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The Sacred Cows of Motorcycling

The last Insider article presented evidence which I felt demonstrated that Honda had lost its appetite for risk. Clearly the subject resonated with many people, judging by the large number of personal messages I received and by the animated discussion in the comments section. However, the one big ruckus from all this debate came from a tangent to the main conversation. It had to do with pickup trucks.

This is a motorcycle magazine, so we’ll keep the focus there, but the degree to which some people reacted to factual, rational comments regarding pickup trucks revealed to me yet again how irrational human beings are when it comes to vehicles. In the past, I wrote a column in Cycle Canada about the demise of the cruiser, and despite using facts and figures to illustrate how that particular type of motorcycle was declining in the marketplace, I was vigorously attacked over the ensuing months.

I was called ignorant, elitist, biased, and many other things far less suitable for publishing on CMG. Most cited all manner of contrarian personal anecdotes and opinions to refute my argument, and usually ended by declaring them irrefutable. Many threatened to cancel subscriptions, one demanded an apology, another that I quit writing about motorcycles altogether.

I didn’t have to resort to any of those measures. In fact, many others came to my defence, repeating my arguments, emphasizing they were based on easily demonstrable facts like sales, production volumes and publicly reported manufacturer data. None of this mattered to the offended, of course, because they had made up their minds and decided I was not one of their tribe. Despite my article being entirely non-editorialized, they inferred from my piece that I was criticizing their brand of motorcycling, and by extension, them personally.

Birds of a feather flock together. According to scientists, people seek feelings of belonging
Birds of a feather flock together. According to scientists, people seek feelings of belonging (photo: Mondo/Madbastardrally.com)

We humans are (generally speaking) highly irrational, self-censoring, tribal creatures that like nothing more than to silo ourselves into predetermined boxes. Anthropology tells us this instinct of exclusion outside our immediate own is a mechanism that helped humans work towards common goals. Modern business theory tells us harnessing this power (they call it team-building) multiplies the competitiveness of an organization. Just ask Soichiro about Hondism.

Unfortunately, there is a downside. Too often this human characteristic can make people close-minded, and can lead to inflexibility with regards to rational decision making. For Ducati, the obsession with steel trellis frames limited market appeal and profit margins (frames made of upwards of 75 cut, profiled and welded tubes are very expensive to make). BMW’s half-century dogma surrounding standard handlebar switches is another example. To those within the tribes, they were vital to the identity and intrinsic to their motorcycle experience. To many of them it ended there, but for others these material technologies became more. They became symbols, religious idols that were sacred and irrevocable.

The most rationally designed Ducati of all time.  Most Ducatisti would like to disown it.
The most rationally designed Ducati of all time. Most Ducatisti would like to disown it.

Sacred cows exist in every industry, but few exhibit them as often and defend them with such ferocity as seen in the motorcycling world. Something as mundane as offering the Ducati Panigale in bright green would bring outrage to a significant number of both Ducatisti and Kawasaki enthusiasts. If that sounds silly, I will point out that a twenty-year-long dispute existed inside Yamaha corporate regarding the official colours of that brand. In Japan Yamaha was white and red to match the racing colours during the 1960’s and Giacomo Agostini years, while Yamaha Motors Europe insisted on plugging the yellow, black and white of the Kenny Roberts grand prix era. Yamaha Motors US quietly introduced cobalt blue in the early 80’s and just sort of ran with it.

The whole time I was a member of the Yamaha organization in the early 2000s, official colour status was challenged in an endless series of obscure debates, each with its own dogma, symbolic heroes and historic precedents. Otherwise rational business professionals used every conceivable argument at their disposal for leverage in the struggle, until ultimately the colour war ended. Blue won, I think, because it simply looked better on a street bike and no one outside of a dying number of old guys cared about old racers like Agostini or Roberts.

 

yamaha colourThere have been many sacred cows in motorcycling, and no discussion on the topic can avoid Harley-Davidson. Not so much a brand of manufactured vehicles as a cult, the Bar and Shield has been tattooed literally and figuratively into the American body politic. To most people, especially non-bikers, Harley-Davidson is just a premium motorcycle, a luxury getaway item that wealthy or committed hobbyists enjoy. To others, however, it is a lifestyle that carries with it an importance rivaling religion and the struggle for civilization over barbarism.  Like most zealots, many of these enthusiasts view criticism of their brand as an attack on them, a personal assault.

