Tuesday, March 27, 2007
My Harley-Davidson Dilemma
The Buell and I have just returned from our thousand mile checkup. The nice weather of the past couple of weeks, plus a new riding suit for less-than-ideal climatic conditions, have made this a productive spring for motorcycling in the frozen tundra of Northeast Wisconsin. And the love affair with the Buell continues. It's a really felicitous combination of personality and stellar functionality, and I didn't expect to like it so much. If it should suddenly disappear, I would use the insurance check to buy exactly the same thing. Given my eyes-always-on-the-next-thing nature, that's a glowing endorsement.
This thousand mile checkup is my first visit for service, and only my third or fourth visit to the dealership since I bought the bike last fall. And I'm always a bit taken aback at how conflicted I feel every time I set foot in the place, and at how subtly confused I am when I drive away. I'll try to explain.
Motorcycling is a funny thing. While there are many car nuts in the world, most of us--even the car nuts among us--acknowledge the mundane and indispensable aspect of car ownership in America. Even the car nut spends the bulk of his or her time just routinely connecting point A to point B. Motorcycles are different. They are not predominantly utilitarian, and even for the rider who uses their bike the way the rest of us use our cars the bike is different--it's more involving, more dangerous and exposed, more deliberate. Most of us ride motorcycles as an act of passion, like those who fly recreationally. Most of the miles I put on my bike are not miles which would get put on the car if I had no bike. My riding is usually an end in itself, and even when I duplicate a car trip I'm aware that the bike makes it an event, something special. Rarely do I look for a reason to go drive my car around; but it happens with the bike every day.
There are many points of entry to the world of motorcycling. Although I began riding as a pre-teen, I am drawn to motorcycles today in large part because of the performance aspects of riding. I watch a couple different motorcycle racing series on TV, and though I do not race myself, or even ride very athletically, I'm aware of how the threshold of motorcycle technology is pushed ever outwards for all of us by things learned in the trials of racing. Brakes, suspension, tire technology, durability, fundamental engine and chassis design; these things are challenged and improved by the stresses of racing, and those changes find their way quickly to the bikes you and I can buy and ride. Most of the world's big manufacturers have a presence in motorcycle racing, and their products reflect this commitment: Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Ducati, BMW, Aprilia--these manufacturers compete with each other on the showroom floor, and often on the race track as well. This interface with technology as it pertains to motorcycle performance is one of my key points of interest in motorcycling.
If performance is one entry to motorcycling, Harley-Davidson as a company has staked out a huge swath of territory at the opposite pole of Planet Motorcycling. Where H-D was an industry leader in technology around the time of the Second World War, they stagnated in this arena in the '50s and '60s, and their business found something of a rebirth with the rise of motorcycling as a counter-culture phenomenon in the '70s (á la Easy Rider). The "cruiser" motorcycle was born in this cauldron--a low-slung motorcycle with long forks and high "ape hanger" handlebars and with an unmuffled, blatting V-twin engine--and it came to represent the core of what Harley-Davidson was. And there they have remained, selling a product with a predominantly stylistic appeal. This is how it has always seemed to me, and I have felt contemptuous of this motorcycle-as-fashion-accessory mentality for as long as I can remember (even as most other bike manufacturers have scrambled to duplicate the formula and thus tap into what has proven to be a rich vein). Over the years, the demographic of people buying Harleys has changed, the angry blue collar types giving way more and more to executives and white collar types wanting to let their hair down on weekends and be a little bit naughty and dangerous by association. But in comparison to the leading edge of motorcycling from the rest of the world's manufacturers, H-Ds were heavy and slow, not very good handling (certainly not very athletic), and of dubious reliability.
This explains why my purchasing a Buell--which is now a division of Harley-Davidson--was such a big deal for me. The very association with H-D was a demerit in my eyes. But when I place aside my preconceptions and the rest of this load of associative baggage I carry around with me, I'm delighted at how well this Buell actually works. I want all the rest of it to be bullshit, and looked at head-on, I suppose it is.
But it's still a challenge for me to wander through the Harley-Davidson dealership where I bought the Buell and where I have to go to get it serviced. While there are many very devoted Harley riders, people who do in fact live to ride, the bulk of their sales goes nowadays to what I can only view as not very serious or informed motorcyclists. They're people who aspire to an associative identity, rather than people who follow their passion and are labelled by others because of it. Maybe that's all just a bullshit assessment, but from my starting point, it's just hard to take a Harley-Davidson seriously. What makes my visit to the dealership so conflicting and confusing is that so many of my strongly-held views do not get the reinforcement in this place that I expect. First, though everyone looks like they once played for ZZ Top, no one has been less than entirely solicitous of and courteous to me. And though Buells must seem like the red-headed stepchildren at a large H-D dealerhsip (and my $11,000 motorcycle is roughly half the cost of the typical machine going out these doors), everyone seems quite knowledgeable and respectful of this machine which is so different from the bread and butter they deal with. Frankly, I expected to get treated with a bit of contempt, but my own seems to be the only contempt on display. I feel a bit ashamed.
Maybe more surprising is what I feel as I wander around the showroom and look at the million dollars of merchandise on display. While I still don't see the purchase of a proper H-D machine in my near future, I confess that there is something alluring about the raw mechanical essence of many of these bikes, something I had never quite absorbed before. They're not very sophisticated, but there's an undeniable mechanical exuberance about them, like a steam locomotive from 1940; everything is on display, and you can see how everything works. This is no bad thing for a machinery geek. More and more with modern motorcycles, the operative things are hidden behind plastic shrouds and black boxes. I've never cared for this aspect of "progress." But there's no such progress with a Harley: there's a sense that you could do all the servicing yourself, because it's all right there in front of you. H-D's quality has improved hugely in the past 20 years, such that the quality of the pieces and the care and precision with which they're assembled will stand next to anyone's. My sense that the machinery is second-rate does not hold up very well in person, even if I think the design mission is not the most exciting one. There are even a couple of their zillion models which, with a few pointed modifications, I wouldn't mind owning. This is something for me.
And then there's the rest of the merchandise. I have never seen a company so adept at marketing itself as the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Knives and keychains and pens and wallets and helmets (not that they sell many of those) and a zillion leather goods and wardrobe items from socks and underwear to boots and full riding suits and every conceivable item of motorcycle cosmetics and performance fluids--hundreds and hundreds of items are displayed around the opulent, beautiful show floor. And, much to my surprise, it's all pretty damn high quality stuff. Many of the leather jackets, for example, are quite stylish and look beautifully-made, and you can get pants and gloves and all to match. None of it is cheap, and everything is emblazoned, blatantly or subtly, with the H-D logo. Much of it is not very serious motorcycling gear; many of the bike jackets, for example, are clearly intended to be worn into the bar as advertising rather than as protection on a cross-country ride. But such is the genius of marketing that after a certain tipping point it becomes self-sustaining; soon you want EVERYTHING Harley. I can see it. I actually went to the little corner of the showroom to see what was available in comparable Buell merchandise. There's a bit, but it's a tiny fraction of the H-D catalog (though most of the Buell stuff seems serious riding gear).
I may hate that the whole thing is a gigantic marketing exercise, but after all I am exactly the sucker the stuff is marketed towards! They may not have gotten the demographic exactly right with me, but the shot is close enough to graze the scalp. Notice is taken.
It will be a triumph for me if I can find myself in a place where I'm OK wearing a H-D t-shirt. I'm not there yet, but like a therapy goal I can see the day coming where I can see a guy on his out for a sunday ride on his Heritage Softtail and think only of the shared portion of our passion for motorcycles. At least I'm beginning to think there is some overlap, and for me that's a step.