Man, if that headline isn’t link bait I don’t know what is. But let me explain: I love Harley-Davidson bikes, but I have a theory that motorcycling in the United States has suffered retardation, i.e., stunted development, as a result of Harley-Davidson’s dominance over the past 30-odd years.
Whereas in the United States, the simple fact of a product being American is often reason in itself for people to choose it. Yes, I realise this is less true now than it used to be, but trust me, flag waving still delivers infinitely more marketing success in the United States than here in Europe.
And, of course, the American experience is always one of amalgamation. It is the melting pot. So, the society-degrading outcasts of one generation became the iconic symbols of American spirit for the next. Harley-Davidson brilliantly tapped into this and soon established itself in Americans’ minds as not only as being the quintessence of America but the quintessence of motorcycling.
Growing up in the U.S. Central Time Zone –– in Texas and Minnesota –– there was only one kind of motorcycle. Well, maybe two: Harley-Davidsons (or foreign copies), and bikes for people who wore neon socks. Within my cultural understanding, it was Harley or nothing else. If you’ve followed this blog for a while, you’ll know that, after getting my motorcycle license at age 18, I spent almost two decades choosing the “nothing else” option.
I know that the mindset of my younger self is not unique. Take a look at motorcycle blogs, websites and forums and you will see it everywhere, every day. Take a look at the motorcycles on American roads. Lots and lots of Americans struggle to comprehend a world beyond the Harley bubble.
Again, I’m not complaining about an American company being successful, nor am I complaining about the kind of bikes that Harley-Davidson chooses to make (hell, I want one myself). What irks me is that Harley’s tremendous success seems to have resulted in so many people being blind to everything else. And as a result, motorcycling in the United States has not moved forward at the same pace as the rest of the world.
Do you see what I’m getting at? Perhaps it would help to take it out of a motorcycling context. Imagine if Chili’s were the only place you ever ate. Ever. I’m a big fan of Chili’s, personally. Free refills on ice tea, good burgers, decent wings, awesome chili-cheese nacho dip, and the Southwestern eggrolls are the bomb. That molten chocolate cake, too, yo. When I was in college I got a job as a waiter at Chili’s solely because it meant getting a discount at Chili’s. I could and can stand to eat at Chili’s a lot. But if it was the only restaurant I ever went to? After a few decades of that I would be suffering from culinary retardation. I wouldn’t really know what food could be.
In that scenario, should Chili’s change what it’s doing? Nope. Not necessarily. Should people begrudge its success? Definitely not. But that doesn’t make me any less stunted in my understanding and philosophy of food.
I feel Harley-Davidson’s success has retarded American motorcycling both technologically and philosophically. It is not just that American motorcyclists don’t care about things like liquid-cooling or traction control, etc., but that they can’t see why they should care. Because to them (a) motorcycles are toys. Hobbies. Trinkets that –– like an NFL jersey or Tom Petty box set –– are reflections of the personality/character a person wants to portray outwardly, but which are ultimately not terribly relevant nor deserving of analysis and progression.
The end result of that is three American brands that lack any model diversity and an American motorcycling landscape where filtering is allowed in only one state and very few people ever ride unless it’s hot and sunny. A motorcycling landscape where too many riders settle for an inferior situation and too many potential riders choose nothing.
UPDATE: On the same day I published this post, Wes Siler published this article on Jalopnik, which captures the same frustrated sentiment you see in my post but more detail. It’s a good piece (I wish I had written it) and will get you feeling upset at the state of motorcycling in America.
(a) I’m talking in generalities here, speaking of the majority. Obviously, I know there are exceptions.