Backmarker: LiveWire & Ghosts of Harley’s Past

July 3, 2014
Mark Gardiner
Mark Gardiner
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In 2001, Mark Gardiner gave up his career in advertising, and moved to the Isle of Man to live out his childhood dream of racing in the TT. After returning to the U.S., he wrote a memoir of that experience, Riding Man, which is now in development as a feature film. His column, Backmarker, looks at everything from the motorcycle industry as a whole to intensely personal 'inside stories.'

You know what else would make an eye catching around-town bike with racy handling and a low c.g.  A 1966 Harley Sprint.
You know what else would make an eye catching around-town bike with racy handling and a low c.g.? A 1966 Harley Sprint.

July 4th heresy: When Harley-Davidson didn’t mean “American.” And why Harley’s LiveWire wouldn’t shock the Harley fans of 50 or 100 years ago

Harley-Davidson is the only motorcycle maker that regularly shows up on lists of the world’s 100 most valuable brands. Today, the Harley brand is the company’s most valuable asset; worth more than any patent or factory.

Many other really valuable brands—Google, for example—have relatively vague emotional associations, and appeal to a broad spectrum of the population. Not Harley; it’s not only an incredibly sharply defined brand, it also appeals to a very specific kind of person.

Those people—Harley types—are, collectively, the last people you’d expect to get behind (or on) an EV. That’s why Harley’s LiveWire announcement took so many of us by surprise, and why the bike triggered a vitriolic response amongst the faithful. It’s also why Harley won’t be bringing the LiveWire tour to Sturgis or Bike Week.

At the LiveWire ‘reveal’ in New York last month, a group of motorcycle journalists sat around a table with a few Harley execs, discussing the LiveWire’s giant leap away from convention. By way of explaining that Harley’s not just an air-cooled, pushrod, V-Twin company any more, one Harley exec skipped over the new ‘Street’ and ‘Twin-Cooled’ bikes to cite the V-Rod as an example successfully introducing updated technology to Harley riders.

“Are you saying the V-Rod was successful?” asked one journalist, who seemed surprised they’d brought up the V-Rod at all.

There was a pregnant pause as the company’s execs looked at each other, after which one of them said, “I think it’s selling well in Brazil.”

Maybe he had the World Cup on his mind.

You know another bike destined to introduce thousands of new riders to the sport of motorcycling  The Harley-Davidson Model 125.
You know another bike destined to introduce thousands of new riders to the sport of motorcycling? The Harley-Davidson Model 125.

After I got home from the LiveWire reveal, all my motorcycle friends wanted to know what it was like. It was only in telling and retelling the story of my brief sample ride that the I fully realized one of the most striking parts of the experience: The LiveWire didn’t feel like an electric V-Rod and it certainly didn’t feel like an electric Fat Boy.

The EV’s firm suspension; the narrow-hipped ergonomics and seat; the signal-to-noise ratio… It felt like an electric CBR, or Gixxer. Honestly, if the boys in Milwaukee made a bike like the LiveWire with an internal-combustion engine, the grizzled Harley faithful would hate on it, too.

My point in telling you this is, in the last three decades at least, Harley-Davidson fans have been slow to warm up to anything but air-cooled, pushrod, V-Twins. When Harley-Davidson personnel talked to journalists at the Rushmore introduction, the words ‘liquid-cooled’ came up about as often as Barack Obama’s middle name at a Democratic Party rally.

It was not always thus. In fact, the idea that Harley “means” air-cooled, pushrod, V-Twin, or even “American” is pretty new, and has its origins in the marketing department—and at Harley’s old ad agency—not in The Motor Company’s actual history.

A walk through the Harley-Davidson Museum will make it clear that the very first Harleys were Singles, though within a few years Harley established its 45-degree V-Twin layout.

Harley made a lightweight Single again in the 1920s, when the AMA put a 350cc displacement limit on the premier racing class. Harley responded with the famous ‘Peashooter’ Single. But even the museum tends to gloss over most of the company’s post-World War II single-cylinder offerings

I’m about the median age of Harley purchasers, and when I was a kid, Harley-Davidson competed across the board; it’s lineup ran the gamut from mopeds to trail bikes, scooters to police specials. The company made Singles and Twins; two-strokes and four-strokes.

Ironically, just about the time Harley was getting out of the small two-stroke business, Walter Villa won a string of 250 & 350cc World Championships on ‘Harley-Davidson’ motorcycles built in the Aermacchi race shop.

$#!+ bro’, Walter Villa won four road racing World Championships on beautiful water-cooled Harley-Davidson two-stroke Twins. If the company still had such a diverse line-up, the LiveWire announcement would not have been nearly so shocking.

The first important post-war Harley Single was the bike that came to be known as the ‘Hummer.’ Germany had to pay ‘war reparations’ to the Allies. Part of that payment took the form of intellectual property; the design of the beautiful little DKW RT125 two-stroke was adopted by BSA, which produced the Bantam, and Harley-Davidson, which made the Model 125.

Although the Model 125’s DKW-designed piston-port motor initially produced only about three horsepower, it was a state-of-the-art small motor in those postwar years. The bike had a girder fork with rubber “springs,” so it was perhaps a little dated in the chassis department, but Harley dealers sold over 10,000 of them in 1948. It was a perfect bike to sell to new riders.

