The Journey

The great Harley-Honda dilemma

A group of Harley enthusiasts smash up a Honda.
No doubt the Honda still ran afterward… 

“Sounds to me the CBF600 has everything you want in a bike except for the image you seem to be looking for.”

That’s a comment from Steve Johnson in response to a previous post about reconsidering my opinion of the Harley-Davidson Sportster. It’s always interesting when someone is able to do that: when they’re able to deliver an absolute truth in a single sentence. When they’re able to get at something about you faster and more directly than you could.
Because, yeah, what he said is pretty much dead on.
The other night, I found myself riding along the motorway in the clear quiet of late evening. It was the middle of the week, the moon was out, and I had the road pretty much all to myself –– to the extent I was able to relax a little, to expand my thoughts beyond the constant spinning of: “What’s in front of me? What’s behind me? What’s beside me? How’s the road surface? How fast am I going? What’s in front of me? What’s behind me? What’s beside me? How’s the road surface? How fast am I going? What’s in front of me? What’s behind me? What’s beside me? How’s the road surface? How fast am I going?”

I was able to look up at the vastness of the night sky, take in the gentleness of my Honda’s 6,000-rpm thrum, appreciate the constant steady feel of the motorway, and so on. I was able to enjoy motorcycling on that very basic, “natural” level. And in that moment I looked down at the glowing dashboard of my bike and said with melancholy: “There’s absolutely nothing wrong with you.”

It was a statement made with a feeling of sadness because, even as I’ll sit here and acknowledge that the bike I have is, technically, the bike I want, I’ll also tell you that I am actively plotting to get rid of it. There’s no reason to get rid of it. On paper, it ticks all my boxes. It can do all the things I want it to do, and it can do them well. But it lacks that something, that whatever it is, that je ne sais quoi.

I thought about this as I sped along the cold and empty M4: the dichotomy in my thinking about motorcycles. Ask me what I want in a motorcycle and I will usually end up describing something like the Honda CBF600 SA –– the bike I have. But if you change the wording of the question slightly and ask not, “What do you want in a bike?”, but instead, “Which bike do you want?”, then mention of the CBF600 and its ilk (such as the Yamaha XJ6 or Suzuki SV650S) will completely disappear.

This, I decided, is the Great Harley-Honda Dilemma. The battle between heart and mind, between art and reason, between style and substance. And it is a dilemma I find myself incapable of resolving. It is a dilemma that extends across every brand of motorcycle (would I prefer a Yamaha or a Moto Guzzi?), but that I think is best represented in the differences between those two massive brands sharing the eighth letter of the alphabet.

The Honda NT700V Snoozeville Deauville
A great machine, but not likely to help you score.

We’re painting in broad strokes here, of course. But overall, Honda machines occupy that left side of the brain. They are machines –– things that do. And in the case of Honda, things that do quite well. A particularly keen long-time reader of this blog might have noticed that I no longer refer to my bike as “Aliona.” It was a too-exotic name that just didn’t fit. The CBF600 is a piece of machinery. It is an object of function with wheels and gears and metal and plastic and rubber. It sits without sentience in my garden until I make it do something. It is a large chunk of invariant mass, and nothing more.

In truth, the exact same is true of a Harley-Davidson. But it doesn’t feel that way. A Harley-Davidson has a certain intangible something, or an idea of something –– a spirit. You may not like that spirit. You may think that spirit is one of corporate nonsense. But most people agree that there is something there, as if there is an extra, magical ingredient in the paint: an aura to which a rider can connect on varying degrees, depending on desire to connect.

That’s a big part of what Harley-Davidson sells: story. Triumph and Indian do the same thing –– the mystique of “authenticity.” Even when that “authentic” and “classic” American or British machine was manufactured last week in India.

I have a relative who fixes clocks for a living. People come to him with little boxes of gears and springs that are in some cases hundreds of years old and he returns them to working order. The other day he was telling me about how each of these clocks have a personality of sorts.

“I don’t mean that you carry on conversations with them or any such thing,” he said. “But it’s as if they carry a residue of experiences. You get the same thing with old watchmaker’s tools. Bits will have been worn away by human hands and in some inexplicable way you can feel the story of those hands.”

This past weekend was the first time I had met this relative. He is the husband of the daughter of the wife of the uncle of my wife; it generally requires a very large family gathering to run across a relative so extrinsic. But my wife had been keen for us to meet because he, too, is a motorcycle enthusiast. Able to list off an alphabet soup of sport bikes he has ridden and crashed, he grew far more poetic in talking about the 1995 Harley-Davidson Low Rider that he had ridden from England down through France across the Pyrenees into Spain and back.

The New Harley-Davidson Low Rider
The brakes should be a little better now.

That Harley had a front brake that was “useless” in the rain and a rear brake that was “either on or off, no in between,” but he loved it. That bike was more than a machine, it was a symbiotic narrative device telling a story about the rider, who was at the same time helping to write the story.

I sound like I should be working in H-D’s marketing team, don’t I? But there’s a certain truth of it. That kind of motorcycle is one that is easier to make “your own.” You see it in just the options available for customisation. The ways in which you can change the look of such a bike are practically limitless. For example, let’s say I give in to my desire to buy a Sportster and thereafter decide that I, too, want to ride to the mountains of Spain. A quick look at shows me some 54 different types of saddlebag to suit the Harley-Davidson XL1200.

Whereas there is just one universal saddlebag option for bikes like my CBF600. On a side note, Viking Bags recently sent me a set of those AXE saddlebags for my bike and I plan to use them on my trip to the Lake District next month. I’ll do a full review of the bags thereafter.

Also, temporarily sticking with the whole saddlebag theme and the idea that the multifariousness of bags somehow equates to the dynamism of a bike’s character, it’s worth noting that Honda sells far more cruiser models in the United States than here in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom and the corresponding luggage options for those cruisers are equally diverse.

And I suppose that speaks to a possible response to all this ethereal Harley blather suggesting that Hondas are without personality and spirit and story. First of all, there are many different types of Honda; perhaps I’ve just not encountered the ones that are true storytellers.

Or maybe Hondas simply tell a different story. Imagine two motorcyclists pulling up to a set of traffic lights: one is astride a brand new Harley-Davidson Road King Classic, the other is sitting on a brand new Honda F6B. Be honest with yourself: if you were told that one of those riders was an advanced riding instructor, which one would you say is which?

The Honda “spirit”, I feel, is one of efficiency –– of having all the right tools in the right order. True professionalism. And I’ll admit that appeals to me as much as the “Being your own person (in a very corporate way)” message of Harley-Davidson. I look at a bike like the new CTX1300 and I think: “That’s the guy I want to be. I want to be riding around on my CTX, wearing all the right gear and always prepared with Leatherman tools and multi-use lubricants. I want people to look at me and think: ‘That guy really knows his stuff.'”

There’s something appealing about that. About being Mr. Prepared. Mr. Efficient. Mr. Johnny On the Spot. I like having anti-lock brakes. I like having wind protection and lots of backlit dials on a dashboard. But then, there’s also something appealing about the guy on a rumbling machine, not really knowing or caring where he’s headed. The Great Harley-Honda Dilemma. Which story do I want to tell?

And do I really need any specific bike to tell it?