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HARDLY ABLE, SON: Why Harleys Are the World’s Best & Worst Motorcycles

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It’s summer in 1915, and freshly famous motorcycle racer Otto Walker powers across the finish line at the Dodge City 300 event to claim victory. Harley-Davidson is on top of the world, and a new motorcycling legend has been born; a legendary brand that is still a house-hold name almost 110 years later. It truly seems like Harley’s fortunes are going to be golden for ever and ever.

Now it’s 1981, and an overweight, middle-aged, midwestern dentist has pulled over to the side of the interstate because his AMF-era Sportster has been badly misbehaving. With handling like a boat and a raft of other irritating issues plaguing the new bike, he’s swearing out loud about wasting his money on a vehicle that was meant to be a present to himself for putting up with all those screaming kids and needy patients. Now the bike stalls to a stop after refusing to idle.

Otto Walker on his Harley-Davidson board track racer in 1915
Otto Walker in his Harley heyday. Image Source: archive moto.

Screaming, he leans the bike over to deploy the side stand only to find that the engine’s vibrations have managed to loosen the bolts—so that it’s now hanging limply beneath the bike. Caught off guard by the malfunction, he and the bike tumble over sideways to the amusement of the passing four-wheeled traffic. But how did such a promising company squander such a commanding position and reach the absolute depths of brand hatred? And can they claw their way back again? Let’s find out.

A Brief History of Harley-Davidson​


Thanks in large part to WWI, Harley went into the Great Depression as the world’s biggest motorcycle manufacturer. The growth of the company in these years is nothing short of spectacular; from building their first factory in 1906 to ruling the world 14 years later is an amazing feat in anyone’s books. Clearly they were doing something right. Scrub that. They were damn well doing everything right.

1936 Harley Knucklehead in creme and blue
A 1936 Harley Knucklehead. Arguably the best Harley ever made. Image Source: Harley-Davidson

And while the depression did kick Harley’s sales to the curb in the early ‘30s, they still managed to create an industrial power plant branch of the business, and they opened a new plant in Japan to boot. Then came the ‘Knucklehead’ engine of 1936. Again, a name that would be written into the motorcycling history books. And soon after, WWII would see more lucrative military orders flooding them with plenty of work—making 90,000 units of their WL and WLA models.

One of only two American motorcycle manufacturers to survive the war, their run of good luck continued into the 1950s. This was in no small part due to more military orders for the Korean war and the general economic boom America enjoyed thanks to massive profits from WWII (without the corresponding economic hit that many of her allies took, thanks to all that bombing and pillaging).

A WWII WLA Harley in olive drab and with leather satchels
A WWII WLA Harley. The first Pan America? Image Source: silodrome.com

So at 40-plus-years and still going strong, it now seemed as if Harley was unstoppable. Add to this fact the emergence of these new ‘bikers’ types.

With a bunch of ex-service men and women now back home from the war and looking for some kicks to equal fighting the Germans, the availability of cheap ex-army Harleys and their pockets full of cash, many of them took to hanging out on weekends with each other and riding motorcycles for something to do. Not only did Harley have a legendary brand, they now also had a grassroots social movement behind them. Talk about gilding the lily.

The infamous 'Drunk Biker' image of the '47 Hollister 'Riots'
Birth of ‘Biker’ culture? Harley was there in ‘47. Image Source: San Francisco Chronicle

Of course, the 50s and 60s in America also saw the rise of corporate culture. Companies that were previously run by families with the care and attention that only obsessive fanatics can provide now saw themselves being answerable to shareholders and the almighty dollar.

Harley-Davidson, in an attempt to make more while spending less, began on a program of ‘diversification’. The early move here was Harley’s purchase of fifty percent of Italian aircraft maker Aermacchi’s motorcycle division, no doubt in an attempt to quickly broaden their range of bikes and appeal to a wider range of customers.

A ‘67 Aermacchi H-D Sprint Scrambler
A ‘67 Aermacchi H-D Sprint Scrambler. Nice-looking bike, but was it ever going to beat the Japanese? Image Source: silodrome.com

Mucho corporate shenanigans ensued, and in 1969, the whole company was sold to the American Machine and Foundry company of White Plains, New York. AMF management quickly began ‘rationalising’ the business, mostly by frantically cutting corners and firing staff.

The results weren’t anywhere near what the AMF management had hoped for. Instead they now had expensive, poorly made, and under-performing bikes—along with a massive onslaught from the Japanese manufacturers to deal with.

Like discovering a ninja in your house during a large bout of food poisoning, Harley was well and truly caught with their pants down. Unsurprisingly, they were nudging bankruptcy by the early 1970s and existing month-to-month. It’s from this era that the “Hardly Able Son” name-calling originated. Quality is the last thing on your mind when you are living hand-to-mouth.

 A ‘77 ‘Confederate Edition’ Harley-Daviidson.
A ‘77 ‘Confederate Edition’. ‘Yee-Har!’ yelled the rednecks. Image Source: mecum.com

Flogging the dead hog for the next 10 years while skipping from one disaster to another, their survival was in no doubt due to their lasting legacy and was helped by things like the movie Easy Rider locking their fame even further into America’s globally-dominant pop culture.

