It’s always good to be home. Just ask all the leather-clad bikers who made the pilgrimage to Milwaukee, Wisconsin (in the good ol’ US of A), the hallowed birthplace of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Traditionally, Harley-Davidson (H-D) celebrates its anniversary every five years, but 2013 was different – this was its biggest birthday bash to date. An estimated 100,000 revellers rumbled through the streets of Milwaukee over the three days of festivities in late August, with an equally rumbling festive soundtrack provided by ZZ Top, Kid Rock and Aerosmith.
And what party would be complete without food and drink? Beer flowed like a river the entire time I was there, and I walked past a huge truck whose entire trailer section was converted into what it proclaimed to be the “World’s Largest Grill. Period.”
Boozing and partying aside, the event was also an opportunity for non-Harley fanatics like myself to see what makes the brand tick and understand why so many fiercely loyal customers don’t just buy a H-D, they also live and breathe its lifestyle.
If you thought these devotees come exclusively from the rougher side of town, you’d be wrong. Harley bikers hail from all walks of life – businessmen, hillbillies, war veterans et al. Yes, 99 per cent of them usually come dressed in black, but look beyond that and you’ll see it’s a close-knit community, consisting of friendly people who wear their hearts (plus an eagle, flame or skull patch) on the sleeves of their leather jackets.
Avid members of this black leather-clad, “unsecret society” were in attendance at a motorcycle parade that saw 6,000 Harleys roar their way from a baseball stadium on the outskirts of Milwaukee to the city centre’s Summerfest Grounds. We should also mention that said convoy took nearly an hour to pass, and that participants signed up more than a year beforehand.
One of the spectators was 38-year-old Singaporean KC Lee, who owns two Harleys. He was merely a bystander at the parade’s holding area when an American rider approached him.
“He was taking part in the parade, asked me where I came from, and I told him I had flown all the way from Singapore and had ridden 6,400km from Houston to Milwaukee,” Lee told us. “When he found out I didn’t have a ticket to the parade, he patted me on the shoulder and said, ‘My friend, you’ve come too far to miss this, you can have my ticket.’ I couldn’t believe my luck!” he recalled excitedly.
The warm, down-to-earth magic that permeates Harley culture could be something that comes from Harley-Davidson’s top brass themselves – they were seen mingling and chatting with the crowd during the festivities. I got a chance to mingle with them as well, and while there, I met the current CEO, COO, and CMO.
Better still, I also got to meet a few members of the Davidson family (William G. Davidson and his children, Bill and Karen), and if you’re a H-D fan, it’s like meeting royalty.
William, or “Willie G” as he is more affectionately known, is the grandson of the company’s co-founder William A. Davidson. He’s a former senior vice-president of the firm and was once its chief designer, whose notable designs include the Fat Boy (as used by Arnie in Terminator 2), the Street Glide (the best-selling Harley model in the US market), and more recently, the V-Rod. Now retired, he serves as the brand’s ambassador.
Willie G isn’t the only Davidson working (part-time, in his case) for Harley-Davidson. His son Bill is curator of the Harley museum (see box story below), and his daughter Karen is in charge of Harley’s general merchandising department.Admittedly, H-D is more than just a “family business” these days, though judging from its tightly knit community and personable senior executives, it could fool anyone.
During the anniversary celebrations, its affable (naturally) CEO, Keith Wandell, outlined something called Project Rushmore. Like its namesake (the mountain with the faces of America’s founding fathers carved into it), this project is gonna be big.
It’s the largest-scale product launch in the company’s history, and there’ll be a slew of upgrades to its 2014 touring models, including more powerful and efficient engines, revised suspension and brakes, more user-friendly luggage bags and a new infotainment system.
Wandell believes the improvements, made at the behest of Harley customers, “will leave our competitors further back in the rear view mirror”. And that, coming from a company whose iconic products have remained largely unchanged over its 110-year history, is the corporate equivalent of wearing one’s heart on one’s sleeve, proudly.
Of course, instead of a heart, it could well be a screaming-eagle patch sewed onto the sleeve of a black leather jacket.