Harley-Davidson: history, myth and legend

Harley Davidson
Harley-Davidson gadgets and merch (patch, hat and vest). ZOA-STUDIO multipurpose headband (www.etsy.com/ZoaStudio/listing/640482964) and ZOA-STUDIO pouch (www.etsy.com/ZoaStudio/listing/638213658)

Before gripping the pen (or rather, putting myself at the keyboard) to write the piece that I hope you will continue reading, I thought about it and asked some Harley-Davidson owners: “what does the Harley mean to you and having one “?

The thing that amazed me was the virtually identical response from various people and the proud and contemptuous attitude “because Harley-Davidson represents the American myth”.

On the anniversary of the birth of the motorcycle manufacturer, born on August 28, 1903, we will try to answer my and other questions.

For example: what does it mean to be and represent the American myth? How was this myth born? What are the values that are embodied, why and how do they leverage millions of people? What does it mean to own a Harley-Davidson?

The birth of Harley-Davidson

Let’s start from the beginning, explaining how Harley-Davidson was born and what actions were taken to create this mythological aura around this motorcycle manufacturer and its two wheels.

It is 1901 when the 20 year old William S. Harley draws up drawings for a small displacement engine on a pedal bicycle. Over the next two years, he and his childhood friend Arthur Davidson work on this prototype motorcycle using their friend Henry Melk’s mechanical workshop in Milwaukee. A tool shed to be honest.

Come to think of it, many important and famous companies in the world were born in American garages. Just think of Disney, HP, Virgin, Google, Mattel and nothing less than Amazon and Apple!

But back to this Milwaukee garage. The project started in 1901 was finished in 1903 with the help of Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson. On August 28 the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle was born, later bought by a friend of the three. At that moment we are still far from the myth but slowly since then the three have “made their way” (very appropriate in this case, I’m delighted!) And consolidated their names as manufacturers of high quality and high-volume American motorcycles. octane.

In 1906 the three boys inaugurate the first Harley-Davidson headquarters and over time they hire employees and grow. The real leap to success, however, occurs during the First World War. In fact, in 1917 the United States entered the war and the army asked for motorcycles for the war effort. The Harley had already been used by the military in the expedition called Pancho Villa. But World War I was the first time Harley Davidson was adopted to solve military problems. The United States Army purchased over 20,000 motorcycles.

Historic Harley-Davidson.

After the war, Harley-Davidson became the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer, present in 2000 dealerships in 67 countries. On April 28, 1921 one of its vehicles – the first in the world – reached 160 km / h.

The world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer

And this is where the myth was born: in the 1920s. Harley-Davidson is now known on all continents for being the world’s largest motorcycle manufacturer. But also for the inimitable driving style and the unmistakable roar that the company is even trying to patent.

The myth seemed almost destined to end due to the Great Depression but Harley Davidson along with Indian were the only ones among the major American motorcycle manufacturers to survive.

A few years later what happened during the First World War was repeated, on a larger scale, for the second, with the army ordering 90,000 motorcycles for the soldiers.

Over time, the company survived numerous ownership deals, subsidiary deals, periods of economic crisis and intense global competition to become one of the largest motorcycle manufacturers in the world and an iconic brand widely known for its loyal following, of which we will talk shortly.

Brand communication

Since its inception, Harley-Davidson has worked to brand and market its motorcycles as respectable and stylish products, with advertisements showing what motorcycling writer Fred Rau referred to as “women with refined looking sunshades and men in classic suits like target market “.

The quiet, “polite” muffler of the 1906 Harley-Davidson was emphasized in early commercials with the nickname “The Silent Gray Fellow”. That began to change in the 1960s with the release of the “Meet the Niceest People on a Honda” advertising campaign. In response, Harley-Davidson tried to create a contrast with Honda by leveraging the working class, the macho and even a little bit of the anti-social attitude associated with the dark side of motorcycling. With the 1971 FX Super Glide, the company embraced, rather than distancing itself, the chopper style and counterculture scene embodied, in those years, by the movie Easy Rider (Easy Rider turns 50), in which the protagonists in riding their two wheels they use drugs in a hippie commune.

Harley-Davidson FX Super Glide advertisement.

Cinema in general has contributed to the affirmation of the myth by embracing the style of the rebel, of the outsider riding a Harley motorcycle. In addition to Easy Rider we remember “The Wild”, with Marlon Brando (1953), “Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man”, with Mickey Rourke (1991) and Nicholas Cage in “Ghost Rider” of (2007), or Schwarzenegger in “Terminator ”And Zed the Bruce Willis chopper in“ Pulp Fiction ”.

If we think instead of the TV series we cannot fail to remember Fonzie riding his Sporster in “Happy Days”, or Lorenzo Lamas’ Evolution 1340 in “Renegade” and a parade of various models in Sons of Anarchy (Sons of Sutter); all series in which the image of the “bad boy” or the outlaw in the motorcycle club is evident, elements that Harley-Davidson marketing has been able to exploit in its favor.


Another thing that Harley-Davidson marketing has been able to exploit in its favor is the sale of branded material that represents almost 5% of the American company’s revenue, which obviously creates that sense of belonging and group under the same symbols.

