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The Beginning, or The End? – Harley Davidson’s Modernization

Harley Davidson‘s Modernization

Many lifelong Harley enthusiasts and bikers carry a disdain for the burgeoning success of Harley Davidson. The company did their homework and realized they were missing out on alternative markets. By cashing in on classic designs from days gone by, they were able to tap into the middle class or rich urban biker (RUB pronounced “roob”)  wanting a piece of history that catered to their need or desire to experience something once considered taboo. Although it was a slow progression taking almost 20 years, and along the way various programs and marketing tactics were used to reach the masses! As the public embraced the image of themselves getting “in the wind”  acceptance for the lifestyle grew and took on its own life. Entertainment from movies to television series have helped put the motorcycle and the culture in everyone’s living room. One of the caveats of the massive growth was supply and demand. The product went from being affordable and easy to work on and modify, to expensive, bloated and impossible to get parts for. Over the counter replacement items such as a tail light lens have now been replaced by “assemblies”. While that may not be the case for all parts, it has been the case for some  items manufactured overseas. The “Factory” as it is known today, keeps a tight rein on its dealers and an even tighter reign on prices. Along the way companies who were in competition indirectly were acquired and absorbed, gleaning the elements that Harley-Davidson itself wanted. Such notables are the Buell sport bike, and New Castalloy an Australian supplier of cast allow wheels that HD bought in 2006 and is now closing as of 2013 to pursue other manufacturers who offer a more cost-effective product .

The marketing of the name Harley Davidson has become so vast some feel that it no longer carries the weight of belonging to a solid reliable product. Now you’ll find everything from officially licensed Harley stilettos to Harley door knobs and everything in between. Dealerships now carry a limited quantity of  bikes, but have a warehouse of clothing and other licensed goods to sell with the company logo being the selling point.  The change in marketing and company diversity in the early stages also lead to a shortage of parts on hand for dealers to stock as supply models changed to offshore manufacturers. The following is a step by step timeframe as to what some consider the downfall of Harley-Davidson, while others would consider it the path to the successful business model the company has become.

1981 On February 26, 1981, a group of thirteen senior Harley-Davidson executives, led by Vaughn Beals, signed a letter of intent to purchase the company from AMF. Settled by June 16, 1981, the executives celebrated with a ride from York to Milwaukee. 1981 production: 41,586 motorcycles.

1983 To get Harley owners more involved in the sport, the company formed the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.), now the largest factory-sponsored motorcycle club in the world. Also in 1983, tariffs were imposed on Japanese motorcycles 700CC or larger in response to unfair trade practices. Instead of relying on their reputation and trying to regain their market share with better product, Harley sought to control it without putting any effort into being a better competitor.


1984 After seven years of development, Harley-Davidson introduced the 1340CC V2 Evolution engine. Designed for high reliability with a minimum of scheduled maintenance, the engine produced more power at every speed. While the Evo is still mocked by hardcore enthusiasts, it has built a reputation for endurance and reliability with only a few known weak spots.

1986 Harley-Davidson returned to public ownership by offering two million shares of common stock and a concurrent offering of $70 million principal amounts of subordinated notes due 1996.

1987 In March 1987, Harley-Davidson petitioned the International Trade Commission for early termination of the tariffs on Japanese motorcycles. In July, Harley-Davidson was approved for listing on the New York Stock Exchange. Are we seeing a pattern now?

1988 The 1988 product line featured the first 74 cu in Sportster, with 1200 CCs of power. Also, to mark the company’s 85th anniversary, a cross-country ride was held, benefiting the Muscular Dystrophy Association. 1988 production: 47,325 motorcycles. The Sportster, long touted as a “girly” bike is now the fastest Harley manufactured when fitted with the 1200cc power plant.

1996-97 With the introduction of the Heritage Springer Softail, Harley-Davidson forged into the future by staking claim to its biggest asset — the past. It was evident to the marketing gurus that the young professionals they were catering to wanted nostalgia and could well afford to pay for it.


1999 The introduction of the “next” generation of Harley engines, the Twin Cam 88. With more engineering than ever before, this new breed of engine has yet to prove itself. The first engine with fuel injection, it has suffered teething problems, most notably in an under designed clutch assembly.





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