The Man Who Replaced Willie G. – Ray Drea
Cruiser Editor – Motorcycle-USA.com
It’s impossible to replace a legend. And Willie G. Davidson is a legend. He helped save the company from the dismal AMF years and his styling influence can be seen on just about everything that’s come out of The Motor Company for the past 50 years. As a direct descendant of the motorcycle manufacturer’s founders, Harley-Davidson is literally in Willie G.’s blood. So when he announced he was stepping down as Harley’s Chief Styling Officer in 2012, it created quite a stir amongst H-D enthusiasts. Fortunately for Harley, it had talent waiting in the wings to pick up where Willie G. left off.
“It has been my privilege to work alongside many incredibly talented people at this company and I have great confidence the future of Harley-Davidson’s design leadership will continue to grow in its pre-eminence,” Willie G. said in his parting press statement.
The confidence he mentioned in the future of Harley-Davidson’s design leadership now rests on the shoulders of Ray Drea, new Chief Stylist for The Motor Company. Asked about the huge shoes he has to fill and whether he feels like he has to live up to that legacy, Drea said “I don’t know if anybody could to be quite honest. It’s pretty unique, not only what he’s accomplished, but when you think of our company, how many companies do you know that have family in active roles making a difference, more than just a figurehead, but actually making a difference? It’s a tremendous asset, so how could you ever equal that?”
If there’s one person qualified to replace Willie G., it’s Drea. The two go way back. High school, in fact. Turns out Drea went to school with all three of Willie G.’s kids – Karen, Bill and Michael, who was in the same grade. Michael is a talented artist in his own right and he and Drea were in a special class together called “Fifth Year Art.” Their school was having an art show so Drea entered a Sportster tank he had customized. He had already been painting motorcycles, cars and vans and had just gotten done doing up a Sportster tank for a customer, painting a Frank Frazetta mural on the top and finishing it off with gold leaf lettering and striping. Before he gave the tank back though, he decided to enter it in the show. Willie G. ends up attending the art show with Michael and sees the Sportster gas tank dressed up in Drea’s art work and asked his son if he knew which kid did the artwork on it. Willie G. gave Michael a card and said, “Hey, make sure that you have him give me a call.”
Fresh out of high school, Drea opened up his own business where he did custom painting, signs and graphic art before making the leap to the Black and Orange. His graphic design work
included creating logos, some of those involving jobs for Harley-Davidson, but extended to t-shirt artwork too for the National Street Rod Association and various hot rod events around the country. This was before the computer age so Drea did everything byhand, and t-shirt art work at the time involved four-to-six color separations which had to be done individually. Thus his journey as an artisan began.
Drea said one of the first projects Willie G. put him on was supposed to be the last of the 74’s (the 74 cubic-inch Shovelhead ran from 1966-1984) but turned out to be the 80 cubic-inch green and orange FLH with the black leather bags and fringe on it. Harley had the mock-up in the studio with the two-tone on it but the motorcycle still needed stripes. Back then, Drea says the design team would usually tape it to get the stripes out of convenience. But Willie G. wanted this one to be different, so he had Drea stripe it up by hand. He also had another job already lined up for Ray as well. At the time, Harley had a promo going on for its dealers and whoever sold the most bikes, The Motor Company would do up a special bike and present it to their top-seller. Harley had brought a Wide Glide into the studio and did a sweet paint job on it with a couple of colors, so Willie G. asked Drea if he would stripe it and then add the finishing touch by painting Willie G.’s signature on it.
He continued to do projects for them like logos on tanks but didn’t get on the Harley payroll as Sr. Industrial Design Stylist until 1993. His big break came around the end of 1992 when he was working for Calibre Inc., who was doing much of the custom paint for Harley at the time and still does the paint on its CVO models today. Harley’s styling department was slammed so they asked if they could bring a bike up to him which they had in the pipeline and have Drea put his spin on it. Harley provided some initial design direction, like blacking-out the bike, but left the graphics and details up to Drea. The project bike eventually became the ‘Bad Boy’ (1995-1997). What Drea didn’t know at the time was the project was also a test, and when he steered the design into a slightly different direction than originally planned, that decision helped seal the deal. Harley liked the results and afterward Willie G. approached Calibre about adding Drea to the team full-time. Since then, he’s been Willie G.’s right-hand-man until the announcement of his retirement. Now he oversees everything, from styling of the top-tier CVOs to Sportsters to some of the core accessories that accompany the launch of new models. Instead of doing one-offs, he spearheads the challenge to design for the masses.
“It’s a whole ‘nother level when you think about this design needs to be easily reproduced thousands of times so you’re pleasing thousands of people, not just one.”
Designing a motorcycle capable of selling in bulk is now the major challenge. Drea says a project more often than not originates with marketing saying anything from “Hey, this model is long in the tooth, it needs a refresh” to filling a perceived gap for consumers between two models. He added that establishing the baseline of “What should we do for this next model comes from the voice of the customer, it comes from the voice of marketing saying ‘we have identified this opportunity,’ and it can be very broad-based. We’re thinking this market over here, we’re thinking this particular customer, we’re guessing there’s opportunity for this amount of volume.”
