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When you think ‘multi-national corporation’, it’s likely the first words that come to mind are not personal freedom, self-expression or comradery. Yet, somehow, the Harley-Davidson corporation manages to elicit that rather dreamy response from even the most hardened anti-corporate sceptics, inclduing in Barcelona, where Harley has a thriving community.
Despite its free-wheeling image, Harley-Davidson served the US military in both the First and Second World Wars, survived the Great Depression, and has adapted to market changes with amazing agility. Shares in H.O.G. (the company’s nickname taken from its mascot, a small pig that was carried on victory laps by Harley racer Lawrence Ray Weishaar, as well as the acronym for Harley Owners’ Groups) are even traded on the New York Stock Exchange. According to the company, results for the second quarter of this year showed their revenue at $1.79 billion, up 3.7 percent from the same quarter in 2012. They claimed a net income of over $217 million (up 9.9 percent from last year). In a sagging European market, sales were up in Northern Europe and stood ahead of sales of other motor companies in Southern Europe. There was an increase in sales in the Asia-Pacific region and Latin America, proof of the company’s worldwide appeal and buddhist-like adaptability. Harley-Davidson can boast subsidiaries with a loyal consumer base in places as geographically and culturally distant as Eureka Springs, Arkansas and Fuefuki, Japan, while managing to inspire loyalty from ardent capitalists such as the late Malcolm Forbes, who was a devout Harley enthusiast, as well as being the bike of choice of the Hells Angels.
The company was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin in 1903 by 23-year-old engineer William S. Harley and Arthur Davidson, just 22 years old himself at the time. The two were later joined by Arthur’s brothers, Walter and William, to form what was to become to the motor world what Coca Cola was to become to the soft-drink industry. The first bike was literally that—a bicycle with an engine designed by William Harley to fit inside. Over the years, the motorcycle developed into a highly stylised machine, easily identifiable by its distinctive designs and unmistakable booming engine. It is revered by riders for its reliable performance both on the race track and on the open road. Besides motorcycles, the company has taken advantage of the Harley brand, licensing businesses that merchandise everything from jewellery to pool tables.
A combination of brilliant marketing, a unique product line and a keen survival instinct keeps the Harley name at the forefront of their sector. Harley Owners’ Groups boast over a million members in 119 countries; in order to become a H.O.G. member, you need to purchase a bike from an authorised dealership. Each dealer sponsors their own H.O.G. club, with rides and social events organised by its members.
Josep Escuder works at Harley-Davidson Barcelona, the older of the city’s two official Harley dealerships, now in its 25th year. He says their typical customer is male, although there is no typical age for clients who range from nineteen year old riders to retired folk. Of their customers, he estimates that around 40 to 50 percent are members of the dealership’s H.O.G. chapter. In addition to motorcycles, the shop’s boutique sells a range of official HD products.
Harley-Davidson and its subsidiaries increase brand visibility by hosting numerous events throughout the year, such as Harley Days, held this past July in Barcelona, where the Harley image is unapologetically marketed in big, bold American style. On an unforgivingly hot July morning, more than 4,250 bike enthusiasts joined in a group ride around Barcelona, with choppers, touring bikes, customised models and three seaters sporting mum, dad and junior, cruising along the Passeig de Colom and past the statue of Columbus on their way to the Harley Village at Montjuïc. The thunder of bikes made conversation impossible; all one could do was watch longingly, as a sustained roar of engines heralded the bikes gliding around the curve at the bottom of the Rambla, many with Catalan, Spanish, Italian, American or Confederate flags waving furiously behind them.
Ekki Gurlitt has owned a Harley for 36 years. He is originally from Hamburg, Germany but has been living in Barcelona for 24 of those 36 years. Adorned with crosses, rings, pins, a cowboy hat, biker boots, a leather jacket and hand-made windscreen glasses, Gurlitt is impossible to miss, even in a crowd of decked-out fellow bikers. He had some very specific thoughts on what Harley means to him, saying, “It’s a life philosophy, it’s not a motorcycle. It’s a way of life.” The word ‘freedom’ came up several times. He said he likes that, within the world of Harley, people are authentic. “People don’t say, oh, I love you so much, we’re such good friends, when in fact you’re not. Folks within the Harley culture are real,” he said.
In Barcelona, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle culture is very strong, and Gurlitt says that this is in part because the police are very tolerant here. “They like motorcycles. Unlike other cities in Europe, they never give you tickets for the noise of the Harleys. They’ll still ticket you for stuff like parking in the wrong zone, but other than major infractions, they basically give you the green light.” He says, for him, the love of Harleys has to do with the quality of the bike, not with any attraction to the American culture.
Visible at Harley Village was a chapter of the Barcelona Hells Angels, with a booth and banner advertising their presence. Notorious for their run-ins with police and anti-pacifistic leanings, the Angels are infamous both locally and worldwide. Although the name Hells Angels and Harley-Davidson are often linked, representatives of both the company and of the Hells Angels staunchly deny any connection or mutual interest other than their respect for the bikes themselves.
Igor 81 is a young member of the Barcelona Hells Angels. He confirmed that there was no communal relationship between the Harley-Davidson community and the Hells Angels. “The bikes are the connection,” he says. “They last, they take a beating, they’re good machines. We have that in common, but there’s no sense of community beyond that.” However, as one of his fellow Angels put it, riding a Harley gives them “a sense of freedom in an unfree world,” which echoes the sentiments of the non-Angels riders.
The Angels do, however, see their attachment to this particular brand as a worship of American culture and rock music. The first chapter of Hells Angels Motorcycle Club was founded in San Bernardino, California in 1948, and even though there are numerous clubs around the world today, they still feel a strong connection to their historical roots.
Away from the Angels, these days, the typical profile of the young, white male riding a Harley has changed. In the US, for example, the company has needed to respond to the hard reality that their loyal customer base is aging; this is significant when you consider that currently, two-thirds of the company revenue comes from white, male, middle-class consumers with—according to the company—an average age of around 50 years old. The company has responded by focusing on an ‘outreach market’, hoping to attract more Hispanics, blacks and women into the fold. On its YouTube channel, the company offers attractive videos featuring the ‘Ladies of Harley’, who may play a key role in the company’s future success.
Back at the Harley Village, Gemma Kirby, H.O.G. operations specialist is anticipating getting her licence soon, with the prospect of owning her own piece of the dream. She will then join the Ladies of Harley, with all the privileges that bestows. Members of the community look out for one another, she tells us, and joining a H.O.G. is a sure way to meet all types of people with the same love of the machine, allowing her to travel around the world in a “safe envirornment”. Behind her, a line of fiery chrome bikes shines under the sun, inviting the dreamer and sceptic alike to hop on board and join the ride.
Harley-Davidson Barcelona: Calvet 67-69. Tel. 93 201 9928. www.harleybcn.com
Harley-Davidson Espacio: Joan Güell 207. Tel. 93 339 4874. www.espaciohd.com