This article appeared in the Spring 2008 issue of Texoma Living!.
On a cul de sac street in a quiet west Denison neighborhood is a place crawling with bikers. Tim and Cathy, in their mid-forties, have so many motorcycles that they have their own mechanic’s shop right on the property. They also have two four-wheeler ATV’s. One of the neighbors, an elderly woman in her ‘80s peeks out her kitchen window when she hears the bikes’ rumbling.
On the other side of Tim and Cathy’s place is another biker couple. Jerry and wife Carol—probably ten years younger than their neighbors—have both a motorcycle and ATV and it’s not uncommon to see the four of them hanging out on the street with their bikes. Then there’s Bill on the corner, and his Harley-Davidson with its signature growling tail pipes. Around the corner are even more bikers with one or more motorcycles each.
These are the bikers next door. By day they are ordinary citizens with regular jobs: selling heavy equipment, a dental hygienist, an engineer, and a counselor at the State of Texas Dept. of Human Services. If it were not for one of the greatest consumer marketing campaigns of all time, you might have a completely different view of these upper-middle- class neighbors. In fact, they are just regular people who dig putting on expensive leather gear and riding even more expensive motorcycles— more luxury transport than scary choppers.
The Harley-Davidson Marketing Miracle
When Harley-Davidson launched its now legendary affinity program, the Harley Owners Group (HOG), it established a model for every future consumer product campaign. The idea came just twoyears after a team of former H-D execs led a buyback from AMF. Yes, AMF the bowling equipment manufacturer.
Essentially, Harley-Davidson products pre-’83 sucked. Meanwhile Japan since the ‘70s had been flooding the marketplace with high-quality, low-priced light-to-medium weight motorcycles. Harley’s were mainly heavy-weights. Concurrently, the quality of Harley’s declined under the rule of AMF.
The Sturgis Connection
You could easily blame the negative image of motorcycle riders on leftover impressions from ‘50-’60s films like “The Wild Bunch,” but there is also the very real and dangerous world made up of groups like the Hell’s Angels. Interestingly, it is that lingering “bad boy” image that helped Harley- Davidson’s marketing in many ways.
North Dakota is ground zero for bikers. The Sturgis Motorcycle Rally event established sixty-eight years ago expects over a half-million people at its rally on August 4-10. H-D did not invent the Sturgis event and in fact is only one of many corporate sponsors inclduing Geico Insurance, Coca-Cola, Jack Daniels Whiskey, and the Pork Production Council.
What Harley-Davidson did was glom onto the existing event and its caché. Last year, Sturgis attracted as many riders age 41-53 as all of attendees. Add to that the 54-and-older group and together they account for 76 percent of all riders attending. Stick with me, I’m about to make my point.
Nostalgia and Boomers
Think about this group of 41-65 and you realize they are the essence of the baby boomer generation. As we boomers occupied ourselves in the ‘80s and ‘90s with careers, raising families and accumulating “stuff,” the Harley-Davidson brand was going through transition.
In 1984 Harley-Davidson unveiled the 1340cc V® Evolution® engine on five models including the all-new Softail®. Now, both quality and style had converged at about the same time as many boomers were climbing the corporate ladder and dropping the kids at school.
Time shift to the end of the decade.
With the children off to college and money in their pockets, baby boomer men were looking for ways to have fun again. We spent three decades starting a career and earning a living. Now, it’s time to enjoy the rewards of success and high credit limits.
What Harley-Davidson accomplished was to develop a brand that not only appealed to serious motorcycle enthusiasts, but to make their products a perfect icon for hanging on to our youth. They did this by riding just behind the hardcore bikers—far enough away for safety—but close enough to let some of their bad boy caché infuse the air.
Harley made it possible for a upper-middle- aged business man living in a upper-middle-class neighborhood to put on his leathers, mount his bike with his biker chick wife on the back, and cruise on down the road in total style and absolute comfort. Best of all, being a biker provides the perfect affinity group opportunity—other upscale bikers who don’t carry chains in case there’s a fight.
