Here’s a captivating mission statement: “We fulfill dreams through the experience of motorcycling. . .” It continues, “by providing to motorcyclists and to the general public an expanding line of motorcycles . . . in selected market segments.” Voila! That’s the essence of Harley-Davidson, the highly enviable company who has taken decades-old twin-cylinder, push rod engine technology and created one of the most desired lines of products available anywhere! You may ask, “How do they do it?”
My participation in the Open House at the Harley-Davidson Vehicle Operations and Power Train Facility in Kansas City the past four years has been a fascinating experience that has stirred my curiosity and increased my awareness. To better understand the company's success, recognize these facts. They’ve designed very reliable, highly desirable motorcycles with first-rate quality control. They are continually expanding their product line and production volume. They maintain a highly functional partnership with a massive network of dealerships. Perhaps most importantly, they continue to maintain a very cooperative relationship with existing customers while creating that same connection with their new clientele. One of the best examples of their customer connection is subtly on display during their Open House events.
This year’s event, Friday and Saturday, September 9 and 10, was particularly special for me. Not just because I toured the facility again or because I had the opportunity to test ride many of the new bikes and get my adrenalin buzz, but mostly because I was able to spend time with the people who work behind the scenes that make this business run. I also had the opportunity to spend some time with the individual responsible for delivering the demo fleet and providing oversight of the program at open house events and at large biker events coast to coast.
To better understand the business/client relationship, I spent some time with the Demo staff present for the Kansas City event. Volunteers from corporate offices and operations facilities all across the country directly interact with customers in a number of ways. Employees Alice Klyeman, a mechanized assembler from York, Pennsylvania’s Final Assembly Plant and Susan Keey, from Accounts Payable in the Juneau Avenue corporate office were both at their first Demo event. Although assembling saddlebag rails and performing accounting functions may not prepare them for front line customer service, collecting registration information was a role they both enjoyed. As the first to meet and greet current and potential customers, they and others collected information from 675 registrants. Both were impressed with the people they met and both acknowledged that it had been a great experience. Susan made a very good point regarding the business/client relationship, “Demo rides allow people to pick out the bike that fits.”
Moving from registration over to the lines of demo machines, grouped by model and awaiting the anxious riders, I had the opportunity to spend time with more company employees. These staff members were there to assist riders on their arrivals and departures from the tour routes. Down from Milwaukee were Rosie Rodriguez from Capital Drive, where Sportster motors are built and Dawn Schultz, from the Pilgrim plant where the Twin Cam 88 motors are assembled. Rosie, a machinist with four years in the company, works with the cylinders. Although she doesn’t have a bike yet, her favorite ride is the Road King (smart lady!) With 5˝ years of experience, this was Dawn’s second Demo event, but her first Open House. Her normal job is the final engine prep, inspection and fluid fill, then crating for shipment to York, Pennsylvania or the Kansas City Final Assembly. After touring the Kansas City facility, they both were excited from their growth in perspective. “This is a very nice facility,” Dawn said and followed up with, “it was nice to see where the finished products I’ve worked on are delivered.” Neither hesitated in recalling the positive experiences of the previous couple of days, and both again commented on the friendliness of the facility workers and the demo riders.
Last but not least, I spent some time with Randy Dunn, whose official title is Project Manager-Demos and Shows. Randy is responsible for delivery, maintenance and care of the demo fleet, operation of the demo program and care of the traveling museum. It has to be one of the most unique jobs in the country. For eight months of each year, Randy lives out of a company-provided motor home and travels to each of the open house events at the Harley-Davidson plants. He also attends all the big rallies and events across the country, including: Sturgis, Daytona, Laconia and Laughlin. For each of his destinations, he is assigned a different group of employees who support the operation of the demo program. We sat in the plush comfort of his traveling home and for about an hour, chatted about this business, about Harley-Davidson the company, about the passion to ride and touring, about world history and museums and the civil war and about life in general. Yes, we really did touch on those topics.
