Harley Davidson Roaring Into Second Century Strong as Ever

By: Associated Press
By: Associated Press

The motorcycle company that began in a backyard shed in 1903 survived the Depression and near-bankruptcy to become an American success story.

It's collected thousands of easy riding fans who love the freedom-of-the-road lifestyle and the bike's classic chrome-and-metal look. Many of those fans will travel to Milwaukee at the end of the month as Harley celebrates its 100th anniversary.

Darwin Holmstrom is a senior editor at Minneapolis publisher Motorbooks International. He says Harley survived some bumps in the past because it nurtured its riders' loyalty, but Harley's leaders say they must begin tempting younger riders and those overseas.

The average customer is a man in his 40s with enough money to pay thousands of dollars for a bike.

200,000 to 300,000 Harley enthusiasts from around the world are expected to rumble into the bike's birthplace this month to celebrate a century of cruising.

Harley-Davidson has plenty of concerts, tours and exhibits lined up to keep the crowds busy for the Harley 100th celebration.

The four-day festival the last week in August is centered on Milwaukee's lakefront.

Classic rock acts Kansas, Peter Frampton and REO Speedwagon will entertain. Exhibits include antique motorcycles, clothing, film clips and bikes owned by Elvis Presley and Jon Bon Jovi. The birthday bash includes music and fireworks to usher Harley into its second century.

Two large airplanes have been chartered to bring Harley enthusiasts from Tokyo to Milwaukee. Six-hundred people from Australia and New Zealand flew to the West Coast and are planning to ride to Milwaukee.

The Milwaukee County Sheriff's Department is teaming up with other law enforcement agencies on tasks ranging from cracking down on hawkers of counterfeit Harley wares to shutting down congested freeway ramps.

Since most of the hotel rooms filled up quickly, Target Special Events are subletting homes and apartments in the Milwaukee area. Owners who move out during the festival are getting $1,500 to $1,900.

The Harley ideal remains as the motorcycle maker celebrates its 100th birthday this month, but the face of Harley riders have changed. They're more mainstream, no longer leather-clad men on the fringes of society. Now they're men and women with families and corporate jobs.

Analysts say the improved quality of Harley's motorcycles has, in part, led to changes in its riders. From the late 1960s to the early 1980s, Harley's quality dropped. Harley riders needed to know how to fix their bikes anywhere, any time.

Harley's quality began to improve after executives bought back the company from corporate parent AMF in 1981.

The company says the median household income of a Harley owner was about 78,000 in 2001. The average age of a rider rose from about 27 in 1980 to about 46 in 2001.

Older riders have more disposable income and have finished raising their kids, now it's their turn to play.

A leather glove twists the throttle and the unmistakable growl of a revving Harley-Davidson thunders through the air.

The distinctive sound is one of the things that helps create Harley's aura of power, patriotism and the freedom of the open road.

Harley spent six years trying unsuccessfully to trademark its engine rumble. The NBC chimes and AOL's "You've Got Mail'' greeting are just a couple of other federally-protected sounds.

The motorcycle maker withdrew its application in 2000 after opposition from other bike makers.

The syncopated sound, often described as "potato, potato, potato," is produced when two spark plugs fire nearly simultaneously, followed by a brief pause after the second fire. The actual noise comes from hot gas escaping from exhaust valves.

The sound, some call it noise, will be multiplied by tens of thousands as bikers roar into Harley's hometown to commemorate 100 years of the bikes the last week in August.