Friday, April 10, 2020

Recalling when Harley faltered and Brits raced ahead

Royal Enfield and Harley-Davidson are world leaders in marketing motorcycles of strong tradition, classic styling and vintage characteristics.

While Harley-Davidson often managed to build motorcycles that were, at least, state-of-the-art for their time, Royal Enfield survived half a century in India building the Bullet, truly a motorcycle out of the past.

My 1999 Bullet not only looks its age, its long-stroke motor, cable actuated drum brakes, neutral-finder gearbox, wire wheels and chain drive are right out of 1949.

In "The Ultimate Harley-Davidson," motorcycle journalist and author Mac McDiarmid gives Harley credit for inventing "Retro-Tech." What's that?

"It is the means by which modern engineering receives a post-modern styling twist which is uniquely Harley-Davidson, which can contrive to make a 1999 model look for all the world like a 1949 HydraGlide but function far better."

Cover of book about Harley-Davidson.
"The Ultimate Harley-Davidson" 2007 Edition.
He's talking about elements such as the "Softail" that gives a Harley cantilever rear suspension but lets it look like a rigid frame motorcycle. Harley's "Springer" front end looks like crude girder forks, but "benefited from more computer-aided design than any previous piece of Harley-Davidson hardware..."

Royal Enfield has unleashed its 650 twins on the world, bringing a new take on the famed Royal Enfield Interceptor and Continental GT of the 1960s. These new Royal Enfields look retro, but use thoroughly modern technology.

That same plan has worked for Harley — up to a point, anyway. I read the 2007 edition of McDiarmid's book, spotted by a friend in a resale shop. The book was written during high times for Harley.

"Today, the company is booming. Inspired styling and brilliant marketing, combined with modern manufacturing techniques, see Milwaukee's finest thundering confidently into the future," he writes.

Harley's confidence has cooled since then, victim of lessening demand as its Baby Boomer customer base ages out of motorcycling. Then, in July, 2018, came announcement of ambitious plans to reshape the brand with new products.

No mention of Retro-Tech. Instead there would be an adventure motorcycle, aggressively modern looking "pure performance" bikes in all sizes and even electric motorcycles.

The July, 2018 announcement was pitched to overturn everything you thought you knew about Harley-Davidson, and so powerfully worded that the company added this disclaimer at the bottom:

"While many statements use language that might imply a level of certainty about the likelihood that the company will attain these goals, aims and objectives, it is possible that the company will not attain them in the time frame noted, or at all."

So what is the value of a 2007 book that ends during a boom time? Well, it's naturally a history book, and Harley's long history is one of booms, busts and near miraculous salvations from brutal market changes.

Unless you already know it by heart, McDiarmid's retelling will challenge most of what you thought you knew about Harley-Davidson.

The earliest Harleys were singles, not twins, and the first production V-twin was plagued by troubles. Production was suspended for a year and then it came back as a better motor in a stronger frame. Getting it right — eventually — seemed to become a Harley tradition.

With dependable products production was soaring, even before U.S. entry into World War I. Then it really took off, leaving Harley-Davidson the world's largest manufacturer of motorcycles.

And then Ford cut the price of its Model T car to $395, the same as a Harley V-twin. Motorcycle sales collapsed and Harley sales would not return to 1920's level for 21 years — with another war.

Harley supplied the Allies with 90,000 motorcycles during the World War II. Meeting that demand was followed by a challenge of a different sort: with victory in sight the War Department slashed orders for 11,000 motorcycles, yet wartime limits on producing for civilians remained in force.

Workers' hours were cut, so they went on strike. Then the government dumped 15,000 war surplus Harleys on the market.

It gets worse. The military had favored Harley's already old-fashioned side-valve motorcycles over the more advanced Knuklehead of the 1930s. Harley's reputation for dependability now translated as "old, slow and obsolete," McDiarmid writes.

"Triumph — along with other British marques such as BSA, Norton and Royal Enfield — had a range of cheaper yet much more exciting and technically sophisticated models than Harley-Davidson (whose flagship model persisted with hand gear change until 1952)."

In response Harley tried to bully dealers into not handling the British brands. In 1952 it asked for a 40 percent import tax and quotas on the number of motorcycles the British could import. The government refused those requests, and told Harley to quit its abusive sales practices.

The Hollister "riots" of 1947 were considered a black mark for motorcycling at the time. Harley took the blame, seemingly worsened by the 1953 movie "The Wild One."

"Although the film's star, Marlon Brando, rode a Triumph Thunderbird on screen, many people still swear it was a Harley."

We all know now that the day would come when Harley-Davidson could exploit the bad-boy image of the outlaw gangs to sell motorcycles. But McDiarmid points out many things I didn't realize.

Harley was forced to merge with industrial giant AMF in 1968, often considered a dark year for the brand. But AMF invested millions, and sales more than doubled in the first three years.

The Japanese invasion actually helped Harley by expanding the American motorcycle market, triggering a "staggering increase" from 60,000 a year to more than two million by 1973.

Still, too few of these motorcycle sales were Harleys. The company again asked for tariff protection and again it didn't get it.

Instead, the government told Harley its problem was its obsolete model range. AMF lost interest and Harley executives arranged a leveraged buy-out in 1981. Independence was thrilling, but things actually got worse. The company lost $25 million in 1982. Again it begged for tariffs and, in 1983, it finally got them, to run through 1988.

The protection was for motorcycles of more than 700cc, right where Harley executives planned to put their efforts. But the bank backing the buy-out withdrew, leaving the company broke. Bankruptcy seemed certain.

It was time for another miraculous salvation and it came, in the form of gradually improving products and fast improving sales. Harley took back the big-bike leadership from Honda and announced that it wouldn't even need tariff protection for 1988. In that year, Harley introduced the Springer Softail.

Retro-Tech was here. The boom time was back, bigger, better and louder than ever.

Until, it seems, now. Time for a new book, but this 2007 edition still has value.

Harley's surprising history is the most interesting part of McDiarmid's book, but unlike many coffee-table size tomes it includes a useful Index, a Glossary (a "wrist pin" is not a wrestling move), and a guide to Harley-Davidson Model Codes.

There are separate chapters for Customs and Competition. Much of the book consists of separate chapters for significant models.

All in all, a great used-bookstore find.

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