Besides, that non-American, overseas-living, aspiring biker guy who so badly wanted a Harley didn’t know any different. How could a legend like the all-American Harley-Davidson not live up to his expectations?

A lifeline was thrown to the brand in 1981, when a group of 13 investors led by Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson bought the smoking wreck of the former behemoth for $80 million. This new age of Harley was also helped by the Reagan administration agreeing to add tariffs to certain Japanese bikes. So much for the Republican’s ‘small government’ and Laissez-faire economics, I guess.

An 'AMF' 1981 Harley-Davidson Sportster in burnt orange
An early 80s Sportster. The worst of the AMF years. Image Source: hotcars.com

The freshly minted Harley board launched a renaissance program that revolved around reviving past glory models in conjunction with a complete overhaul of the company to ensure that its manufacturing processes, management, and designs were all up to scratch.

Of course, the rejuvenation wouldn’t happen overnight. The company would suffer under damage done by AMF for many decades. Indeed, they still have to battle the bad press to this day. And they were by no means out of the woods yet—not by a long shot.

The Buell XB12R in red
The Buell XB12R. So close, yet so far. Image Source: Buell

While the successful introduction of the Fat Boy, Dyna, and Softail models no doubt helped them greatly, the last 30 years would also see them buy—and then dump—the Buell sport bike brand, do something very similar with MV Agusta, start and then cancel many overseas production operations (including ones in India and Australia), be accused of stock price manipulation, battle the Global Financial Crisis, weather claims of ‘death wobbles’ on various models (including police bikes) and struggle through battles with unions. And dare I mention the V-Rod? Best not, I think.

Harley-Davidson's 'Street 500' entry-level bike.
A Street 500. The exact opposite of what a Harley should be. Image Source: Harley-Davidson

Today, Harley-Davidson is still a brand that seems to be looking back at past glories while trying to find its way into the future. The revealing of their LiveWire electric motorcycle was both impressive and also supremely confusing.

While its looks were bang-on, and their bravery in pushing the envelope could be directly linked back to those bold decisions that led to Otto Walker’s wins in 1915, it also left an army of fans scratching their heads, wondering why their beloved Harley would stray so far from the bikes that made them famous. An electric Harley? That’s sacrilege!

The same could be said for the brand’s el-cheapo ‘Street 500’ model, which was tarnished by sub-par build quality and a severe case of trying to pander to the masses while losing sight of the brand’s own core values. And as for the Pan America, the jury is probably still out on the bike—but was anyone really screaming out for a Harley Davidson off-roader? Only time will tell.

a mid-1960s Harley Davidson Sportster Custom
A ‘60s H-D Sportster custom. Now THAT’S what I’m talking about. Image Source: Machines That Dream

To close the discussion, I’ll relate a quick story of mine. As someone who is pretty lukewarm on the whole Harley thing, I caught up with a friend and bike builder recently who’d just got his box-of-spare-parts 1960s Harley Sportster on the road again (pictured above).

Expecting to feel nothing, the bike blew me away almost instantly; stripped of its excesses and resprayed in bright orange, I wanted to make an offer to him to buy it there and then. Low, clean, waif-like and with an undeniable ‘50s/’60s bad-boy racer vibe, the thing was a real testament to what Harley can achieve when they hit their straps and keep their eyes on the ball.

Dear ghosts of William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson; more of this if you are listening, please.

The post HARDLY ABLE, SON: Why Harleys Are the World’s Best & Worst Motorcycles appeared first on webBikeWorld.

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Possummanj

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Just rode the Sportster S with the new 1250 engine--Demo truck was nearby-nice bike -plenty of power-not for me though--had it up to 80 but with no windscreen it was like riding in a wind tunnel--too old for that now
 

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The attitude of Harley must only be a cruiser style with a big v twin and a bigger price tag is why it will fail eventually.
 

mzflorida

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The attitude of Harley must only be a cruiser style with a big v twin and a bigger price tag is why it will fail eventually.
One would think but they rise from the ashes repeatedly. I have to say that I appreciate the enthusiasm they build, and the owners have, behind the brand. And that is what keeps them going.
 

670cc

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The infatuation people have with the HD brand baffles me, but I’m glad they have something they admire and enjoy. As is said, it doesn’t matter what you ride, just that you do ride. As an outsider, I look upon Harley-Davidson and wonder if their fan base continuously cycles in newer young customers, or if the HD brand will finally die off when the older faithful customers actually die off.

As for the motorcycles themselves, if the bike in that second photo didn’t say 1936 on it, I would have assumed it was a current model.
 

