‘Rubs’ hogging Harley

The following is one in a regular series of columns that examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.As icons of unbridled machismo go, there is nothing quite as definitive...

The following is one in a regular series of columns that examines and critiques commercial design, as well as provides commentary on current issues and trends in the design industry.

As icons of unbridled machismo go, there is nothing quite as definitive as this one. There is Marlboro. There is Bud. There is even Ferrari. But nothing pumps testosterone like a Harley-Davidson.

Is there a male on this continent who cannot conjure up the insouciant roar of a Fat Boy belching fire as if it were fuelled by the bowels of Mephistopheles?

Even if you are not inclined to fantasize about carving the asphalt astride the devil’s own chassis, you have to admit the design of this machine is the ultimate embodiment of American virility, the quintessence of unapologetic chauvinism.

Swathed in chrome from its front forks to its tapered exhaust, it blazes with mythic authenticity.

Like many other emblems of classic Americana, this one is being lustily appropriated by a whole new generation of would-be Marlboro Men.

Once the sole dominion of outlaw bikers and motorcycle cops, Hogs are now the preferred objets de luxe of doctors and lawyers.

And, as with most status symbols of strictly male provenance, the Harley is being de-chauvinized as more and more female buyers enter the market. Singer k.d. lang is a notable example.

What has propelled the meteoric rise in Harley-Davidson’s share of the u.s. heavyweight motorcycle market from 23% in 1983 to roughly two-thirds today?

In search of the answer, we contacted the marketing department at Harley-Davidson headquarters in Milwaukee.

The first indication that this was a company firmly in control of its image was betrayed by the musak chosen for the caller-in-waiting: Jim Morrison singing Love Me Two Times. Yeah. Good sign.

The answer

But the answer eluded our grasp.

‘Your questions should be directed to the public relations department,’ said the director of marketing.

‘We cannot divulge the details of our marketing strategy,’ said the director of public relations.

So we did a little research of our own.

A recent issue of L.A. Style magazine reveals some salient information.

It seems the trend began when Harleys became the preferred mode of transport and penile extension for the likes of Stallone, Schwarzenegger, Caan, Rourke and Springsteen.

As with most status-building trends in the u.s., if it is good enough for our favorite stars, it will not be long before it rushes through the streets with the force of water from a broken dam.

But the cost of swimming in these waters is steep.

Not because the ticket price on a basic production model is all that high, but because the trend dictates that true status is only attained by laying out double or even triple the vendor’s price on a personal customization program.

This fact has not gone unnoticed by the manufacturer, the 1992 lineup for which has swelled to a roster of 20 models, from the minimal Sportster Hugger (weighing in at 472 pounds) to the Ultra Classic Electra Glide (dry weight of 765 lbs.)

That the manufacturer also has an ear to the groundswell of conservative American consciousness is evident in its catalogues and advertisements.

The dealer catalogue opens with a sunset shot of the head office – an unpretentious red-brick building with the plant in the background, crowned by the requisite water tower.

The image nostalgically evokes the heroic simplicity of a bygone industrial era, when men used wrenches and women made their lunch.

Add to this the fact that the ads can be seen in such venues as Fortune magazine, and you have a pretty good picture of this company’s marketing strategy.

The question is, how long will such authoritative market share last? Can the company keep the trend alive, or will it die out when our thespian heroes take their last ride down Sunset Boulevard? Aye, there’s the rub.

Will Novosedlik and Bob Russell are principals of Russell Design in Toronto.