This unrestored Hummer still resembles its DKW RT125 antecedent. The simple piston-port two-stroke was cheap to produce  and it introduced tens of thousands of Americans to motorcycling.
This unrestored Hummer still resembles its DKW RT125 antecedent. The simple piston-port two-stroke was cheap to produce, and it introduced tens of thousands of Americans to motorcycling.

The Model 125 got a telescopic front fork a few years later, and then in 1953, it got a displacement bump to 165cc.

In 1955, Harley sold a stripped-down version with an updated ‘B’ version of the motor, albeit again reduced to 125cc. That was the first one sold as a Hummer. As the story goes, the name wasn’t a reference to the buzzy little two-stroke motor; rather, it was named after Dean Hummer, a Midwest Harley dealer who sold more two-strokes than anyone else.

Through most of the 1960s, Harley sold bikes with (usually) 165cc versions of the updated motor. Models included the Super 10 street version, off-road Ranger, and dual-sport Scat (I did not make up that name.) The Super 10 was upgraded and renamed the Pacer which was, I believe, the first Harley-Davidson motorcycle with a rear spring mounted under the engine. (And I thought Erik Buell had invented that!)

By 1960, Harley claimed nine horsepower from the 165cc motors. That was a problem for the Topper scooter, which enclosed the motor without incorporating the cooling fans found on Vespas and Lambrettas.

In spite of its tendency to overheat, the Topper was advanced in other ways; it was twist-and-go at a time when Italian scoots still demanded clutch work of riders. Harley’s PR department arranged for a well publicized Topper journey to Death Valley, but the model was never very popular. About 3000 were sold until the model was finally culled in 1965.

In the early 60s  the Topper was a strange mix of advanced ideas like a CVT transmission  with a primitive lawnmower-style cord start. Harley only sold a few thousand of them.
The 250   350cc Sprint models are the most-loved of the Harley imports.
(Above) In the early ‘60s, the Topper was a strange mix of advanced ideas like a CVT transmission, with a primitive lawnmower-style cord start. Harley only sold a few thousand of them. (Below) The 250 & 350cc Sprint models are the most-loved of the Harley ‘imports’.

By the time they were introducing the Topper, Harley-Davidson execs knew that the DKW design was getting old. That year, the company bought a 50% interest in Aermacchi’s motorcycle division.

Aermacchi was an Italian company that made airplanes before the war, but emphasized small motorcycles in the postwar years. In the 1960s, Europe was a patchwork of protective tariffs; it’s likely that the acquisition was, in part, motivated by a desire to gain freer access to the Italian market.

Aermacchi motors were designed by Lino Tonti, a legendary figure, and then by Alfredo Bianchi who had drawn up state-of-the-art motors for Alfa Romeo cars and Parilla motorcycles. At a time when Italian motorcyclists craved overhead cams, Bianchi believed it was possible to build a short-pushrod motor that was cheaper to produce, easier to maintain, and still made decent power.

Bianchi’s sweet 250cc four-stroke Single was sold here as the Harley Sprint model from 1961 through the mid-‘70s. The horizontal cylinder layout kept the weight low, and the Sprint became the basis of quite a few race bikes. Harley also sold Aermacchi-made M-50 & M-65 two-stroke step-throughs in the late ‘60s, and 100cc-250cc street and trail models until well into the 1970s.

In 1969, American Machine Foundry (AMF) acquired Harley-Davidson. In 1974, Harley acquired the rest of Aermacchi’s motorcycle operations, although by that time, the Japanese manufacturers were coming on strong and the writing was on the wall for Aermacchi’s existing lineup.

In 1981, Vaughn Beals and a group of Harley-Davidson executives bought the Harley-Davidson brand from AMF. The company was back under the control of “motorcycle people”—who understood the impact of the ‘Japanese Invasion,’ especially in the smaller displacement classes. Harley made a strategic decision to get out of the small-bike categories, and gamble the business on cruisers and the Evolution motor.

The Evo motor was a company saver. Meanwhile, Harley’s ad agency set about revising the company’s brand as one so quintessentially American as to nearly promote xenophobia.

It wasn’t just a case of Harley importing ideas to the U.S. market. Beginning in the 1930s, Harley licensed production of its bikes to Japanese manufacturers, including Rikuo. Rikuo imported an entire Harley-Davidson assembly line to Japan, so Harley effectively introduced Japan to mass production (and thus helped to improve Japan’s war effort a few years later.)

The European designed (Hummer) or built (Aermacchi) Harleys were largely disowned. It didn’t matter whether they were cheap and cheerful like the Model 125, great bikes like the early Sprints, or second-rate junk like the Baja trail bike that did indeed make people wonder, “What was Harley thinking?”

Perhaps surprisingly, Harley-Davidson’s core customers—most of whom, like me, are old enough to know better—now believe the brand story over The Motor Company’s actual history.

In a slightly different world, Beals and his gang would have decided to compete in the small-bike market, and produced lightweight sportbikes derived from Aermacchi’s 1974-5-6 World Championship-winning 250s and 350s. If they’d been doing stuff like that all along, we wouldn’t have been so utterly shocked by Project LiveWire.

And, by the way, Harley’s core customers would not be going, “What is Harley thinking?” right now.