Home Drive The two-wheel war of words: Harley or not

The two-wheel war of words: Harley or not

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The Friday the 13th motorcycle rally at Port Dover, Ont. Wherever bikers get together, an inevitable them-versus-us vibe arises. Either you’re a Harley-Davidson rider or you’re not. And the two groups definitely don’t mix well

Ted LaturnusAs a lifetime rider who has ridden just about every kind of motorcycle ever made, and spent more time than he probably should at bars and various watering holes, I’ve narrowed bikers down to two main groups: Harley-lovers and Harley-haters.

Harley-Davidson riders tend to travel in packs and gather at the same places like clockwork. Hard-core types simply won’t tolerate any other brand of bike in their midst, with the possible exception of British bikes.

Show up at a Harley gathering with your Yamaha or Kawasaki and you can definitely expect the cold shoulder.

I once was out for a lovely Sunday ride on a Yamaha Royal Star and got overtaken by a group of Harley guys at a stop light.

“Next time, get a real bike!” snarled one as they pulled away.

Oh, the irony: at the time I owned a softail Heritage Harley-Davidson and was riding a Yamaha tester. And the funny thing was, the Royal Star would leave most big Harleys for dead.

And that, of course, is the heart of the conundrum.

Harley-Davidson makes excellent cruisers/touring bikes, but performance leaders they are not.

Japanese manufacturers have had to actually tune their bikes down to compete in this hard-to-figure-out market.

And Harley’s technology, despite numerous engineering upgrades, can still be traced back to the 1920s. For those who don’t get it, that’s part of their charm.

But it drives the Harley-haters crazy. Before they start foaming at the mouth and grinding their teeth, ‘serious’ non-Harley riders inevitably zero in on Harley’s medieval technology, with its push-rods, V-twin/air-cooled configuration and outdated suspension. They shout that Harley hasn’t made any significant engineering advances in 50 years.

That may or may not be true but, until recently, Harley-Davidson has been a phenomenally successful company, selling trainloads of bikes every year.

Things seem to be winding down, because many loyal Harley riders are just getting too old to ride. But Harley-Davidson has pretty much owned the heavy cruiser market for the last five decades, at least.

Yes, the true glory days are over but that’s true for all motorcycle companies, especially when it comes to the cruiser market.

But people still love Harley-Davidsons, like it or lump it.

That, however, doesn’t excuse the way some Harley riders handle themselves. As a longtime Harley owner, I’m embarrassed that some groups ride the same brand of bike as me. And some guys are simply ridiculous when it comes to brand loyalty.

There are places in the world where not riding a Harley is considered unpatriotic and anti-Japanese sentiment still thrives.

Over the years, I’ve also heard things from Harley riders that still leave me shaking my head. They have usually centred around how drunk and wasted the subject was the night before.

But my favourite, a few years back at a well-known hangout in Washington state, was a drunken argument between an itinerant tattoo artist who had temporarily set up shop and one of his customers.

The – er – discussion revolved around the correct spelling of the word ‘softail’ and I thought knives would be drawn at any moment. Think about it: a tattoo artist who can’t spell.

Not that Harley-haters are any better-behaved. In some circles, riding a Harley translates into not being a ‘serious’ rider – a poser who craves attention and pretends to be what he isn’t.

Nine times out of 10, the hater complains about the loud exhaust, which, of course, is an environmental issue and isn’t exclusive to any particular brand of motorcycle. Lots of non-Harleys have loud exhaust.

But that doesn’t matter. To a sport bike rider, Harley-Davidson equals obnoxious behaviour. And if you’re not riding a bike that can accelerate from zero to 100 km/h in three seconds and you don’t lean your bike through the turns until the foot-pegs scrape, you’re not much of a man and should probably get a scooter.

You haven’t experienced true elitism and snobbery until you’ve been around Ducati riders, for example. If there’s a European equivalent to the mindset of Harley enthusiasts, it’s found in Italian riders. Interestingly, both Ducati and Harley-Davidson have less than enviable quality control records.

I take my cue from Ringo Starr. When the Beatles first arrived in North America in 1964, the mods-versus-rockers thing was going full-bore in jolly olde England.

What, a reporter asked Ringo, was he? A mod or a rocker?

“Neither,” he replied without missing a beat. “I’m a mocker.”

Ted Laturnus writes for Troy Media’s Driver Seat Associate website. An automotive journalist since 1976, he has been named Canadian Automotive Journalist of the Year twice and is past-president of the Automotive Journalists Association of Canada (AJAC).

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