan American’s technology is as good, if not better, than that of the German bike, and the range has some innovative touches, like self-adjusting seat height, that lowers the bike at standstill. Harley’s ADV bike has the all-new Revolution liquid-cooled, OHC V-twin, that has hydraulically-adjusted valves than never need setting, multiple balancer shafts, variable valve timing, and it’s powerful enough to compete. It’s not Ducati Multistrada powerful, but offers enough for the vast majority of riders. The styling is unique, and not to everyone’s tastes, but at least they didn’t do what Triumph used to and just copy the leader. But it’s a Harley! And virtually every motorcyclist in the world has already made their mind up about it. No brand polarises opinion like Harley. Honda can make everything from Monkey bikes to RC213V road legal MotoGP machines, but if Harley dare stray from cruisers they are pilloried, their livers pecked out by the Eagles of the Internet, for the next 30 years.

The loyal Hog rider will stand up for the brand, right? Wrong! Some feel betrayed (betrayed!) by the company just for daring to try something new. Producing and promoting the Pan American is, some of the deluded hardcore believe, treason by the current management who don’t understand what the company stands for (fake 1950s diners and bad leather jackets?).

Zeus really stitched up the poor Head of Marketing at Juneau Ave, Milwaukee. I hear he’s looking for a beast with snakes for hair to slay to lift the curse, before they can consider building a streetfighter.

1 Comment

Nov 10, 2021

Good piece on Harley’s mythology and how Achilles tends to rear his head…er, um heel. I will go on record to say I’ve no desire to own a Harley now, nor have I ever. I’m gleaning an education on them from my wiser and more worldly friends, alas, it’s not enough.

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