Friday, January 12, 2018

Royal Enfield banks on tradition for success;
so does that other Milwaukee motorcycle maker

"The Complete Harley-Davidson" tracks the brand through the decades.
For a motorcycle company so steeped in tradition, it may be surprising how difficult it is to keep track of Harley-Davidson evolution through history. There were a lot of changes!

So I was delighted when my cousin Sandy came across the book "The Complete Harley-Davidson, a Model-by-Model History."

The version she found is a 2004 book. Author Tod Rafferty includes plenty of detail for each year, along with beautiful color photographs illustrating the chronological changes he describes. This is a coffee table book, but it's packed with information as well as pretty pictures.

The book does give the American brand too much credit in one aspect, quoting another author this way:

"Harley-Davidson is the only motorcycle company in the world that gave its highest priority to tradition and succeeded."


Well, that quote, by Luigi Rivola, is originally from a 1977 book. The important qualification is "and succeeded." Royal Enfield's enormous success in India was not apparent in 1977.

So you can't put that statement down to mere Harley hubris.

In fact, much of my attitude towards Harley changed as I turned the pages.

The book gives the impression not of prideful stagnation, but constant improvement, within the V-twin tradition Americans came to love.

Even the very early, single-cylinder Harley-Davidsons were clean, attractive designs. The 1903 had an exhaust pipe with a graceful bend, fenders, brightwork and gold pin stripes.

The first V-twin appeared in 1909 but it was not a success. The twin returned in 1911, now — with mechanical valves — a success but still held back by its belt drive. Chain drive came in 1912, two-speed transmission, in 1914, three-speed gearbox in 1915, kick starter in 1916.

World War I created a market for military motorcycles and — apparently — olive-drab paint. Harley was still peddling olive-drab motorcycles to civilians until 1932!

The pace of mechanical improvements was steady right up to the Depression.

The front brake came in 1928 and the new 74-cubic-inch Model VL big twin appeared just two months before the Crash.

Costing $20 more than the model it replaced, the VL debuted with "a weak clutch, frail flywheel, poor lubrication, bad valve springs, inefficient mufflers and marginal pistons. Otherwise the motorcycle was fine."

To Harley's credit, "production stopped until new parts were made and shipped to dealers."

The economic downturn was one reason the firm's cheaper 45-cubic-inch (750cc) flathead twin would remain in production for 45 years. Something similar happened to Royal Enfield, when the 350cc Bullet motor long familiar in England moved to India, remaining in production there almost unchanged for 50 years.

As sales declined in the Depression, Harley-Davidson turned to styling improvements to attract customers. One result was that when the new overhead-valve Knucklehead motor arrived in 1936 it went into "the best-looking damn motorcycle they had ever seen."

The Knucklehead was "the right machine at the right time," Rafferty writes on Page 49. Harley-Davidson would face many more challenges in the 100 pages to come. But its motorcycles remained identifiably Harley in appearance.

The book ends the story in 1997 with an ironic, cautionary twist. The last line is this:

"With Harley-Davidson as partner, engine supplier and distribution network, the future of Buell's American sport bike looks uncommonly bright."

In fact, Harley's experiment with Buell sports bikes, begun in 1993, did not survive the 2009 economic downturn. That rare break with tradition did not work out.

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