Ride Fast and Take Chances How Harley Davidson Rolled the Dice and Won

There is nothing in the whole wide world like the Harley-Davidson brand.

I know, you love your Classic Coke and your Nike golf balls and your Ed Hardy t-shirts, but do you really feel a connection to those items? An attachment you’d defend with your fists if anyone dared insult your choice of soda?

You do not.

But the lovers of Harley-Davidson are a fierce breed indeed.

Willie G. Davidson back in the day.

The Motor Company promotes the “Harley lifestyle experience” through “designer store” dealership outlets which have either been completely remodeled or built from scratch in the last few years. The stores and floor plans are laid out to draw customers in, where they are summarily surrounded by motorcycles. And not just their iconic machines, but every possible item a rider could use to ride one or let someone know he or she rides one. There are separate areas for Harley “MotorClothes,” customer lounges, rider meeting rooms, antique bikes and not a single detail is ignored.

Dealerships which converted what were once “motorcycle shops” to the Designer Store concept received, in return, burgeoning revenues and a startling return on investment. At this stage, more than half of the Motor Company’s 1,110 worldwide dealers have become, in essence, motorcycle boutiques. The Harley-Davidson merchandising line extends to items from clothing, tattoo patches, coffee mugs, belt buckles, baby clothes, memorabilia and every manner of item which can be painted and packaged in Orange and Black.

But when you consider the intense popularity of the Harley-Davidson brand today, it’s seems beyond belief that the company was ever on the verge of bankruptcy, but it most certainly was.

Harley-Davidson came within a hair’s breadth of bankruptcy and dissolution during the years spanning 1969 to 1981. How did it happen? It all came about when the American Machine and Foundry (AMF) company bought H-D and proceeded to begin the insane task, at least metaphorically, of painting over the Mona Lisa.

The AMF decision to “streamline production” and “slash the workforce” brought on vicious labor strikes, produced ugly and low quality motorcycles, and resulted in horrifically declining sales numbers. Riders abandoned the company’s showrooms like theatre patrons after a  bad movie and sought out older models to modify and restore.

It wasn’t until AMF threw in the towel and sold the gasping enterprise to investors Vaughn Beals and Willie G. Davidson – for a bargain-basement price of $80 million –  that the company started to once again turn a profit and appeal to a generation of riders lost to the makers of the last American motorcycle.

So how did Willie G. make it happen? He took Harley-Davidson back to the sort of retro-styled look of the company’s storied past. He started using high-quality parts and put manufacturing techniques in place to produce them. And above all, he listened to his customers, and they in turn told him when he was finally on the right track.

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