Editorial - An American Tragedy

The following is an opinion regarding American business in general and about the Harley Davidson Company in particular. It's a story about a Company that enjoys a huge market of people who are predisposed to want to buy because of their products looks, unique sound and because it's products are part of American folklore. But does H-D protect this market or take advantage of their built-in appeal? Nope.. Instead, they continually change their product to look more Japanese and price their products artificially high to give the appearance that Harleys are rare and valuable (DeBeers has been doing this with diamonds for decades). Instead of making a better motorcycle, H-D seems to be more interested in trademarking everything nostalgic that competitors might want to copy including the H-D sound!

Where else but in an American Dealership would you hear, "we will have to order that $5 part for you Sir. It should be here in 2 to 3 weeks"? Read on and see how a Company can continue to be profitable even though they manufacture junk and have utter disregard for their Customers. It's the American dream... or at least it is until some smart Entrepeneur come along and makes an American built look alike, sound alike that runs decently....

Harley Davidson has been making motorcycles for almost 100 years now. When I first started riding in the early '60s, Harleys were fairly decent bikes. Early shovels, panheads, flatheads and knuckles) were fairly solid, as long as you didn't mind dripping a lot of oil all over the place. Don't talk to me about the "K" model, the 45, Sportsters or anything else under 74 cu. I'm a hog guy through and through! Sorry..

It's always been true that the best way to get a Harley to run right is to take off as much of the Harley stuff as you can and replace those parts with aftermarket components that actually work. The only Harleys I have ever seen that ran well belonged to guys who were great Mechanics or by guys who knew someone who was a great Mechanic!

These days, Harley Dealerships have become more like clothing boutiques than places where honest to goodness Scooter Tramps hang out. You can pretty much forget about finding a 20 year touring Veteran in the shop. The majority of people working at Harley Dealerships these days seem to know less about riding than my pet fish.

Harley Davidson motorcycles have a fiercely loyal following among Outlaws, wanna be's, and other assorted riffraff. It's really too bad that the Harley Davidson Company isn't reciprocally loyal to it's Customers. Over the years, Harley Davidson has made golf carts, beer, T-shirts, designer clothing and cigarettes as well as motorcycles. This lack of singular focus on the part of H-D is likely a key cause as to why the Company seems to be so out of touch with the riding public.

The AMF years were the worst. Willie Davidson and AMF did their best to make the Harley look Japanese with their cheesy handlebar mounted instruments and other ring-ding modifications. But even using mostly Japanese parts, the Harley was still an unreliable piece of junk under their tutelage. I particularly enjoyed having to snip the jumper wire on the ignition switch that kept the headlight on all the time. Unless you are running a magneto, you don't want to be running your lights all the time in a H-D!

I don't know a single "real" Biker who doesn't hate helmet laws, yet all Harley advertising contains the 'advice' to always wear your helmet. This in spite of many reputable studies that have concluded that helmets often cause more problems and injuries than they prevent (see favorite links). Know your Customers, right guys?

The "new" evolution motor is supposed to be way better than the shovel. Sorry, but I just don't see it. You'd think that at $18,000 a copy, there would be enough profit for H-D to produce a bike that would idle without dropping dead and would accelerate without coughing and farting down the road. A friend of mine was telling me how great the evo motor was and then went on to say how this broke in that City and that broke in this City. Right... when I go touring, I plan for rest stops, meal stops and sightseeing stops. I do not plan on breaking down in the middle of nowhere stops!

a few years ago I took my 1500 Gold Wing through Death Valley, California in early August. Being from the East Coast, I had never been in a real desert before and was ill prepared for the kind of stuff that Death Valley threw at me. I couldn't help feeling that if I had attempted this maneuver on a Harley, the vultures would have been circling me before I got half way through it. There is certainly no way that any Harley I've ever owned would have survived that trip.

The last Hog I owned was a new 1977 Low Rider. It blew a hole in the rear piston on the Indiana Turnpike in that same year with a whopping 11,000 miles on it. It seems that you couldn't drive that model in the rain or else the centrifugal advance weights would rust up and give the same symptoms as a crapped out carb. Carburation problems with original equipment Harleys are legendary.

As it happens, I *always* ride in the rain. The guys who design Harleys obviously either don't ride at all or don't ride in the rain. Sooooo, I got to enjoy a huge motor rebuild bill because some yo-yo Engineer didn't design in a watertight seal to protect the points and spark advance components. Yes, a Joe Hunt magneto would have avoided the problem! But that's just my point. Why should an Owner have to shitcan the stock H-D ignition system on the most expensive motorcycle on the market? This wasn't the only problem I had with this bike in it's very short life, folks.

It became apparent that I needed to find a better way to go. Soooo... lately, I've been doing the big displacement Honda thing. The Shadow A.C.E. is a pretty nice bike. It does everything that a Harley should do but doesn't (like run reliably). However, I sure do miss parking the Hog in the kitchen all Winter while I do enough wrenching on it to make it roadworthy for at least a few Months in Spring.

Oh, did I mention that my '77 Hog lost it's rear brakes while going down a steep City hill several weeks before I received a recall notice from H-D saying that there was a 'slight' chance that unexpected brake loss could cause an accident or injury? Just how many Bikers do you know who would consider it 'slightly' risky to lose their rear brakes without warning? Just how many years does it take to work the bugs out of a low tech system like brakes, anyway?

The new H-Ds haven't fared much better. There is a current recall in effect for 1994 - 1997 models manufactured before 9/30/96 that have to do with the "loss of engine power without prior warning". It seems that there is a problem with the vacuum operated fuel supply valve; another $5 part that cripples a $18,000 bike. How many bikes do you think dropped dead in the middle of nowhere before H-D figured this one out? Guys: you can always depend on gravity to be there. Quit trying to make a fuel delivery system that tries to be smarter than Mother Nature!

When it comes right down to it folks, I'm into riding, not wrenching. Since Harley Davisdon doesn't seem to want to make a reliable bike for a reasonable amount of money, I'm looking at some custom bike options for my next scooter purchase. The Titan Roadrunner is the front-runner although a few people have told me that it is a bit lacking in the handling department. It sure does look,sound and run good though..

It blows my mind that people keep standing in line to pay a pile of money for a bike that is essentially a piece of crap and it doubly blows my mind that H-D thinks that crappy bikes are what their Customers want. When I went looking at new Harleys a few years ago, the Dealer didn't permit test drives and told me that I'd be "lucky" if the Dealership would sell me one. Hey, man! These bikes are in big demand! The factory can't make them fast enough! Could be,..... but junk is junk. Selling lots of it doesn't make it stinkless.

I love bikes and I love riding. I always have and I always will. But I refuse to pay out real money for a scooter that just can't cut it. If a bike can't handle a couple of weeks of 500/mile per day touring and if it can't run all season without dropping dead in the middle of nowhere (year in any year out), I'm just not gonna put a leg over it. And I don't much give a rat's ass who thinks that what I'm riding is lame.

And would you motorcycle Engineers put the damned kickstarter back into the design? Try this equation:

Cold weather (thick oil + loss of battery cranking power) = bike won't start!

Not every Biker lives in Southern California and only drives as far as the nearest 7-11... Get it straight guys!

I'm done now......thanks for listening.

Last modified on Tuesday, November 12, 1996