Harley & Me: It’s a Love – Hate Relationship

1280px-Harley-Davidson.svgFrom a purely an emotional and spiritual perspective, our foray into the Harley-Davidson experience back in July 2011 has been one of the two best lifestyle decisions we’ve made, second only to our jump into tandem bicycle riding nearly 20 years ago. The friends we’ve made, places we’ve gone with those friends and our riding experiences have all been fantastic. The only downsides have been an encroachment on our tandem cycling time and the resultant loss of cycling strength and endurance as well as the off-the-charts, non-discretionary spending on the motorcycles, accessories, apparel and trip expenses.

I should probably note I’ve been a motorcyclist for my entire adult life, having first learned to ride small 70cc Honda trail bikes and 100cc dirt bikes when I was 11 years old. I moved onto 250cc and 360cc dirt bikes by the time I was 14, all unbeknownst to my parents as I did all of my riding “while off at a friend’s house”… a friend who had a stable of dirt bikes and who taught me how ride. I didn’t own my first motorcycle until I’d left home and joined the Air Force: it was a 1977 Honda CB550F SuperSport I used for recreation, daily commuting and to make the 150-mile trip between the Chicago suburbs and Grissom AFB in middle Indiana. I’ve had several road-going motorcycles since then and have pretty much ridden a motorcycle every day when I resumed commuting by motorcycle as my preferred mode of transportation 15 years ago. However, at no time did I ever consider myself to be living the motorcycle lifestyle since I merely used motorcycles for transportation and an occasional recreational ride.

Again, it wasn’t until as a couple we decided to give Harley-Davidson’s a look-see and bought our Wide Glide in July of 2011 that we experienced the lifestyle change. It’s continued to grow and expand ever since then as we’ve found we enjoy touring on the bigger Harley and spend most of our non-cycling free time with friends whom we’ve met through the Harley-Davidson / motorcycle lifestyle much to the detriment of our cycling and tandem cycling time.

We’re now trying hard to find the right balance between the motorcycling and tandem cycling, as the cycling will always be our greatest passion: if we had to choose between one and the other, it would be cycling. And, you’d have to be a cyclist to understand that. I say this as someone who has been riding and passionate about bicycles for 53 years and motorcycles for 45 years. Cycling simply allows you to do something for which there is no substitute, i.e., traveling great distances at a brisk pace using human power. It gives you many of the same sensations as riding a motorcycle but with a far-greater sense of accomplishment and a personal health bonus. It’s analogous to the difference between sailing and power-boating; the medium you operate on may be the same and there are basic similarities between the equipment, but not everyone who rides a motorcycle can ride a bicycle all that well in the same way that not all people who drive powerboats can captain a sailboat. There is just no substitute or alternative and, yes, it goes both ways and arguments can be made that the powered machines are even more exhilarating.  But, hopefully you get the gist.

OK, this is all fine well and good, but what’s the point? Your subject line mentioned a love-hate relationship with Harley-Davidson. Indeed it did and there is…

Shifting from the emotional and spiritual to the logical and physical perspective, IMHO Harley-Davidson has evolved or perhaps devolved to symbolism without the substance to back up the legacy.  The value of the brand and reputation bear’s little recognition to the inherent value of the technology and quality of their motorcycles. Head-to-head with any of the Japanese imports in terms of technology, innovation, performance, reliability, durability, fit and finish it’s a non-contest. Harley-Davidson is mostly about vanity getting by on good looks by using colors and finishes on iconic shapes with a ‘sound’ that is unrelated to performance.

Once you own and live with one of these things you’re constantly reminded that you bought into a look and sound not something that has intrinsic value or that represents the state of the art of anything. It’s like an entertainment celebrity where their contributions to making the world a better place or improving the lives of the people from whom their vast economic compensation is derived is completely at odds with what they actually do for a living, which is pretend to be someone or something they’re not for the entertainment and enjoyment of consumers. That’s exactly what a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is, a machine that costs far more than it should be based on the investments made in R&D, material or labor to provide consumers with a vehicle that allows them to be someone or something that they’re not for entertainment and enjoyment. After all, just about any other motorcycle will perform the exact same functions as a Harley-Davidson – getting someone from one place to another on two wheels – with greater reliability and advanced technology with a lower entry-cost point and significantly lower recurring costs of ownership.

Imagine if you will that GM, Ford or Chrysler decided to reintroduce the muscle cars of the 70’s using 70’s automotive technology, materials, manufacturing methods and materials and sold them at the same prices of today’s Mustang GTs, Corvettes, Camaro’s, Challengers and Chargers.  That’s pretty much what you get with most Harley’s notwithstanding changes that they’ve had to make to keep us… keep us, not drive innovation.  Thank goodness the competition continues to chip away at their market share with new technology!

