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Harley-Davidson: You love them or you hate them

Harley-Davidson motorcycles tend to bring out the extremes in bike enthusiasts.


In the 1960s, motorcyclists in Britain tended to be broken up into two groups: mods and rockers. The former wore duffel coats and crepe-soled shoes and rode accessorized Lambretta and Vespa scooters, while the latter tended to favour black leather jackets and engineer's "bovver" boots, and wouldn't be caught dead on anything other than British iron – Triumph, BSA, Norton, etc.

Polar opposites, these two groups loathed each other with a passion and, occasionally, banged heads in places like Margate, Bognor Regis and Brighton. The movie, Quadrophenia, with its excellent soundtrack by The Who, captured this strangely violent snapshot of British history.

Mods and rockers are long gone, of course, but here in North America, polarized groups of motorcycle enthusiasts still thrive. There are clubs catering to every conceivable taste in bikes, and never the twain shall meet.

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As a lifetime rider who has ridden just about every kind of motorcycle there is, and spent more time than I probably should at bars and various watering holes, I've narrowed bikers down into two main groups: Harley lovers and Harley haters.

Harley riders tend to travel in packs, and gather at the same places like clockwork. Hardcore types simply won't tolerate any other brand of bike in their midst, with the possible exception of Brit bikes. Show up at a Harley gathering with your Yamaha or Kawasaki and you can definitely expect the cold shoulder and, if you're allowed to ride with these guys, it'll be at the back of the pack. I once was out for a lovely Sunday ride on a Yamaha Royal Star and got overtaken by a group of Harley guys at a stop light. "Next time, get a real bike!" snarled one as they pulled away. Oh, the irony: at the time I owned a Softail Heritage and was riding a tester. And the funny thing was, the Royal Star will leave most big Harleys for dead.

Which is, of course, the heart of the conundrum. Harley-Davidson makes excellent cruisers/tourers, but performance leaders they are not. Japanese manufacturers have to actually tune their bikes down to compete in this hard-to-figure-out market and Harley's technology, despite various upgrades, can still be traced back to the 1920s. For those who don't get it, that's part of its charm.

But it drives Harley-haters crazy. Before they start foaming at the mouth and grinding their teeth, "serious" non-Harley riders zero in on Harley's medieval technology, with its push-rods, V-twin/air-cooled configuration, and outdated suspension and shout that Harley hasn't made any significant engineering advances in 50 years. That may or may not be true, but, even these days, Harley-Davidson is a phenomenally successful company and sells trainloads of bikes every year. In 2012, it owned more than 50 per cent of the heavy cruiser market. Other manufacturers aren't even close. People love Harley-Davidsons, like it or lump it.

But that doesn't excuse the way some Harley riders handle themselves. As a long-time Harley owner, I am embarrassed that some groups ride the same brand of bike as me, and some Harley guys are pathetic when it comes to brand loyalty. There are places in the world where not riding a Harley is considered unpatriotic and anti-Japanese sentiment is alive and thriving.

Over the years, I have heard things from Harley riders that leave me speechless. They usually centre around how drunk and wasted the subject was the night before, but my favourite, at a well-known hangout in Washington state, was a drunken argument between an itinerant tattoo artist who had temporarily set up shop and one of his customers. The – er – discussion revolved around the correct spelling of the word "softail" and I thought knives would be drawn at any moment. Think about it: a tattoo artist who can't spell.

Not that Harley-haters are any better-behaved. In some circles, riding a Harley translates into not being a "serious" rider – a poser who craves attention and pretends to be what he isn't. Nine times out of 10, the Harley-hater complains about the loud exhaust, which, of course, is an environmental issue, and is not exclusive to any particular brand of motorcycle. Lots of non-Harleys have loud exhaust.

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But that doesn't matter. To a sport bike rider, Harley-Davidson equals obnoxious behaviour and, if you're not riding a bike that can accelerate from 0 to 100 km/h in three seconds and don't lean your bike over through the turns until the foot-pegs scrape, you're not much of a man and should probably get a scooter. You haven't experienced true elitism and snobbery until you've been around Ducati riders, for example, and if there's a European equivalent to the mindset of Harley enthusiasts, it's found in Italian riders. Interestingly, both Ducati and Harley-Davidson have less than enviable quality-control records.

As for me, I take my cue from Ringo Starr. When the Beatles first arrived in North America in 1964, the mods versus rockers thing was going full-bore in Jolly Olde. What, a reporter asked Ringo, was he? A mod or a rocker? "Neither," he replied without missing a beat. "I'm a mocker."

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