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Gear Review: 55 Collection Hard Jacket

Product: 55 Collection Hard Jacket Made in: Barcelona Cost: €480 (US $510) Website:www.55collection.com
It’s likely you’ve never heard of 55 Collection; the Barcelona-based leather goods company is relatively small and has only been on the scene for a few years. So, allow me to introduce you to a company that’s making some of the best-looking and unique motorcycle jackets out there at the moment.

Adopting the “non serviam” nonconformist attitude that seems to run through a lot of Spain’s motorcycling culture (check out the crazy/beautiful custom works of El Solitario MC, for example), 55 Collection’s jackets may split opinion because of the company’s willingness to make jackets that are fashionable – that is to say, jackets that have a strong fashion element. The old dudes will decry hipsterism or some such thing. And indeed, I’ll admit that when company founder Aitor Gonzalez offered me a chance to try out one of his jackets I naturally defaulted to the most conservative of his offeri…

Are American motorcyclists retarded because of Harley-Davidson?

Man, if that headline isn't link bait I don't know what is. But let me explain: I love Harley-Davidson bikes, but I have a theory that motorcycling in the United States has suffered retardation, i.e., stunted development, as a result of Harley-Davidson's dominance over the past 30-odd years.

When I use the word "retard" I mean it in the technical sense –– not as a schoolyard taunt or politically incorrect description of someone who is mentally disabled. To retard is to "slow down the development or progress of something," according to Merriam-Webster. And that's what I'm asking: Has Harley-Davidson's overwhelming success in the U.S. market slowed down the development or progress of motorcycling in that country?

But, you know, obviously I could have chosen other words when asking that. "Impede" would work just as well, or "hinder," and so on. The word "retard" comes with a negative-value meta-narrative and its use implies a bias in the person asking the question. Guilty as charged, mis amigos. As someone who carries a latent pro-America stance I can't help but feel a little annoyed when I am forced to admit that my native land is not The Best at a given thing. 

And the painful truth is that Americans are not the best when it comes to making unique and different motorcycles. Not at the moment, at least. I think there is potential within the American landscape for rapid and dramatic change, but right now we are decades behind the curve. And I feel that much of the blame for that falls on the shoulders of Harley-Davidson. Well, no. Not Harley-Davidson, but the fact that there has for so long been no one but Harley-Davidson for a patriotic rider. 

In the United States, Harley-Davidson dramatically outsells all other brands. In 2013, Milwaukee's most-famous company was responsible for more than 51 percent of the street motorcycles sold in the country. And of the street bikes sold last year that were not Harley-Davidsons, quite a large percentage had been designed to look and ride like them. Los americanos les gustan las Harleys. 

That's not terribly surprising. People everywhere tend to cheer for the home team. Triumphs sell better than all else in Britain, BMWs sell better in Germany, and so on. However, Harley-Davidson's situation is unique because its sales dominance is so much greater compared to the successes of other manufacturers on their home turf. For example, BMW carves out just 17 percent of its local market.

My theory is that Harley-Davidson performs so much better at home because the United States was one of the few countries not to suffer an existential crisis after World War II. In other motorcycle-producing nations like Germany, Japan, Italy and even England the post war years forced serious re-evaluations of national identity. After all, it was nationalism and its ugly sides of xenophobia and racism that had fuelled the war. As such, patriotism isn't always an effective selling tool.

Whereas in the United States, the simple fact of a product being American is often reason in itself for people to choose it. Yes, I realise this is less true now than it used to be, but trust me, flag waving still delivers infinitely more marketing success in the United States than here in Europe. 

Through wit, hard work and good ol' fashioned dumb luck, Harley-Davidson found itself pretty much the only American motorcycle brand as it began its resurrection in 1981. Through the 1970s it had bumbled almost to the point of bankruptcy, unable to focus and therefore unable to compete against cheaper, superior foreign brands. Perhaps not so coincidentally, this rough patch had come during the Vietnam War and its aftermath, when the American psyche was suffering the closest it would ever come to existential crisis. It was a time when a product's simply being American wasn't enough.

But then, you know, "Morning in America" and all that stuff, and suddenly my grandfather was teaching me to check the labels of my T-shirts to see where they were made. And at the same time, Harley-Davidson lasered its focus to the types of model that had performed well in the past: "traditional" motorcycles. Bikes like those ridden by the modern cowboys who had captured popular imagination in the decades before.