The “project charter” as it’s called then heads to the styling department where they’re asked to make a visual of those ideas, to answer the question “what would that thing look like.” They’ll do a rendering first which then makes the rounds to get approval before making a 3-D version of it. Then it’s off for final approval before tooling up for production. In recent years, Drea says it’s become a much more robust process but what hasn’t really changed is thinking about the customer first. That’s not to say Harley’s design department doesn’t do concept stuff because they still toss around what are called “Blue Sky” ideas that go beyond that, ones aimed to exceed customer’s expectations.
Drea knows a thing or two about exceeding expectations. Considering his current position as Harley’s Chief Stylist, it was surprising to hear the talented artist has no formal training, per se, other than learning on the job. Drea said sometimes he’d go to workshops around the country, depending on what he was following at the time, but for the most part he’s self-taught.
“I set my sights on something and learn how to do it. I’ve had the discussion about talent often with different people who say ‘Well, it’s just something you’re born with.’ I think you’re born with a passion for something, not necessarily the talent. They have a passion or love for whatever that thing is which helps fuel the persistence to get good at it,” he said.
Drea’s passion was stoked at an early age. He came from a family of eight and his oldest brother Don, who was 15 years older than Ray, was heavily into the motorcycling culture. By the time his brother Don turned 16 he already had two Harleys, one a Panhead dressed-out with purple flake, white bags, white seat, and a radio mounted on it. He also had a Knuckle chopper with a Springer front end, a little sissy bar, and upswept exhaust. Harleys have been around him since he was a kid. Thanks to his brother Don’s influence, Drea has been able to turn his love for Harleys and hot rods into a long and illustrious career.
And while he says he followed the work of Von Dutch and Ed ‘Big Daddy’ Roth from a distance, he was fortunate enough to have tremendously talented custom painters within the Milwaukee area to draw inspiration from. One of them was Butch Brinza, who had an uncanny attention for detail and was one of the first people Drea knew who used candy paint. Brinza was known for using a pearl made of fish scales from Italy, too. Overall there was a thriving scene at the time in Milwaukee, from spray guns to pinstriping to mural work, leaving Drea plenty avenues of inspiration.
It’s also where he perfected the art of pinstriping. Seeing how the method has helped provide Drea with a means of living, he gladly gives back to the art form that’s “given so much to me.” Eleven years ago he started an event called “Pinstripe Legends” at the winter Milwaukee Custom Car & Bike Show. According to Drea, about 75 custom pinstripers from around the country come to the show and paint all weekend long, over tanks, fenders, you name it. Then they auction off the artwork every day with proceeds going to the Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin. Drea said it’s a big party, a great time for a great cause, but one of the major reasons he started it was to raise recognition for pinstriping as a fine art form. At one time he was concerned that the art form was being lost, but in recent years he’s seen resurgence.
“Each striper has their own style,” he stated.
Drea should know. He makes a living paying attention to styles. In Daytona Beach, Drea was in town for the launch of the 2013 Harley Breakout, but we saw him making the rounds at
Willie’s Tropical Tattoo Show and swap meets too so we asked him if these were sources of ideas or inspiration.
“Absolutely. Not only for inspiration, but more importantly, gauging when or if some trends go mainstream. Each one of our bikes, generally speaking, represents some type of a trend. Like when Harley came out with black denim. That was something that I watched for years, I saw that whole trend, black denim hot rods with the wide whites and the red rims, make the transition from hot rods to motorcycles.
“From a motorcycle perspective, I saw this kind of steam-pipey, nostalgic thing coming out of Japan almost 15-20 years ago and some of it had to do with these honest, raw finishes too, playoffs of the denims, coppers and brass and so on, and sometimes just rust. They were keeping it in the patinas, and those patina finishes were gathering steam over in Germany. Eventually, it made it to the West Coast here, but where I saw some of this stuff popping up more in volume was the LA Roadster Show. So I’ve just been tracking these types of trends for years, watching these trends and foreseeing when they go commercial.”
So what does Harley’s Chief Stylist do when he’s not predicting or setting trends? What else, he tries to find time for his art. Often he gets talked in to doing a cool paint job for a friend, or sometimes when an employee is retiring or leaving the company, he’ll paint up something special as a going away present. He also puts energy into his pinstriping event as well as others he’s involved in and spends much of his free time giving back to what he does best, his art. He somehow finds time to work on a café racer project he’s got going on right now. Before that, he built a ’32 Ford with a Flathead in it. But he’s also got two young boys at home who consume his time. But this doesn’t take him away from his art. He recently helped his son Will with a class project where they created an image of Our Lady of Guadalupe on a wood board using enamels and gold leaf, providing an opportunity for Drea not only to spend quality time with his son, but to share the process of laying gold leaf with him as well. His other son is taking a Latin class where they’re doing chariot races so Drea has been helping him by flaming it up and lettering it. Whether at work or at home, he breathes art, exhales motorcycles and hot rods, and if there’s anything such as a rightful heir to Willie G.’s throne, Drea is the man.