Harley-Davidson used to be a brand synonymous with the one-percenters, the segment of society that lived and breathed the biker code, a salty breed of fringe players living on the edge.
A lot has changed over the years. Truth be told, Harley has done a great job of transforming the savage biker stereotype into one tied to freedom in the form of a machine, accessible to any true-blooded motorcycle aficionado with a streak of Americana running through him or her.
Shit’s crazy these days, and motorcycling has caught on as a cheap way to release the day-to-day stress and grab a handful of thrill with the twist of a throttle. Motorcycling is stronger than ever, and for good reason. It's fun as hell, and you're getting 100 miles to the gallon. But not every manufacturer has faired well. Many are still struggling, and the days of chopper madness are long gone. It's a tough market, which few have had the chance to crack.
Motorcycling has caught on as a cheap way to release the day-to-day stress and grab a handful of thrill with the twist of a throttle.
Harley-Davidson, on the other hand, has bucked this trend and has enjoyed a run of success over the past 10 years. Leading the charge behind the scenes has been the design team at H-D, speared by Willie G., spinning out factory custom brands that continue to corner the market. A bigger, better, more down-to-earth H-D has emerged as the people's motorcycle. Long gone are the days of Detroit's factory lines dictating tastes, evident with the rise and fall of so many automobile companies in recent history. They missed their mark. Harley listened and watched in the alleyways and dimly lit garages of real Americans, attending grassroots biker rally's and homegrown events where American culture is born and constantly being re-written.
Harley has cracked the code and gotten it right, while the others have spent years pissing into the wind. H-D has been creating bikes that real motorcycle enthusiasts have always wanted to build and ride on their own but were too broke to create themselves.
I had the extreme pleasure of hopping down to Miami and Daytona a few weeks back to meet with the extended Harley Team and test out H-D’s latest wares. The first trip was a three-day whirlwind tour of the Keys, testing out the new 72 Sportster and SOFTAIL Slim models. This culminated in a 12-hour ride down to the tip of the Continental U.S.
It was a kickass journey on these two smooth-riding machines. We rode through sunny Miami, where I had the chance to meet the man of the hour: Willie G. Davidson. He is a great grandson of one of the founding members of Harley-Davidson and heir to the throne—a cool cat with a particular presence. He’s not an arrogant man or a tattoo-riddled hell-raiser, as some would think, but more of a thoughtful, caring father figure, who you can quickly tell has spent the better part of his life bleeding his heart and soul into the brand. Listening to him speak, I began to understand how he was partially responsible for bringing his family's company from the brink of extinction in the early ’80s to a preeminent global player and the most recognizable motorcycle brand the world over. As Chief Styling Officer, he is also the man behind the greatest bikes ever produced by Harley-Davidson.
Willie G. is not an arrogant man or a tattoo-riddled hell-raiser, as some would think, but more of a thoughtful, caring father figure.
This attention to detail is what Willie G. brought to Harley Davidson, and that remains the key to the company’s ongoing success for the next 100 years. Cool as ice, Willie G. was in Miami to kick off an international press event for the launch of the two factory custom bikes—two new ballers and welcome additions to the Harley family of rides. Per usual, these models go the extra distance beyond form and function to tickle that sixth motorcycle sense and ignite that thing lives within true bikers. From seven-layer custom candy apple fleck paint jobs, to little touches that hearken back to the rat rod culture, they tip their hats to styling cues of days gone by. These are the things that made Elvis's pelvis swing and are what forced millions to ride thousands of miles to find.
It’s crazy to see Willie G. stepping down from his thrown and announcing retirement. The kid that once loved to draw the day away and ride in his dad's sidecar year-round along the back roads of Wisconsin, now having realized his dreams, is taking a rest after 49 years of service.
Click through for an ode to the bikes that Willie G. brought to market over the last five decades. In doing so, he captured the hearts and minds of millions of diehards like me.
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