And, of course, the American experience is always one of amalgamation. It is the melting pot. So, the society-degrading outcasts of one generation became the iconic symbols of American spirit for the next. Harley-Davidson brilliantly tapped into this and soon established itself in Americans' minds as not only as being the quintessence of America but the quintessence of motorcycling.

Growing up in the U.S. Central Time Zone –– in Texas and Minnesota –– there was only one kind of motorcycle. Well, maybe two: Harley-Davidsons (or foreign copies), and bikes for people who wore neon socks. Within my cultural understanding, it was Harley or nothing else. If you've followed this blog for a while, you'll know that, after getting my motorcycle license at age 18, I spent almost two decades choosing the "nothing else" option.

I know that the mindset of my younger self is not unique. Take a look at motorcycle blogs, websites and forums and you will see it everywhere, every day. Take a look at the motorcycles on American roads. Lots and lots of Americans struggle to comprehend a world beyond the Harley bubble.

Again, I'm not complaining about an American company being successful, nor am I complaining about the kind of bikes that Harley-Davidson chooses to make (hell, I want one myself). What irks me is that Harley's tremendous success seems to have resulted in so many people being blind to everything else. And as a result, motorcycling in the United States has not moved forward at the same pace as the rest of the world.

Do you see what I'm getting at? Perhaps it would help to take it out of a motorcycling context. Imagine if Chili's were the only place you ever ate. Ever. I'm a big fan of Chili's, personally. Free refills on ice tea, good burgers, decent wings, awesome chili-cheese nacho dip, and the Southwestern eggrolls are the bomb. That molten chocolate cake, too, yo. When I was in college I got a job as a waiter at Chili's solely because it meant getting a discount at Chili's. I could and can stand to eat at Chili's a lot. But if it was the only restaurant I ever went to? After a few decades of that I would be suffering from culinary retardation. I wouldn't really know what food could be.

In that scenario, should Chili's change what it's doing? Nope. Not necessarily. Should people begrudge its success? Definitely not. But that doesn't make me any less stunted in my understanding and philosophy of food.

I feel Harley-Davidson's success has retarded American motorcycling both technologically and philosophically. It is not just that American motorcyclists don't care about things like liquid-cooling or traction control, etc., but that they can't see why they should care. Because to them (a) motorcycles are toys. Hobbies. Trinkets that –– like an NFL jersey or Tom Petty box set –– are reflections of the personality/character a person wants to portray outwardly, but which are ultimately not terribly relevant nor deserving of analysis and progression.

The end result of that is three American brands that lack any model diversity and an American motorcycling landscape where filtering is allowed in only one state and very few people ever ride unless it's hot and sunny. A motorcycling landscape where too many riders settle for an inferior situation and too many potential riders choose nothing.

UPDATE: On the same day I published this post, Wes Siler published this article on Jalopnik, which captures the same frustrated sentiment you see in my post but more detail. It's a good piece (I wish I had written it) and will get you feeling upset at the state of motorcycling in America.

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(a) I'm talking in generalities here, speaking of the majority. Obviously, I know there are exceptions.

Comments

  1. Chris,

    My initial reaction to your post was wow, just wow. The post left me feeling a bit empty. You posited that Harley-Davidson has retarded motorcycling in America but you didn’t provide a vision of what motorcycling would have been like had there been no Harley-Davidson…or Indian for that matter. What would we be riding? Would more people ride? Would we be riding at all?

    Your Chili’s analogy did help provide perspective on where you’re coming from and it was entertaining. The thing is, if there are other restaurants available (and there are) and you choose to go to Chili’s that’s your choice not Chili’s. But I’m sure Chili’s will happy to serve you food for as long as you’d like to eat there.

    Like restaurants, we have a choice in which motorcycle to ride. I don’t think you give people enough credit by assuming a majority of the population is blinded to other options by Harley-Davidsons success. While I will agree that Harley may not make a bike for everyone, I have to disagree that they are somehow less technically advanced than most other bikes available. You have to give Harley-Davidson some credit because over the past years they have been trying to broadening their appeal by providing smaller bore engines, liquid cooling, and variety other safety bells and whistles (like ABS).