Randy’s experience prior to Harley-Davidson is distinctive. As a former member of US Special Forces, his exposure from many different situations has clearly broadened his perspective and more than prepared him for this role that he relishes. Single and with no children, he doesn’t appear to be burdened with the job requirements of traveling and very much appreciates the opportunity he has been given. We spent some time discussing the unique success of the company and the feeling of contribution he has as an employee in this position. In his words, “Demos provide an opportunity for employees, who otherwise may not get out, to learn about the line of bikes, their differences and model changes and to get to know the people who purchase them.” He continued, “Since all company staff who work at these events are volunteers and want to be here and the people lined up to ride want to be here, it’s a win-win situation.” As I departed, recognition of how unique this opportunity was set in, and my own perspective about the company and the employees I had met, reached a new level. It was truly an intriguing and entertaining discussion.
Telling the story of the Demo ride also requires some discussion of routes and the hardware I had the opportunity to straddle. There are two designated paths for demo participants. The self-paced route for all machines except Buells and V-Rods was just over nine miles and covered mostly two-lane back roads. For Buells and V-Rods, there was a designated group ride route that was just over 12 miles and did provide for some four-line highway travel. I planned to capitalize my opportunities and ride as many of the new models in the 2006 model line as I could, but there are so many new bikes this year, and so little time, that I just didn’t get to them all.
My first ride came with the latest entry in the touring line, the Street Glide. This bike is clearly a Willie G. creation. With the Electra Glide Standard as the clay building block, the Street Glide modifies the front fairing with a sleek new look. By eliminating the running lights, placing the turn signals on the bars, integrating the mirrors into the fairing and shortening the windshield, the front view is streamlined and the finished product is a customized, low profile, open road cruiser! At six feet tall, the volume of wind in my face at highway speeds was perfect! The finished product is sleek and clean, and the ride from the injected TC 88 was smooth and strong. Another special addition is the new Harman/Kardon audio system, introduced this year, which delivered clean, crisp stereo sound. As a bagger rider, this latest FL model left me impressed and asking for more.
The next new machine I tested was a product that you knew was coming and wondered why it took so long for the motor company to deliver; the factory fat tire! For 2006, Harley is offering several of the Softail models with a two hundred series tire and they look good! The particular model I tested was the Springer Softail. On board, the seat was firm but low, easily allowing my feet to reach the ground. The first thing that caught my eye was the gleaming chrome headlamp and my reflection in it. The forward mounted pegs required some personal adjusting and seemed to be fitted more for a shorter rider. The counter-balanced TC88B is a smooth performer as well. This machine has a distinctively different feel than the rubber mounts. My first inclination of the ride with the wider tire was that it was more difficult to initiate a turn with. This may have been the product of the fat tire or the Springer front end, but I’m confident that after some time in the seat, you will learn to successfully navigate this retro-look cruiser exactly where you want it to go.
Next up were the high revving, high performance hot rods. Each year, one of my objectives from the open house demo event is to ride the speed demons and get my annual jonesn’ for adrenaline rushes out of my system! As much fun as these tire squealing, inertia generators are to ride, I don’t need more education or my dad to tell me that if it were my daily rider, I’d either end up with a suspended drivers license, insurance I could not afford or injured because I simply could not exercise responsible discipline with this much power at my disposal. And don’t think for one second that those who plan this event don’t recognize that there are people just like me, frothing at the mouth for a fast ride on these bikes. They clearly understand the importance of maintaining control over the riders of these machines. As a result, all V-Rods and Buells are demo ridden during designated time periods and with lead and trail riders. In most circumstances though, they do allow some leniency between the front and the back of the pack, so you still can have fun, as long as you behave responsibly!
My first test ride of the high performers was the new Street Rod. Introduced this year, this model of V-Rod comes already dressed up with custom 10 spoke wheels, two-tone silver and black power train, straight shot dual pipes and low rise adjustable bars, to begin with. It maintains the standard VSRC 120 hp, 1130 CC power plant and incorporates a new 180 rear tire, and mid mounted pegs. Being in the V-Rod family, it clearly distinguishes itself with lighting quick acceleration, responsive brakes and agile steering. Its striking good looks set it apart in the V-Rod family. Even with all of this, the riding position and set up on this bike was just not the right fit for me.
