Thursday, July 9, 2020

My Feelings About Harley & America Are Pretty Similar

I'm probably not the type of person you would think of as being a Harley-Davidson brand loyalist. I don't look the part of the few different stereotypes whether it be cruiser outlaw, chopper boho, or midlfe crisis professional. I like the bikes that most other fans don't like, that they consider to be un-Harley. But having grown up in the Milwaukee area and loving my community and its brands, I also grew up loyal to the brand. Loyal regardless of the times they disappoint me.


As I hear about the new round of layoffs at The Motor Company, the fact that its not doing well, I think about how similar my feelings are towards HD and our country, of America.

I love Harley. I love America. Even with their rust, but especially when they shine.

While many people buy products for practical reasons (price, capability, features) not necessarily a specific brand, in the motor vehicle industry, especially among motorsports enthusiasts, brand loyalty is similar to and can be as - even more - passionate than loyalty to a sports team. The location of the brand is often one part of it - Domestic vs. Import for example - but often is just a somewhat random selection. I mean if you are from Detroit which do you pick - and people do pick: Ford, Cadillac, Lincoln, Dodge, General Motors and its brands. People pick their brand and stick to it even if it becomes subpar, touting its history and ripping on competitors (there are so many bumper stickers or decals about one brand over another like Ford vs. Chevy). The same goes for motorcycles. It can be style of bike (cruiser vs. sport bike), American vs. Import, Brit, German, Japanese, Italian... There are many ways to claim your brand. It is also true that many bikers love al bikes and may own more than one brand, even tracking and celebrating their diversity with a patch for each brand they have owned on their jacket. And while being an American owning the American brand of Harley-Davidson is considered patriotic, being from Wisconsin, especially Milwaukee, and jumping on the HD bandwagon is a badge of honor few can match in levels of pride. And I am one of them.

I have owned three 'Harleys', in quotes because one is an HD company brand and another was made by another brand, both models that some wouldn't consider true Harleys. I have owned a Sporster, and currently own a 1974 HD Z-90 and a 2001 Buell Blast. The Z90 was made by Italian manufacturer Aermacchi and marketed here as a 'Harley', while the Buell has an HD motor in it and at the time (in one of Buell's many iteration) was owned by Harley and says right on the bike that it is 'A Harley-Davidson Company'. I have been HOG member since 2006, I was a founding member of the Museum, I have a special edition leather jacket and countless tees and other paraphernalia. So yes, I am an enthusiast of the brand. 

But I am also critical of the brand - the company, its products, its devotees. They can disappoint me as often as they inspire me. Leadership can make poor decisions. Their products can lack diversity and progress. Enthusiasts can act in ways that make me not want to be associated with them. But I will also stand up for them when others point out their flaws. They are MY brand, my local, Milwaukee, company and I want them to succeed. I want them to be a source of pride for our community so they can also be a source of support for the community via - most impactfully- jobs, but also philanthropy and other ways.

I feel the same way about my country. I am loyal to the brand of America, but also - because I am a loyalist - can hold it up to certain standards. I can be both celebratory and critical. I can want my country to make changes to become better, without 'hating' it. I can love my country, and have expectations it isn't meeting. It's not mutually exclusive.

But that's not how all see it. If you say anything negative about the brand, or the country, you aren't a true fan. You may even be a 'traitor' just because you question something. Until a decision is made that doesn't meet their image, then its okay for them to complain. The want to make a smaller bike, or an electric one - OMG what are they doing??? The country evolves to new ideas on human rights, or healthcare, or taxes and they act like its the end of the world. There's a word for that: hypocrisy.

Harley fans, and many Americans, can be so resistant to change, changes that may move their brand forward. One of the biggest issues with Harley, as a company and as a brand - its consumers and fands, is diversity. Diversity across the board in all areas. And many celebrate the single-mindedness. Certain Harley-philes will say that the only true HD motorcycle is one above 1000cc, a big bike for those not versed in motorcycles, yet their most successful bike is the 750cc XR750, the winningest bike in racing. The Sportster, a widely popular model, does come in 1200cc, but also 883 - and other sizes in its history (though there many fans will say the 883 is a 'girl's bike' or not a Harley likes its larger version). And its not like they started making twin big-bore bikes from the beginning. It took time to get there, so the truly legacy motorcycles are much smaller. When HD came out with one of their newest from the ground up model, the Streets in 750 and - gasp - 500 cc versions, social media platforms were filled with rage-quitters. "How can they release a bike like that? That's not a Harley!" And then there is the all-electric LiveWire which made some of the enthusiasts' heads spin. But then people like me can't suggest that smaller, more affordable bikes, in different styles than the bagger or cruiser might help. Like, if you don't like all their products how can you say you love the company? Well, right back at ya buddy. If you don't like all their products - even new or smaller or just different ones - how can you say you love the company? Why can't they accept and applaud forward progress? In truth, we don't have to see eye-to-eye. We can both love the brand even if we don't like everything they make or do. But in a far majority, in the two scenarios, I would more likely be seen as the outlier, the poser, because I like when they have challenged themselves versus doing the same old thing.

I love my country, and I love my local motorcycle company. Unlike some, I love when they show progress versus stagnation. Harley, and America, were showing some steps to progress. Right now both are taking a step back. Harley, under current leadership, has stopped their plans to expand model lines to new arenas, and double down on their conservative nature of focusing on cruisers and baggers, focused on a singular clientele and retreating from leading the industry in new tech and design. America, under current leadership, seems to want to double down on its outlook of the past, a singular, nationalistic focus on one set of citizens, retreating from global leadership, instead of a global outlook.

While Harley has from the bike standpoint closed its circle, I have to say I have been pleasantly surprised in their support of a broader audience. In the past weeks they have supported both the BLM movement as well as the LGBTQ+ community. Steps that while please me and my friends and can expand their appeal, has obviously ticked off some of their loyal fans. People who like to whine about cancel culture have claimed on social media to want to 'cancel' HD, rage-selling their bikes and dumping all brand merch they own. I highly doubt any will do so and in a week or so will forget it even happened, well, at least until the next socially conscious ('virtue signalling') social media post. 

I think both HD and the USA would be better keeping a broader scope and paying attention to more than one narrow class of people. Time will only tell if either or both will do so.

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