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The word ‘American’ is in almost, if not all, descriptions of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. So what makes Harley-Davidson so American? According to Lynch (2003), the design embodies the American free spirit. Quoting CDF.org, Lynch (2003) writes, “Perhaps more than any other 20th century product, the Harley Davidson motorcycle is revered as an American icon-symbol of free spiritedness, love, and verve for living life with all your sense”.
Almost everything about the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, from the manufacturers to the design and what it embodies speak ‘American’. According to Yates (2003), “the Harley-Davidson brand is so rooted in American culture that the history of the company intertwines with the history of America itself”.
However, Harley Davidson did not only become a symbol of American culture, but also changed attitudes towards motorcycle riding- an influence that has continued to date.
Brief Background Information
The company was founded in 1903 by William S. Harley and two brothers, Walter and Arthur Davidson. The first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was manufactured in a small shed in Milwaukie (Wisconsin), the original base.
According to Lynch (2003), the shed measured 10 by 15 feet, with a hand-painted sign with the words “Harley Davidson Motor Company” hanging at the front. Since then, despite a few attempts into modern designs, the company has stuck with its “traditional cruiser motorcycles running on its signature “air-cooled V-Twin engines” (Lynch, 2003).
The Harley-Davidson motorcycles have over the years been associated with various notions and attracted various attitudes. Harley Davidson has been known to produce quality products famous not only for their quality, but also their dependability.
It is partly for this that the company served the country in both world wars, as well as several police forces across the U.S. On the other hand, it has been associated with ruggedness and rebellion, thanks to troublemaking biker gangs who have always used Harley-Davidson as the motorcycle of choice.
Harley Davidson’s Influence on Motorcycle Riding
Harley Davidson motorcycles turned many people into riders. This was especially based on the simplicity of its designs that did not require much expertise. Speaking of designs, 1903 marked an important time of technological revolution that had began in the last quarter of the gone century. The invention of the internal combustion gasoline engine and light bulb was an important one for the founders of Harley-Davidson.
Having no technical training or experience and down on budget, the three first experimented with blueprints of the “De Dion-Bouton engine” (Lynch, 2003), a French engine running on a single cylinder. Their idea was to build a simple and rugged machine that had “extra strength designed in the traditionally weak points” (Yates, 1999). In other words, the company’s core design philosophy rested on the premise of utility and practicality.
The company website describes its first motorcycle as a “Bike built to be a racer, with a 3-1/8 inch bore and 3-1/2 inch stroke (Lynch, 2003). The Harley-Davidson motorcycles went on to have a significant impact and reputation on racing. Moreover, the company’s bikes also won much recognition in endurance races, such as hill climbing.
One of the very obvious impacts that Harley-Davidson has had is establish motorcycling as a culture. One way of viewing this is to take note of Harley-Davidson as an American symbol. It does not matter where one finds the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. It will always be the American brand. If only for its Americanness, many people, including those who were not necessarily riders, fell in love with motorcycle riding.
Just as an example of how much strong the culture of Harley Davidson was back then and has continued to be, when Harley Davidson finally broke off from the AMF and returned its headquarters to its original base in Milwaukie (having been relocated to New York by AMF), new competitors had invaded the market. Japanese companies were producing motorcycles in the model of Harley Davidson and at cheaper prices.
Harley Davidson had lost up to 50 percent of its market share. However, it re-established itself and rose to the top again. Harley Davidson provided what the new companies could not provide. Bitchin wrote, “The Harley, the true symbol of human frailty and audacity, was to be honoured and revered, not for its utility or its sheer excellence, but for its god-awful, all-American, in your face, hog-stomping, ball-busting, real-life representation of man’s own imperfections” (Yates, 1999).
The second perspective of viewing this assertion is to consider the various groups associated with Harley-Davidson. The most notable of these are the biker gangs. The earliest biker gangs consisted of the Second World War veterans, who felt isolated from the civilised society and, thus, turned to violence. “These veterans feeling cast out of normal society embraced the motorcycle not only as a recreational diversion but a weapon against the established order” (Yates, 1999).
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There were, for instance, the Pissed off Bastards of Bloomington (also known as POBOB) and the Booze Fighters. Harley-Davidson became their main motorcycle of choice. That rugged reputation that many came to associate with Harley-Davidson in the 1940s has – albeit in a subtle way- rubbed off on motorcycle riding in general today.
Generally, most people back then viewed motorcycles and motorcycle riding merely as tools and means of transport (getting from point 1 to another point 2). However, the design of Harley-Davidson did not just take into account the matter of aesthetics. A Harley-Davidson motorcycle is an object of raw beauty.
The Harley Davidson motorcycles have fenders’ with smooth and flowing curves, their fuel tanks are characterised with trademark smooth lines, their bodies have beautiful reflections and their big engines have power and purrs in the only way known to belong to Harley-Davidson.
These not only set the Harley-Davidson motorcycle apart from the rest, but also turn it into a work of art. As a result, the Harley-Davidson motorcycles did not just become a means of getting from point 1 to point 2, but also a source of passion. Motorcycle riding also became a recreational exercise. Motorcycles have also since become symbols of adventure. Thus, people who own and ride the Harley-Davidson motorcycles do not just say ‘hi’ and go by. They connect, sharing stories of their experiences with their bikes.
In conclusion, Harley Davidson has not only been an icon of the American culture. It also started transforming attitudes towards motorcycle riding. Importantly, through simplicity and utility philosophy in design, it made riding look easy to a lot of people. But most importantly, it turned motorcycle riding into a culture.
Motorcycle riding became more than just a means of transportation. It also became a source of pleasure and passion. Ultimately, the influence of Harvey Davidson is positive in certain ways and negative in others, but that influence remains notable in the field of motorcycle riding today.
Lynch, J.W. (2003). Harley Davidson, a Spirit of American Freedom for 100 Years. Thesis for Master of Arts in Corporate and Public Communications: Seton Hall University
Yates, B. (1999). Outlaw Machine: Harley Davidson and the Search for the American Soul. New York: Little, Brown, and Company.