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RSW Living Magazine

115 Years of Harley: iconic brand means freedom, independence, passion

Harley extols its 2017 CVO Street Glide as “the premium custom Grand American Touring machine for the long-haul rider who wants it all.” Photo courtesy of Harley-Davidson.

They didn’t set out to build a legend. They were just tinkering around. Trying to find a way to make a living out of a hobby. None of them dared dream that the little contraptions they were building in an old woodshed behind the parents’ family home would become the consummate symbol of the American success story. They were just trying to put an engine on a bicycle.
Softails have the “classic look of a hardtail frame with hidden shocks for a comfortable ride.” When you roll forward on one, Harley notes, it’s as if “time stands still.” Photo courtesy of Harley-Davidson.

William Harley and the brothers Arthur Davidson and Walter Davidson rolled out their first version of the motor-bicycle in the summer of 1903. It didn’t have enough power to climb the modest hills around Milwaukee, but it was a start. Enough of a start for the men to form a company, Harley-Davidson, and to build more of their gasoline-powered bicycles—intent on giving those automobile companies a run for their money.

Plenty of other motor-bicycle companies had sprung up prior to Harley-Davidson, all with the same idea. Pennington, Merkel, and Mitchell in Milwaukee, along with Indian in Springfield, Massachusetts, started before the Harley and the Davidson boys. But none would stand the test of time nearly as well. All went away, with only Indian making a reappearance many years later, now as a brand under the Polaris umbrella of powersports-related companies. 

One-hundred and fifteen years later, Harley-Davidson is the most popular motorcycle company in the world by a long shot, with more than 50 percent of all motorcycles sold bearing the now-famous bar and shield nameplate, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Few businesses of any kind enjoy such a large share of business in its industry, and even fewer can claim such brand success for so many years.

Motorcycling never quite challenged the auto industry, but it became an important sport, hobby and in many cases a means of transportation for a significant number of enthusiasts. Currently, less than 3 percent of the U.S. population ride motorcycles, based on registration statistics from the Department of Transportation, but with more than 323 million people in the country, there’s an ample number of motorcyclists and potential motorcyclists to be found. The international market is growing at a much more rapid pace and Harley states it expects sales to be split equally between the U.S. and the rest of the globe by 2027.

Photo courtesy of Harley-Davidson.

Despite the relatively small percentage of buyers, the brand has become one of the most well-recognized and respected symbols of American success throughout the world. And in retrospect, there were two distinct points of differentiation that led to Harley’s success—an engine and an attitude, both unlike any other.

The engine, more specifically the sound of the engine, gets all the attention and press. The sound of a Harley is unmistakable. It has become an essential part of the brand’s mystique; a throaty rumble that gives the impression the engine has a heartbeat of its own.

Nine versions of H-D’s “big twin” engine have been built. The most recent, the Milwaukee-Eight engine, has been heralded as the most powerful, responsive version yet; its patented rumble once again perfectly synced with the heartbeat of its rider.

Yes, the engine gets the hype, but success in business is not always about having the superior product. True success often requires something else.

At the heart of this iconic brand is a distinct and specific attitude toward life that drew Harley and the Davidsons together and has carried on to all the people who build, and more importantly, ride these motorcycles today. An attitude born from the impulse to rebel; to push back against convention and stand up for the things one believes in.

“The riders give Harley-Davidson its soul,” says Scott Fischer, owner of Fort Myers-based Six Bends and also Naples Harley-Davidson. “They have incredible passion and a sense of community that I’ve yet to see anywhere else.”

H-D began in 1903 but didn’t use its logo—now the stuff of legends—until 1910. A year later, it was trademarked at the U.S. Patent Office. Here it’s on the tank of a 2018 XL 1200X Forty-Eight 115th Anniversary. Photo courtesy of Harley-Davidson.

H-D riders are fiercely independent and share a deep thirst for freedom that they believe can be found only on the open road. They’re from all walks of life, up and down all ends of the economic, educational and even political sides of the scale. They’re your neighbor, doctor, plumber and golfing buddy. A rebel hiding in a starched shirt. An independence seeker under a hard hat.

“No one cares what you do for a living,” says Gil Gibson, chief operating officer of Bert’s Black Widow Harley-Davidson in Port Charlotte. “They want to know ‘What do you ride?’ and ‘Where do you want to head to next?’ The motorcycle is the only connection we need.”

To the riders, the sun burns brighter on a bike. The wind blows fresher. On two wheels, freedom is everywhere. It’s a two-lane highway through orange groves in the middle of Florida. It’s a crowded street on a bike night in downtown Fort Myers. It’s a week’s ride from coast to coast along Route 66 or a lane-splitting commute through Southern California gridlock. 

Freedom is wherever there is asphalt or concrete, and winding turns. Ask them and they will tell you that freedom is easy to find when you aren’t in a cage.

Riding a Harley is a big, bold statement to the world; a passionate decision that reveals who you are. For that reason, riders tend to cherish their relationships with fellow riders, leading many a smart salesperson to tell a prospective buyer that 400 new friends come with every bike purchase.

The bond is strong and in some ways similar to a golf country club, where everyone tends to dress the same after a time. The main difference is the bikers are always playing a road course.
This belief in brotherhood and spirit of independence and freedom makes it no surprise that current and former military members tend to make up a large presence among Harley riders. They find many of the same thrills and bonds that shaped them during their time of service.

Reviewers and riders rave about the “stripped-down, hot rod look” of the 2018 FLHX Street Glide. Photo courtesy of Harley-Davidson.

In similar respects, the growth of women riders on the Harley brand is strongly associated with the same ideals of camaraderie and bonding. Numerous female-only riding clubs have sprouted up throughout the country, most with a particular affinity to the H-D bikes. 

“Riding a motorcycle changed my life,” notes Dana Parr, a Harley owner for seven years. “The camaraderie. The places I go, the people that I ride with and the people I meet. Plus, when I’m on my bike, I feel enpowered. It’s been amazing.” 

One-hundred and fifteen years. Not bad work for three young men from Milwaukee who were just trying to put an engine on a bicycle.  

For More Information

Southwest Florida is home to three highly successful dealerships under the Harley-Davidson brand: 
  • Six Bends H-D is a flagship destination that opened in 2015 in Fort Myers near the Daniels Parkway and Interstate 75 interchange. Celebrating 30 years of business in Fort Myers, Scott Fischer’s dealership is a dynamic space that eclipses 50,000 feet and must be seen to be believed. It is a truly modern, state-of-the-art dealership.
  • Naples Harley-Davidson, also part of the Scott Fischer Enterprises group, fulfills the riding needs of a passionate group of Collier County residents. Its clean and appealing showroom can be found just west of Interstate 75 on Pine Ridge Boulevard.
  • Bert’s Black Widow Harley-Davidson on El Jobean Road in Port Charlotte was transformed by owner Bert King. It was once a sleepy, nearly forgotten Harley shop—and now it is a beacon of riding and bonding activity centered on all things Harley-Davidson. Fun is kept center stage at Bert’s.
Written by David Grant, founder of a global retail solutions company for enthusiast-driven brands.