    In the end, I’m not sure what you really mean when you say, “motorcycling in the United States has not moved forward at the same pace as the rest of the world.” If you mean that more people ride motorcycles in other countries and/or motorcycling is more mainstream, I offer that likely has much more to do with geography and demographics than the existence or influence of Harley-Davidson in America.

    Is it really all that surprising that there are more motorcycles used in places like India, Thailand, and parts of China? I venture to say that most of the motorcycles used in those places are under 150cc and that most ride them because it makes sense for where they live…they’re cheaper and better suited for the infrastructure.

    I like Harley-Davidson motorcycles and respect the company for all it has accomplished but you give them way too much credit to assert that they have single handedly retarded the progress of motorcycling in America. Me thinks you’ve been living outside the U.S. for far too long…Chris, it’s time you came home. :-)

    Cheers,
    Curt
    Live Free. Ride Hard. Be Happy.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Sometimes I think the majority of Harley riders (not all) are not even really motorcyclists. That is they are in it so they can say they are edgy/risky/cool because they ride a Harley, to wear the gear, and to get a tattoo. It seems to me most Harleys are ridden less than an hour a month.

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  3. Well said, I understand from a technical point. BMW and Japanese had ABS brakes in the nineties!

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  4. A few days ago, Sash and I rode through Oatman, AZ, which is along the original Route 66. We met up with a group of German tourists on Harleys. There's some kind of tour company that markets itself in Germany, and they put them on Harleys for a multi-state tour. I suppose the tour would not have the same allure if they had put them on BMWs.

    If you consider that foreigners come to the USA to experience what is "American", and they want to do soak it all in from the greasy national food chains to the cookie-cutter Best Western hotels, in that sense Harley-Davidson hasn't dumbed down motorcycling at all. They've simply added to what is "American". Most American riders don't want the kind of performance and handling that Japanese, German, and Italian bikes offer. That just makes American riders a different animal, not necessarily worse.

    If German riders are willing to pay the big bucks to come to America and experience all that we are, then it's certainly worth something.

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  5. keep the wheels turning

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  6. first off, I am a Yamaha guy and will probably never own a Harley. and I agree that Harley is grossly overrated in this country.

    but the author doesn't explain how America is "decades behind" other countries in motorcycling, how Harley has anything to do with the lack of filtering in states, and fails to recognize that Harley does actually have ABS brakes, ride-by-wire, liquid cooling, and other technological advances found on other 'foreign' bikes. it seems to me that the author's main grip is America's fondness for the cruiser style of motorcycle that is more adept for America's vast highways that is less suitable in other countries which are much more congested.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're right: Harley does have all those features. They were added decades after other manufacturers offered them. For example, BMW started putting ABS on some bikes in 1988. Harley didn't start offering it to the general public until 2008 (it was available on law enforcement models from 2005). In other words, Harley-Davidson -- at that time the only major US motorcycle manufacturer -- was two decades behind the curve.

      The point of this post, though, isn't necessarily to criticise Harley-Davidson, but more so American riders for not demanding better-quality machines. H-D will deliver what the market demands if the market demands it. My hope is that increased interconnectivity is now allowing H-D (and Indian and Victory) now to see that there is actually a market for more than just enormous cruisers. There are enough people who want smaller, more agile bikes and they would very much like to be buying American.

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  7. Come to Sturgis in a couple weeks. You'll see that motorcycling is alive and well in the USA. No other country has anything that matches it. And yes, most people will be riding Harley's there.

    I don't know where you get this idea that Harley's are not top-quality machines. There is nobody that has their attention to detail, fit and finish or build quality. Nobody. The talented engineers at Harley-Davidson could build anything they want. But what has made them #1, outselling all other brands combined in heavyweight bikes for the past 24 years running, is the fact that they LISTEN to what their customers want and build it for them. What's a crying shame is that the rest of the manufacturers don't do that, and instead turn out their "rubber stamp" throwaway junk and expect us to buy a new one every 5 years to maintain their business model. I ride a 29 year old Harley Electra Glide that looks and runs like new yet with 271,000 miles on it. Most of the "high tech" metrics from that era are today in salvage yards. Like I said, come to Sturgis if you want to see why Harley reigns supreme, where there will be motorcyclists this year 1 million strong in one place and thousands of Harleys built in the 40's and still running strong will be ridden there. What you fail to see is the one that has stood the test of time is the one with the better technology.

    ReplyDelete

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