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Riding High By Mark Vaughan (/author/mark-vaughan) | From Ron Perelman, Spring 95 (/issue/spring-95)
Wait Two Years for a New Harley-Davidson? That's How Long It Can Take to Get Delivery on America's Motorcycle Wait Two Years for a New Harley-Davidson? That's How Long It Can Take to Get Delivery on America's Motorcycle
ix a.m. Saturday morning. With the taste of coffee still fresh in your mouth, you finish suiting up. Tucking the harness boots under leather pant legs, pulling the black-leather "victory" jacket on over a sweatshirt emblazoned with Born to Ride Free across its front and the Harley-Davidson eagle on the back, you kiss your sleeping wife good-bye and tiptoe quietly past the kids' rooms.
Outside, the autumn dawn has broken clear and cool. You stand for a moment in the garage, contemplating the Heritage Softail Classic as though it were a postmodernist sculpture. Its gleaming chrome "big twin" 1340 cc engine and pipes, polished red-on-black fenders and gas tank, studded leather seat and saddlebags, extended bars and seven-inch headlight are the apex of form and function. It is as near perfect as any machine can be, and American-made. Mounting the bike, you hit the starter button, and that distinctive Harley thunder fills the neighborhood. Without hesitation, you kick it into gear and you're off, heading for the open road, leaving the suburbs and city streets behind. Out on the highway, the pavement rushing past at a solid 65 mph, you feel the tensions of the week slip away. The backslapping and glad-handing, telephone screaming, busted deals, office politics, near misses, petty triumphs, life-and-death decisions, court theatrics, buys and sells...all gone, blown away by the power of the moment. You're in hog heaven, easy riding, and it's all yours: the machine, the highway, the distant hills. * * * If there is a company that symbolizes the rise, fall and resurrection of American industrial might, it is Harley-Davidson, Inc. From its humble turn-of-the-century beginnings in a Milwaukee garage, through a post-Second World War high, a 1970s low and a 1980s death bout with Japanese knockoff artists, Harley has roared on, becoming in the 1990s what may be the best-run manufacturing company in the United States. The proof is in the product. The 20 models in Harley's 1995 motorcycle catalogue range from the basic XLH Sportster 883 ($4,995) to the posh FLHTC I Ultra Classic Electra Glide Thirtieth Anniversary Edition ($17,500). All Harley bikes have the look and feel of premium, heavyweight motorcycles, and with their abundance of chrome, state-of-the-art paint jobs and sleekly engineered features, they are--quite literally--beautiful machines. First-time visitors to a Harley-Davidson showroom often realize one of the great truths of the motor-vehicle age: to see a Harley is to want to drive one, to drive a Harley is to want to own one. As actor Mickey Rourke, a longtime Harley fan, has said about his Harley passion, "it's a personal thing that can't be described. It's part of you."
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Much of the Harley's lasting appeal comes from an if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it philosophy in style and design. Though mechanically the motorcycles have undergone a major reengineering in recent years, all models still incorporate styling elements that date back to the 1930s. The current guardian of the Harley look is William G. Davidson, vice president of styling, the last descendant of the company's founders to hold a senior management position. Willie G., as he is known throughout the motorcycle industry, studied design and worked at Ford Motor Company before coming to Harley in 1969 at the invitation of his father, William H. Davidson. He was given the task of setting up and managing the company's first styling department. From the beginning he showed a genius for understanding what the Harley customer wants. One of Willie G.'s first projects was to alter Harley's superheavyweight Electra Glide model (much as California motorcycle customizers were doing at that time) to create the Super Glide. The transformation included removing the Electra Glide's windshield and saddlebags and replacing the massive front forks with lighter, longer ones. When it was introduced in 1971, the Super Glide proved that new models could be created without massive retooling and that production and profits could be boosted by moving customizing in-house. The Low Rider, Wide Glide, Fat Bob and Softail quickly followed, all created by simple design alterations and all of which still enjoy strong sales. Harley's 1995 catalogue is a study in variations on a few basic themes: there are four Sportster models, four Dynas, six Softails (including the Bad Boy and the Fat Boy) and six Electra Glides (including the Road King). As Willie G. notes, despite a flamboyant image, most Harley customers are conservative when it comes to motorcycle design. "They rank the Harley look right up there with motherhood and God, and they don't want us to screw around with it," says Willie G. "They know what they want on their bikes, the kind of instrumentation, the style of the bars, the cosmetics of the engine, the look of the exhaust pipes and so on. Every little piece on a motorcycle is exposed, and it has to look just right. It's almost like being in the fashion industry." * * * York, Pennsylvania. Inside the 1 million-square-foot Harley-Davidson assembly plant on a cold November morning, workers are busy turning out the first of that day's 395 finished bikes. To a visitor on a private tour, it all seems deceptively Continue Reading
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