Taking a detailed analysis, we can say that the Harley myth develops in two ways. The first is linked to having a customized product, despite being created on a large scale, of excellent quality and with uncontestable technical characteristics. The other is to have created bonds between people, a sense of belonging, a sharing of the same values that are well conveyed by cinema, music, and the purchase of products of that specific brand.

Simon Sinek,  a well-known essayist in his book “Start With Why” explains well what has just been said:

(the company / products) become markers or symbols of the values and beliefs that are most dear to us.  Those products and brands give us a sense of belonging and make us feel related to those who buy the same things.  Fan clubs founded by customers often arise without help from the company concerned. They are real communities, where people meet, online or in real life, not only to share their love for a product with others, but also to be in the company of similar people.

Fan clubs

In the case of Harley-Davidson, it was the motorcycle company itself that promoted the birth of fan clubs; in 1983 he established the Harley Owners Group (HOG) to strengthen the loyalty of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts as a means of promoting a lifestyle alongside its products. The HOG also opened up new revenue streams for the company, with the production of custom merchandise offered only to club members. Market analysis shows that HOG members typically spend 30 percent more than other Harley owners on items such as Harley-Davidson sponsored apparel and events.

In 1991, HOG went international, with the first official European HOG Rally in Cheltenham, England. Today, over a million members and over 1,400 chapters around the world make HOG the largest factory-sponsored motorcycle organization in the world.  HOG benefits include organized group rides, exclusive products and discounts on those products, insurance discounts, and the Hog Tales newsletter. Full one-year membership is included with the purchase of a new Harley-Davidson.

In 2008, HOG celebrated its 25th anniversary in partnership with the Harley 105th in its hometown of Milwaukee, where the company’s official museum is also located. Recently the museum was celebrated by Aquaman aka Khal Drogo aka Mr. Jason Momoa who is a big fan of the motorcycle company.

Hell’s Angels

Obviously, in addition to the HOGs, there are other motorcycle clubs, in this case not sponsored by the company. The most famous is certainly represented by the Hell’s Angels who perfectly embody what was previously defined as “the dark side of motorcycling”. Currently this club is considered a criminal organization by the United States Department of Justice.  In Europe there was the risk of considering him in the same way because of the “Great Biker War of the North”. A period between 1994 and 1997 during which the Hell’s Angels clashed with a rival club, the Bandidos MC, with explosive attacks on the various clubs, fights in public places, injuries, and even killings. Only peace in front of the Danish TV cameras meant that both clubs were not considered a criminal organization, even if the requests from the authorities were several.

There would really be a lot of things to tell about the Hell’s Angels and a substantial literature about it, but let’s use an important detail to return to the question of belonging we spoke about earlier through the voice of Simon Sinek. To date, the Hell’s Angels have 250 chapters all over the world, united under the same “colors”. The colors represent the identification of logos and symbols of each motorcycle club. Watch some episodes of Sons of Anarchy, this concept is very clear in the TV series.

In a nutshell, if your “colors” are removed, you become, in effect, an outcast of the club that the club represents. The colors of the Hell’s Angels currently constitute a real registered and copyrighted trademark.

Harley-Davidson Values and Ideals

We conclude this analysis on the birth and development of the American myth and its symbolism with another statement by Sinek.

“A logo becomes a symbol when people start wanting to use it to say something about themselves. The most obvious example is represented by fashion labels that are used to exhibit a certain status, although many actually have a somewhat generic symbolic value. However, there is a deeper example: that of Harley Davidson. There are people walking around with a Harley Davidson logo tattooed on their body. A real madness. Get a company logo tattooed on you! Some don’t even own a Harley. Why on earth should a reasonable person get a company logo tattooed?

The reason is simple. For years Harley Davidson has clearly expressed its ideals, for years it has adhered with discipline to a series of values and guiding principles, for years it has pursued the most absolute consistency in everything it says and does: and it is thanks to everything. this is what his logo has become a symbol. It no longer identifies just a company and its products, but an ideal. … But that logo is no longer Harley’s symbol. It embodies a whole system of values: theirs. It’s a symbol that is no longer about Harley, but about themselves.

Randy Fowler, a former Marine Corps member and now general manager of a California Harley-Davidson dealership, proudly sports a large Harley logo tattooed on his right arm. “It symbolizes who I am,” he says. “He says first of all that I’m an American.” Customers and company are now one. Harley-Davidson means something that has value in people’s lives because it allows those who share the whys to better express, through Harley, the meaning of their own life.

Harley-Davidson logo.


And what, in the end, are the Harley-Davidson values that the proud owners named at the beginning of the article share?

Here is the mission of the motorcycle manufacturer: “We fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycling, by providing to motorcyclists and to the general public an expanding line of motorcycles and branded products and services in selected market segments.” (We make dreams come true through the motorcycling experience, providing motorcyclists and the public with an expanding line of motorcycles, branded products, and services in select market segments. “

Exclusive experience, uniqueness, differentiation: here are some of the values that bikers live, embody, and share. The other commandments and “core values” are communicated by the Harley-Davidson company:

Tell the truth

Be fair (be fair / honest)

Keep your promises

Respect the individual

Encourage intellectual curiosity (encourages intellectual curiosity)



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