You see, I’m reminded of this reality each and every time I have to clean or do any work on our relatively new Harley-Davidson motorcycles because I spent 40 years riding Honda and BMW motorcycles, with occasional flirtations and test rides on Yamaha, Suzuki, Kawasaki, Triumph, Ducati and the occasional other non-Harley-Davidson brands of motorcycles. Moreover, I ride and maintain a 14-year old BMW motorcycle as my primary means of transportation. So, on any given day, I can look at a 14-year old BMW and clearly see that is still more advanced in terms of the technology than the 3-year old, $30k* Harley-Davidson sitting next to it (*Oh hell no, I did NOT pay MSRP… but it was still new car money). Unlike the Harley, I know that every bolt and nut on the BMW is metric, whereas it’s anyone’s guess as to whether you’ll need an SAE or metric tool on the Harley since different parts are made using different standards. I’m also left to wonder how long it will be before the cheap hardware used on the Harley will rust or strip and require replacement. This is, of course, assuming you didn’t spend a small fortune replacing all of the low-grade hardware and components right after buying the thing.  Moreover, the small fortune nearly everyone who buys a Harley is something you never get back.  If you’ve never tried to sell a used Harley and haven’t accepted the fact you’re going to take a bath it will be a rude awakening: I’ve got $24k into a 2011 Wide Glide that’s been up for sale since fall 2013. While no one in the market for a Wide Glide will even give it a look at $12k, they seem more than eager to go and drop $18k on a new one that they’ll have to spend $10k to come up with an equivalent, junk-free machine with the accessories needed to make it practical enough to use.  I just don’t get it, especially since Harley will finance a 3rd party used bike just as happily as they will a new one or a used one from one of their dealers.

I’m also reminded of the reliability issues and often times spotty quality of workmanship that dealers who haven’t developed and been able to retain good talent in their repair shop whenever a friend or a friend of a friend’s Harley goes back to a dealer for a recall, noise or outright failure. The latter is a relatively frequent occurrence, such that most owners feel they actually came out ahead when they buy a $2,500 Extended Service Plan to cover those failures once the original factory warranty expires. In terms of my own bike, it’s always a challenge to try to figure out if a new sound I’m hearing – be it chatter from the lifters or valve, a rattle in the primary case, a clunk or slip in the transmission or some gritting sound coming from the front or rear wheel – is a precursor to a failure or breakdown that will otherwise ruin a good day or trip.

If Polaris Industries would simply offer a heavy-weight touring bike with the conservative good-looks of the iconic Harley-Davidson FLH; I’d buy it in a heartbeat if only to send a message to Harley-Davidson in a language they might understand: loss of market share. Sadly, I’m not a huge fan of the Arlen & Cory Ness designs as a baseline for a given mass-produced model so Victory’s George Jetson thing, narrow bags where function is sacrificed for form and being different from Harley just to be different isn’t working for me and never will. Same thing with Indian; great chassis, engine and drive train but I’d have to spend another $8k – $10k having fenders, bags, saddles and lowers from a FLH grafted onto the Indian Classic to get where my styling sense lives. Hell, if it would work I’d by a Victory salvage bike and stuff the drive train and motor in our FLHRSE5!

So, there you go… that’s why owning a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is truly a love-hate relationship for me.   I love the people whom we’ve met through our Harley-Davidson experience, to include a lot of folks who work or worked at Harley-Davidson dealerships; they’re all good people… some of the best people we know and we’re humbled when we call them friends. The adventures we’ve taken with our Harley – as a couple and with our friends – have been some of the most enjoyable experiences of our lives. The riding experience itself – now that I’ve fixed the suspension, the saddle, tuned the motor and made a variety of other, expensive changes – has been excellent, even though I’m constantly analyzing new sounds, parsing poor tire designs from mechanical issues and figuring out which cheap part is going to rust or corrode and require replacement and struggling with the mental conflict that says, on the one hand I sure hope our Harley never breaks down so that I have to use the $2,600 extended warranty while on the other, I wonder if I’ll break even and get my $2,600 back out of the extended warranty they so many of my friends have? Yeah, that’s a love-hate relationship. Oh, and God help me if I decide to sell the thing. Remember, I’ve already bought the very same bike twice, once new well below MSRP and on the used market to replace the first one after it was totaled.  If anyone says the CVO’s don’t depreciate like the regular bikes they’re smoking dope: they depreciate just as fast and as far and given the significantly higher price point the math majors will figure out just how little that CVO tag is worth at resale time.


P.S. The catalyst for this diatribe was a cheap bolt that came with the foot board kit I installed on our Road King CVO. After getting back from Florida and learning that Debbie just wasn’t as comfortable with the foot boards as she was with her pegs, I set about to put the pegs back on the bike. When I went to remove the mounting hardware from the right side of the bike the bolt I’d installed just three months ago was frozen in the frame, whereas the one on the left side of the bike came right out. To make a long story short, after heat to address any thread locker, liquids to address friction, other mechanical methods the bolt head rounded-out. Even extractors failed to gain enough grip and I ended up drilling out the bolt and re-chasing the threads.

20160319_122954  20160319_12304220160319_122102 20160319_12221020160319_121429 20160319_121935

It’s all good again with all of the bolt holes re-chased, painted and the pegs installed on the bike.  But, after staring at those adjacent rusty unused threaded bolt holes in the frame for an hour while I removed that cheap bolt I was reminded all of those things are known issues caused by cost-driven decisions at Harley-Davidson.  And that just pisses me off… at myself! It’s not like I didn’t know this from our first two Harley’s and have alternatives.  I’m just another one of those idiots who continues to buy into the brand because of vanity, and I really hate that about myself. I thought I was smarter than that.


About TG

I've been around a bit and done a few things, have a couple kids and a few grandkids. I tend to be curmudgeonly, matter-of-fact and not predisposed to self-serving chit-chat. Thankfully, my wife's as nice as can be otherwise we'd have no friends. My interests are somewhat eclectic, but whose aren't?
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