Rabbit

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That’s the problem, they aren’t adding new younger riders. They have no entry level bikes from a weight or cost standpoint and every time they try to branch out they get slammed as ‘disregarding their core audience’ rather than trying to capture new market share. I don’t know if they will completely go away but I think they will be a niche brand akin to something like Ferrari in the car world.
I think they should be partnering with a brand like Royal Enfield to expand their lower displacement offerings.
 

mtnbiker1185

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That’s the problem, they aren’t adding new younger riders. They have no entry level bikes from a weight or cost standpoint and every time they try to branch out they get slammed as ‘disregarding their core audience’ rather than trying to capture new market share. I don’t know if they will completely go away but I think they will be a niche brand akin to something like Ferrari in the car world.
I think they should be partnering with a brand like Royal Enfield to expand their lower displacement offerings.
They tried that with Buell and it didn't really work out for them.
I recently got my bike inspected at my local HD dealer and they had a PanAm there...it seemed like a nice bike. Personally I don't like the look of it, but I think it's a solid attempt at branching out. As far as their traditional bikes, I think they are going to go the way of Indian...may not have as good of sales but will have a strong enough following in lawyers and doctors to stay afloat.

They need to bring back their 1200 sporsters. I had a 72 back when they first came out and it was a blast to ride but had a purpose...bar hopping. Anything other than that and it was too uncomfortable and the gas tank too small. Their 883 is decently popular for women or people that want to make a chopper without paying a custom fabricator. The women part though keeps a lot of men away unfortunately.
 

sea dweller

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They tried that with Buell and it didn't really work out for them.
I recently got my bike inspected at my local HD dealer and they had a PanAm there...it seemed like a nice bike. Personally I don't like the look of it, but I think it's a solid attempt at branching out. As far as their traditional bikes, I think they are going to go the way of Indian...may not have as good of sales but will have a strong enough following in lawyers and doctors to stay afloat.

They need to bring back their 1200 sporsters. I had a 72 back when they first came out and it was a blast to ride but had a purpose...bar hopping. Anything other than that and it was too uncomfortable and the gas tank too small. Their 883 is decently popular for women or people that want to make a chopper without paying a custom fabricator. The women part though keeps a lot of men away unfortunately.
Went & looked at the 975 Nightster. Nice bike till they quoted me a price. After tax, tag, freight, assembly, they wanted $4,800over the suggested retail, which put the bike close to $20,000. This trip to the Harley dealer was my first & last. It also gave me a better appreciation for my Honda.
 

http404

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My latest group ride was with my NC and only HD others. They were beautiful bikes but every one of them had accessories alone that cost more than my fully kitted NC costed me...used, of course. They sure were nice bikes, though, as they should be for $30k. They were not snobbish about it, at all, just nice guys on big bikes. However, not one of them asked me a single question about the NC, so there's that. If someone rolled up on the crappiest rat bike for a group ride, I'd find something to say about it.
 

mtnbiker1185

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Went & looked at the 975 Nightster. Nice bike till they quoted me a price. After tax, tag, freight, assembly, they wanted $4,800over the suggested retail, which put the bike close to $20,000. This trip to the Harley dealer was my first & last. It also gave me a better appreciation for my Honda.
That sounds like a dealer problem, not a manufacturer problem. If any dealer, for any vehicle, can't at least come in AT sticker price, that is a dealer who will never see my ugly face ever again.

When I bought my Seventy-Two new in 2012 is cost me like $12,000 out the door, if I remember right. Now, I am not saying Harley's are cheap because they definitely are not. My Dad's Ultra Classic costs as much as a car. Granted, it rides like one too....and weighs as much as one. They have done away with their entry level Sporsters that have the iconic Harley look but at a more entry level price point for some reason.

For what it is worth, I just looked on their website and their Softail has the same starting price as the Nightster. The Nightster has a 59.5 cu.in. engine compared to the Softail's 107. So I would say even at MSRP, the Nightster is overpriced.
 

Possummanj

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They tried that with Buell and it didn't really work out for them.
I recently got my bike inspected at my local HD dealer and they had a PanAm there...it seemed like a nice bike. Personally I don't like the look of it, but I think it's a solid attempt at branching out. As far as their traditional bikes, I think they are going to go the way of Indian...may not have as good of sales but will have a strong enough following in lawyers and doctors to stay afloat.

They need to bring back their 1200 sporsters. I had a 72 back when they first came out and it was a blast to ride but had a purpose...bar hopping. Anything other than that and it was too uncomfortable and the gas tank too small. Their 883 is decently popular for women or people that want to make a chopper without paying a custom fabricator. The women part though keeps a lot of men away unfortunately.
The 883 Sportster is a great bike to tinker with---millions of used parts for them--you can buy one cheap and sell it it later for what you paid for it--had one 10-12 years ago that a guy bought for his wife--it sat in his garage for years under a cover with 270 miles on it -he even bought new tank and fenders to have custom painted---I got the whole thing for $3200--it needed a battery. Sold the extra original tank and fenders for $700 as it was an anniversary edition with special paint---put on longer rear shocks and 2-1 exhaust with a titanium can--dirt bike fork brace-flat track bars--new seat etc--all used ebay stuff---they are fun to ride and make all the right sounds--only maybe 40 hp but you can ride it hard all the time--engine is pretty much bulletproof---sold it after a few years for $3500 to some kid---saw it on facebook marketplace later redone as a sort of bobber (recognized the take-off parts) he wanted $3500 -I may pick up another one some day to fart around with.
 
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