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 (รก 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.


Joshua said...

I think I am just at the begining of this world. I was lucky enough to get a bike last summer, and spent far more hours on it than I thought I would, finding any excuse I could to take it instead of my completely encased car.

And, already, I am on first name basis with the local dealership, and am contemplating a step up in performance, comfort (and, yes, style).

I like the cruiser style, and the comfort I feel on it. I have been on a crotch rocket and could not stand it. My mind is not made up on touring bikes, yet. Part of me thinks that's what "fits" me, but another, perhaps more nestalgic part, REALLY likes being on a cruiser.

And now, 750 is just too small (thanks, by the way, for talking me out of anything smaller last year).

wunelle said...

I remember, as a teen, the "enduro" style bikes my brother and dad and I were riding, and how my brother stayed with that style as he moved up while I made the jump to a bona fide street bike. And like you, maybe, I remember this bike just feeling better to me, for comfort or stylistic or function reasons (or some combination).

So I do remember this discovery, the excitement of it, and the importance of following your nose, as it were. I'm maybe inclined to denigrate stylistic extremity, but I have to see that my performance orientation is not for everyone, or even for most people. And most cruisers are not extreme at all, but have become (perhaps with no thanks to Harley) very competent, functional and reliable machines.

You'll have to shoot me an email (or comment) about what you're looking at; I'd love to know. Does the wife like to ride?

Jeffy said...

I too have a hard time appreciating Harleys. It does seem that style and image are the driving forces behind almost all Harley purchases. In pretty much any form, there are other brands that are equally good, or better, and almost all of them cost significantly less than a Harley. The vast array of merchandise just feeds the whole image machine.

One consequence of this marketing juggernaut is that for a large portion of the population, 'motorcycle' means 'Harley' and motorcyclists are imagined to be nasty Harley-riding dirt-bags. This image is reflected on all of us.

I am doing my part to counter this image. I ride the polar opposite of a Harley and I do it with absolutely no style at all.

Joshua said...

We have had terrible weather since I unpacked my bike, cleaned it all out, and tuned it up (and rode the next two days as much as I could get away with). I have not been on it since.

Carly does not want anything to do with motorcycles. She doesn't want one, she doesn't want to be on one, and she (not so secretly) is afraid of me being on one. But she is a truly amazing wife in that she lets me have my fun with only a minimum of stress. In fact, she recently asked if I would be upgrading this summer, and said she wouldn't mind if I did.

The bike that has been on my radar here in town is this one http://www.bemidjisportscentre.com/new_vehicle_detail.asp?sid=02481348X3K29K2007J9I45I01JAMQ1971R0&veh=13221&pov=427722
I know the guy, and he is already down under 6k for it. It is shaft driven, so I won't be giving up comfort, and it still sits nice and low to the ground.

But, honestly, I just have to resist the urge. We are young, we just bought a house, we don't need another payment (do you hear me talking to myself on this one).

Jeffy said...

Joshua - If you can't resist the urge that does look like a great bike. I do agree that it is wise to wait on this sort of recreational purchase until you can pay for it outright, but then again you can view it as pretty inexpensive transportation - even if it is only usable half of the year.

I can certainly understand Carly's reservations about motorcycles - my spouse is probably of a similar mind about them. However, if you always wear a helmet and ride like you have a brain it does go a long way toward reassuring her. It is pretty easy to see who is going to be crashing their bike and who is likely to get along just fine.

wunelle said...

Joshua--I tried to look at the link, but made it only to the dealer's main home page. Now I'm really curious!

Joshua said...

it is under the used bikes, and I think it is the only cruiser, it is the 1100 spirit.

I was thinking more about this, and as I am sure you have mentioned before, I think it comes down to culture for a lot of us. Now, I know the subset exists that wants to LOOK like they are a part of that culture, but the rest of us see through it.

Though I am new to riding, I grew up with Harleys. My mother and her first husband owned a repair shop, and one of my first memories is riding up on the gas tank between her arms (not very safe, I now know, but fun nontheless).

I tried very hard to like the more modern bikes, but I just couldn't. The sound was wrong, the lines were wrong, and the posture was almost laughable.

I still think I would like a tourer, like a BMW, but I have not had the pleasure of finding out (and I am still a bit nervy of test rides, being a novice).

wunelle said...

The thing is, every posture is laughable if it is not purely functional. The issue with the sportbike posture is not whether it's functional or not; it's whether the function is germane to how most sportbike riders actually ride. At street and highway speeds, a crotch rocket is plainly uncomfortable. But their riding position is designed for the track, where the crouch and small fairing become very functional. The short handlebars and high footpegs are all very specifically to gain capability; whether that capability is actually uutilized to offset the sacrifices is the real question. (This is why I don't own a bona fide sportbike.) The kid riding his crotch rocket around in his Speedo and flip-flops and sunglasses w/ Risky Business chain is a clown, worthy of ridicule--and pity when he realizes how far over his head he's in.

But I don't know what motivation, besides fashion, is behind the cruiser position. A cruiser will have a plush seat, and will feel nice in the showroom, but it's not a very good posture once underway. The legs out front makes a high load on one's lower back, and places one's torso bolt upright, where the wind causes a strain on the arms / neck / back. The legs out front place one's full weight on one's butt, whereas having the pegs directly below one's but makes the feet support themselves and the butt support the torso--a division of weight-bearing that makes the bike more comfortable. Having one's feet beneath one also makes changing positions easier and safer.

With a windshield, the cruiser positon makes better sense, but a "standard" middle-of-the-road posture still seems the most functional (think Suzuki Bandit, Yamaha FZ1 / FZ6, Honda 599 / 919, most BMWs.

This is all just my humble opinion.

That Honda (I've seen it now) seems as good a bike as any cruiser you could possibly buy (I do love Honda as a company).

Joshua said...

You are right on with the position. I forgot all about the function of rockets, probably because I do not watch racing and only see those drakkar noir, white sleeveless wearing, blinged out 19 year olds on them.

My bike doesn't have highway pegs, and I always wondered why they would even be used.

And I WANT a BMW of course, but the price is still a bit prohibitive for me (I just got done looking at a bunch of used ones online) I guess a K series would be affordable. How are they for maintenence?

wunelle said...

My second BMW was a K75 from '86 when they first came out. The mechanic at the place I bought it said the K engines were the most over-engineered motors he had ever seen, presumably because BMW was going so far afield from their trademark boxer twin that they didn't DARE not have a reliable motor. The older K100s can vibrate some, but the newer ones have smoother chassis mounts. I would recommend them highly. You don't need to be too concerned with mileage, as they'll go forever. The key thing is whether they've been well-maintained and not abused. If so, even 50-60K would not bother me too much. And that would go for the K bikes or the R bikes. The Rs are simpler, but they're still renowned for tolerating high mileage.

Max Piedra said...

I share your sentiments, Wunelle. Riding a motorcycle is a different experience. There is a different feeling of handling the bike on the vast expanse of road while the air is blowing on your face. There is a sense of freedom, pride and independence while you are on the bike. And taking this mechanical masterpiece on the road is definitely PRICELESS.