Next up was the Buell Firebolt. This bike is built as the new age sport bike. The riding position with the seat further back and the clip on bars forces you over and down onto the tank, overlooking the front wheel. This is not a particularly pleasing experience for someone who is used to sitting upright on a Road King with hangers, a windshield and backrest! But, I had signed up for it and I was going to ride it out. Though balanced incredibly well, the Firebolt is a taller in the saddle machine and will challenge riders with shorter legs. Its overall light weight, high torque engine and tight shifting pattern provide acceleration that will easily bring the front end up! And just as quick as you can take off, its braking system was incredibly strong and with effort from as little as one finger, will allow you to raise the rear end as well! Demos for these machines require full-face helmets. After my demo ride, it’s certainly clear why! In the hands of less experienced riders, these are perilous machines, but put them on the track with a skilled racer and I'm confident they will more than hold their own. Although I appreciate the intent and design of these machines, they are just not my style of bike.
Saving the best for last was entirely coincidental. My final test ride was, in my opinion, one of the best engineered bikes I have ever had the opportunity to ride; the Screamin Eagle V-Rod. For those who may not know, the Screamin Eagle line from Harley-Davidson are highly customized, high performance factory machines with limited production. With a 240 series rear tire and a list of chrome accessories longer than the Nile, it oozes with custom style and class straight off the showroom floor. It is eye catching indeed! The riding position on this V-Rod, with forward controls and the taller and wider bars was perfect for me. I was comfortable and ready to rock!
As our group began, I patiently picked my spot near the back of the pack. When we progressed, I laid back and waited for gaps between myself and the rider in front. When the gap was narrow, I weaved back and forth in my lane and worked the brakes. Its feel was secure and the effort to maneuver was undemanding. When the gap widened enough, I gave it some gas! Saying high performance and V-Rod sounds oxymoronic, but there clearly is a difference between this rod and the others. The experience was comparable to that of a world-class roller coaster, just as it reaches top speed on the downhill side of the apex! It was truly amazing acceleration! The tach moved like a wiper blade on high, starting at just below 5 grand and peaking out near 9.5! In this case, the company claims an extra 10% horsepower from the 1250 cc power plant with high flow heads. After my 20 minute ride, I’d say that number is a bit conservative! The only thing really slowing me down, besides the rider in front, was the volume of wind that was generated during those horsepower bursts, nearly blowing me off the bike! The overall experience was unforgettable. While seriously reconsidering my earlier statements about owning one of these high-speed bikes, I called my wife, who promptly told me in so many words “to put the crack pipe down!”
On Friday, the plant was in full operation and if you took the tour, you likely had to move to the edge of the path more than once as forklift operators delivered materials to continually feed the assembly lines. One interesting aspect was a new display on the assembly line floor. Space had been opened up where previously wheels were laced and tires were mounted. During the event though, this space was used to display one of each model from each assembly line, including the new V-Rod Destroyer- the factory guaranteed-under nine seconds straight out of the crate-drag bike. Seeing that much open space on the floor certainly stirred my curiosity regarding what changes are in store for that partial of real estate in the assembly area?
Over the course of those two days, the overall experience was a smorgasbord of fun and knowledge. While the facility opened their doors to hundreds of visitors and while Randy and company kept the demo fleet running, I continued to absorb the phenomena of Harley-Davidson. I enjoyed the opportunity to spend time with the people who make it happen, both in the plant and on the tarmac and the experience again increased my awareness and curiosity. Where else does a vendor deliver new products to current and potential clients for demonstration without charge?
After that weekend, my confidence in their fundamental operating philosophy solidified and I pondered one last consideration: Some companies have it figured out. Some companies never will.
Story and photos by Nic