There are those Thursday night roadtrips to have dinner, the weekends at the lake (motorcycle and trailer in tow behind the SUV) and all that cool camaraderie. Tim, Cathy, Jerry, Carol, and Bill have just about talked me into getting my own Fat Boy and joining them. My truck is paid off in a month and I’ll have all that extra cash. I would absolutely look (and feel) cool on a Fat Boy.
Breaking It Down
Owners: Vernon & Peggy Harlan, Pottsboro, TX
Children: 4 children, 5 grandchildren
Motorcycle Photographed: 1993 Harley-Davidson Heritage Softail Nostalgia “Moo Glide” 90th Anniversary Model, Limited Edition
Other Motorcycles Owned: 2003 Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic 100th Anniversary Edition and matching 2003 Ford F-150 Harley-Davidson Anniversary Edition.
Occupations: Vernon is retired from IBM and now remodeling and building custom homes. He rides his bike in to work every day he can.
First Solo Motorcycle Ride: For Vernon it was in 1967, hill climbing on a 550cc Honda dirt bike. Peggy’s first bike ride was in 1990 with Vernon.
First Bike Bought: That same Honda dirt bike
Best Roadtrip Taken: A ride to Milwaukee to attend the 95th Harley- Davidson Anniversary event in 1998
Best Roadtrip Not Yet Taken: Peggy would love to take a ride around the Texas border
Approx. No. of Miles Ridden To Date: Thousands
Best Bike Memory: Vernon and Peggy rode off on a 1991 Harley- Davidson Super Glide after being married. “It’s refreshing and relaxing, it’s a good time together enjoying this common interest.” Vernon already plans on buying the 110th Harley- Davidson Anniversary bike when it comes out in 2013.
Owners: Bob and Irene Fleming, Sherman, TX
Motorcycles Photographed: 2004 Harley-Davidson Deuce and 2005 Harley-Davidson Low Rider
Occupations: Bob is a retired Texas State Trooper of 28 years and is currently employed by Lattimore Materials. Irene is retired from TXU.
First Solo Motorcycle Ride: At age 11, Bob
First Bike Bought: 1971
Best Roadtrip Taken: Red River, New Mexico
Best Roadtrip Not Yet Taken: Tour of Texas Hill Country
Approx. No. of Miles Ridden To Date: 30,000
Why We Ride: “Riding is the best stress relief I have ever found. It allows us to experience some of the most beautiful country and sights in the world while enjoying the ride itself.”
Owner: Bill Jennings, Denison, TX
Children: 2 children, 7 grandchildren
Motorcycle Photographed: 1996 R850R BMW
Other Motorcycles Owned: 1999 K1200LT BMW, 1974 R90/6 BMW, 1971 Hodaka, 1975 Penton, 1970 100cc steel tank Penton.
Occupation: Unigo Trailer Sales; Motorcycle Rider Coach; Deacon Christ Church Cathedral, Sherman, TX
First Solo Motorcycle Ride: Summer 1952 at the age of 14, Denison to Lubbock on a 250 Indian Brave
First Bike Bought: 250 Indian Brave bought on Feb 15, 1952 from Cone Motorcycle Sales, Sherman, TX
All-time Favorite Bike: Whichever one he’s riding at the time
Most Recent Bike Bought: 1999 K1200LT BMW
Best Roadtrip Taken: “The list is long. We have been touring each summer for the last 30 years, each tour a great story itself. The neatest tour was from Denison to Lake Placid, NY in 1983 on a BMW National Rally. My wife Lois and I rode two up while our kids, Jason 16 and Jill 12, rode two up. Jason was the youngest rider among 6,500 riders. It was a 7,000-mile trek in 21 days.”
Best Roadtrip Not Yet Taken: Alaska, the Alcan Highway
Approx. No. of Miles Ridden To Date: 500,000.
Why I Ride: “There are moments in life that stick. The birth of your son, the first picture you take of your 3-day-old adopted daughter, the grabbing of a hand full of throttle in the sandy woods in Louisiana and the front wheel of your dirt bike slowly rising as you get perfect traction, the ‘I do’ when you marry. All of these can be described as spirit-filled moments. To spend weeks preparing for a motorcycle tour and then loading up and leaving for roads and places never before seen, this too, for me is a spirit-filled moment.
4000 N. U.S. Hwy 75
Sherman TX 75090