The Journey

Are American motorcyclists retarded because of Harley-Davidson?

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.

When I use the word “retard” I mean it in the technical sense –– not as a schoolyard taunt or politically incorrect description of someone who is mentally disabled. To retard is to “slow down the development or progress of something,” according to Merriam-Webster. And that’s what I’m asking: Has Harley-Davidson’s overwhelming success in the U.S. market slowed down the development or progress of motorcycling in that country?
But, you know, obviously I could have chosen other words when asking that. “Impede” would work just as well, or “hinder,” and so on. The word “retard” comes with a negative-value meta-narrative and its use implies a bias in the person asking the question. Guilty as charged, mis amigos. As someone who carries a latent pro-America stance I can’t help but feel a little annoyed when I am forced to admit that my native land is not The Best at a given thing. 
And the painful truth is that Americans are not the best when it comes to making unique and different motorcycles. Not at the moment, at least. I think there is potential within the American landscape for rapid and dramatic change, but right now we are decades behind the curve. And I feel that much of the blame for that falls on the shoulders of Harley-Davidson. Well, no. Not Harley-Davidson, but the fact that there has for so long been no one but Harley-Davidson for a patriotic rider. 
In the United States, Harley-Davidson dramatically outsells all other brands. In 2013, Milwaukee’s most-famous company was responsible for more than 51 percent of the street motorcycles sold in the country. And of the street bikes sold last year that were not Harley-Davidsons, quite a large percentage had been designed to look and ride like them. Los americanos les gustan las Harleys. 
That’s not terribly surprising. People everywhere tend to cheer for the home team. Triumphs sell better than all else in Britain, BMWs sell better in Germany, and so on. However, Harley-Davidson’s situation is unique because its sales dominance is so much greater compared to the successes of other manufacturers on their home turf. For example, BMW carves out just 17 percent of its local market.
My theory is that Harley-Davidson performs so much better at home because the United States was one of the few countries not to suffer an existential crisis after World War II. In other motorcycle-producing nations like Germany, Japan, Italy and even England the post war years forced serious re-evaluations of national identity. After all, it was nationalism and its ugly sides of xenophobia and racism that had fuelled the war. As such, patriotism isn’t always an effective selling tool.

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. 

Through wit, hard work and good ol’ fashioned dumb luck, Harley-Davidson found itself pretty much the only American motorcycle brand as it began its resurrection in 1981. Through the 1970s it had bumbled almost to the point of bankruptcy, unable to focus and therefore unable to compete against cheaper, superior foreign brands. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this rough patch had come during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, when the American psyche was suffering the closest it would ever come to existential crisis. It was a time when a product’s simply being American wasn’t enough.
But then, you know, “Morning in America” and all that stuff, and suddenly my grandfather was teaching me to check the labels of my T-shirts to see where they were made. And at the same time, Harley-Davidson lasered its focus to the types of model that had performed well in the past: “traditional” motorcycles. Bikes like those ridden by the modern cowboys who had captured popular imagination in the decades before.

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.