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Harley-Davidson hogs the spotlight

Venerable bike maker marks its 110th anniversary

Published May 23, 2013

Harley-Davidson is now a mighty oak among motorcycle manufacturers, but its acorn was a 116 cc engine attached to a bicycle frame in 1903 by William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson.

The motorized bicycle didn’t work out so well, so the boys attached a 405 cc engine to a full-sized motorcycle frame in a garden shed in the Davidson family backyard.

And so began the legend that’s still going strong 110 years later.

Harley-Davidson has survived two World Wars, the Great Depression, a few recessions and several booms and busts. Even after the dark days of near-bankruptcy in the early 1980s, Harley bounced back to sell more than 300,000 motorcycles worldwide per year from 2003 to 2008, when the most recent recession hit.

Say what you will about Harley-Davidson, but the company knows its customers and knows what they want.

A huge part of that success (and profit) is accessories and clothing. Walk into any dealership and you’ll see a huge area devoted to clothing. Customers can deck themselves out in riding gear, casual attire, helmets, boots, T-shirts, gloves and even branded infant clothing.

Harley protects its brand and trademark tenaciously and, at one point, even tried to copyright the traditional “potato potato” exhaust note — without success.

A Harley division called Custom Vehicle Operations produces limited-edition, semi-custom motorcycles, with special paint, added accessories and extra chrome. These bikes get a lot of the extra performance and dress-up bits installed right at the factory.

Nothing divides motorcyclists more than the Harley/non-Harley debate and, although they may not be everyone’s cup of tea, nobody can deny Harley makes a quality product. I’ve ridden many Harley-Davidsons over the years and they’ve all performed quite well.

Early one June morning in 2010, I saddled up an Electra Glide Ultra Classic in Toronto and, 15 hours later, pulled into my friend’s driveway in Sackville, N.B. I then spent a week touring the Maritimes and Cape Breton Island, and the big Hog performed flawlessly, returning an impressive 6 L/100 km for the duration.

At just over 400 kg gassed up and ready to go, the Ultra handled way better than you’d expect on the twists and turns of the Cabot Trail, courtesy of the new touring chassis introduced in 2009.

But its forte is devouring miles of asphalt — the cushy seat giving all-day comfort and your favourite tunes blasting from four speakers. You’d be hard-pressed to find a better sea-to-shining-sea touring bike.

Many police departments around the world still prefer Harley-Davidson police specials (based on the Electra Glide) for their reliability, durability and simplicity. I’ve ridden (and crashed) a couple of Harley police bikes during the Great Lakes Police Motorcycle Training Seminars held each year in southern Ontario.

My favourite Harley is probably the XR1200 — a modified 1200cc Sportster with gorgeous flat-tracker styling, updated suspension and ergonomics geared towards sportiness rather than cruising.

I flogged it around some of the best mountain roads in southern California and called it the best-handling, most-performance-oriented Harley yet. I summed it up by saying, “When riding this motorcycle, the only way you could be any cooler is if you were Steve McQueen.”

Sadly, Harley discontinued the XR1200 last year. I guess it just wasn’t a match made in heaven for the typical Harley customer.

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