Cruising the dream on a retro-styled Seventy-Two
In the Harley-Davidson world, where romantic myth meets extreme pragmatism, and where nostalgia and modern ideas of beauty compete for the same tank space, perhaps the most intriguing thing to learn is that the company tried to have the motorcycles’ distinctive “potato-potato” sound registered as a trademark in 1994.
It’s like trying to own ephemera, to codify emotion, to run down a dream. How does the Tom Petty driving song go? “It was a beautiful day, the sun beat down… I was flyin’, yeah, runnin’ down a dream that never would come to me, workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads, runnin’ down a dream.” Tom Petty! Good grief.
Next I’ll be humming Born to be Wild. And that, in a not so startling nutshell, is what Harley peddles. The American Dream.
Well, let’s call it an American dream. When forced to trade in beautiful cliché, it pays to be nonspecific. Especially as I’m in Miami, Florida, where the soundtrack is more likely to be Lil Wayne than Steppenwolf. I’m here to experience the launch of the 28 motorcycles in Harley’s 2012 range and also to gain some insight into their marketing message, the Art of Custom.
Band of brothers
From Vespa-riding hipsters to Fatboy-wrangling members of the Harley Hog Chapters, the impulse is the same: to be at once unique and at the same time part of a fraternity. Harley-Davidson takes care of this by allowing its devoted followers to personalise each and every bike that comes out of the factory.
According to Harley, GIs returning from World War II started the personalisation trend, building their individualised rides from period war surplus Harley-Davidson WLAs. Your modern Harley artist has access to more than 8 000 possible alterations or additions.
To illustrate this potential for customisation and the hold that such creativity has on a section of the American psyche, Harley takes us on a ride through the Wynwood Art District. Wynwood is billed as the heart of Miami’s art and design culture and contains about 70 galleries, museums and collections.
But the true resonance with Harley is in the street art. The scale is breathtaking, or possibly just American. The work of street artists such as Shepard Fairey, Kenny Scharf, Invader and Lebo is everywhere. But it’s not exactly graffiti. As with a customised Harley, you’re privy to some awesome beauty, but it’s culturally sanctioned rebellion, rather than anarchy.
The bikes themselves are absolutely stunning. There’s a constant debate between bike riders about the various merits of different marques and it’s most often predicated around two things: functionalism and brand identity. This one corners well, this one handles like a truck. This one is modern and high-tech, this one ponderous and middle-aged.
Art in motion
It’s all rubbish when you’re confronted by 41 gorgeous machines, with those oddly constructed Harley model names (and this is a random selection knitted together to make a poem): Sportster Seventy-Two, Softail, Road King Classic, Dyna Switchback, V-Rod, Softail Slim, Road Glide Custom, Forty-Eight.
Each of these is a classic and you own it like a work of art. It speaks to you, to your soul, and only incidentally to its audience and the asphalt canvas on which it works its art.
My favourite, and the one I persevere with on longer rides, despite the fact that my pained and unpractised backside can testify that it’s better suited to city jaunts, is the new Seventy-Two. I can’t beat Harley’s own description of this bike, although I can add a context that proves its point.
When we’re all congregated in a parking lot, about 30 different new Harleys all jumbled together, a random passer-by looks at my Seventy-Two (launched in 2012) and whistles admiringly. “Wow, you’ve got some great old classics here.”
Harley’s description matches his nostalgia. “The Seventy-Two has that old-school chopper look perfected. The retro styling cues are all there, loud and proud; peanut tank, mini-ape handlebars, solo seat, chopped rear fender and white wall tyres, all finished off with a custom-feel Big Red Flake Paint scheme.”
I’ll throw in some specs here for bike aficionados, although it strikes me that this shouldn’t be your first concern when buying a Harley. All of them do their jobs well, which is to cruise you powerfully through the landscape of your dreams.
Defined by their bikes
Towards the end of my trip, I’m forced to leave a day early, as is Karen Davidson, the creative director for Harley’s lucrative general merchandise division, and great-granddaughter of the company’s co-founder, William Davidson.
We’re guided back from Key Largo by a member of the local Hog Chapter, who is a massive woman squeezed into an orange Harley jacket. She’s spilling over the seat of her big bike, which is one of those with a CD player and radio built into its fairing.
Davidson is a willowy, tall blonde, sporting the latest in riding gear, including bell-bottomed leather chaps, and riding Harley’s homage to the drag strip, the huge V-Rod.
Over the course of the two-hour ride, the obvious contrasts start to disappear and the similarities come to the fore. Both women, so wildly disparate in style and shape, are defined by their bikes in the same way.
They share a language of the road, complicated hand signals to which I’m not accustomed. They have a commonality that’s becoming uncommon. Every Harley rider we pass (and there are a lot in the United States, where Harley has over 50% of the market) flashes a casual hello sign, reminding me of what surf culture used to be like in South Africa 20 years ago.
And I guess that’s the most potent thing Harley sells to you, the opportunity to become part of a network of dreams.
Chris Roper was flown to the Harley-Davidson Miami Experience by Harley-Davidson.
In the printed version of the story, we said: “But, for the record, the Seventy-Two features Harley’s rigid-mounted, counterbalanced, air-cooled, 1690cc Twin Cam V-Twin, and Harley tells us it produces 98.7 foot-pounds of torque at 3 000rpm.” It is, in fact, a 1 200cc rubber-mounted engine. 70ish foot-pounds and it’s not a Twin-cam but an Evo engine.