Since the gas crisis era of the 1970s, when traditional American manufacturing began to fade, Harley-Davidson was placed at the front of the line as a symbol of patriotism. At a time when “Japan bashing” was a thing, and merely owning an import motorcycle or car was deemed treason in some quarters, any magazine or individual that dared to state obvious shortcomings of Harley-Davidson products could be boycotted, or worse, see their Japanese motorcycle whacked with a Louisville Slugger.

"The sign clearly says 'Chevy parking only'!"  Two thugs smash a Toyota at a Steelworkers Union party in 1982.  (AP Photo)
“The sign clearly says ‘Chevy parking only’!” Two thugs smash a Toyota at a Steelworkers Union party in 1982. Being a Toyota, the victimized car was probably driven home afterwards without incident. (AP Photo)

Obviously, things have changed since those times. For example, Harley-Davidson is a wildly successful company with global sales ambitions, their quality is far better than it used to be, and they are breaking with their own dogma by manufacturing liquid-cooled motorcycles in Asia. To their credit, and, I am sure also at great expense, the company has gone out of their way to portray modern Harley-Davidson as an inclusive and welcoming brand. And yet, the attitude of hostile exclusion persists among radicalized followers.

A very large portion of Harley owners spend lavishly to externally advertise their brand fealty with jackets, boots, and other paraphernalia featuring the Bar and Shield logo. The iconography of their motorcycle tribe spills over into the rest of their lives, via giant Harley logos plastered on the back windows of pickup trucks or patches stitched onto baby strollers.  This is something one does not see with any other vehicle brand. As hard core as Ducati or KTM fans are, they don’t tattoo brand logos on their bodies. One could call a Ducatisita a fetishist, but dedicated Harley fans are cultists.

It takes dedication and deep personal courage to tattoo a corporate emblem, flaming skull, and a flag representing slavery on your body.
Nothing says inclusion and empathy like tattooing a for-profit corporate emblem, flaming skull, and a flag representing slavery on your body.

For a good portion of Harley enthusiasts, cruisers are the only “real” type of motorcycle out there, but any other brand of cruiser is viewed as inferior. That in and of itself is harmless, but Harley also remains the motorcycle brand of choice for violent, militant criminal gangs, who have adopted Harley-Davidson products into their lifestyle in such a deep way that for most North Americans, the term “biker” is a direct reference to a person with the look and attitude, if not the criminal element, of a Hell’s Angel gang member.

None of this is Harley-Davidson’s fault, nor obviously does it represent the vast majority of good-natured Harley-Davidson owners. But the point is that only this brand attracts those people, and as a result the brand has gotten the “bad-ass” reputation that many mild-mannered motorcyclists find attractive. Subsequently the attitude of exclusion continues to be fostered by many of its casual enthusiasts. To them, “you are either with us, or you’re against us,” which is unfortunate.

The man on the left is a neurosurgeon.  The man on the right also cracks heads.
The man on the left is a neurosurgeon. The man on the right also works on heads.

So what’s the point of all this? In the motorcycle industry, we sell dreams as much as we sell transportation. Certainly in North America and Europe this is true. Wealthy, middle class people want things because they want them, not because they need them. I certainly did not need a $12,000, 150 hp Yamaha FZ1 to commute to my old job at Bombardier. A scooter or a used Suzuki GS500 could have done that better. I just wanted one, and then justified it by telling myself that “I deserved it” for getting the job, and that it was a good compromise between my desire for a sport motorcycle and a touring bike for trips with my wife. In the end, we toured together exactly once, and I lost a lot of money on that bike. Was I happy? For a while …

All of this brings me to the same conclusion about motorcycling that has kept me so active and content in this industry for nearly twenty years. Motorcycles are much more than regular motor vehicles, and motorcyclists are by far the most interesting people I have ever known. Motorcycle people tend to be independent and share other common interests. Motorcycles are magic carpets capable of turning grown adults into babbling children and transporting us to places of beauty and excitement that most people rarely experience.

Zac and Michael debate how much embroidery is too much on their cafe racer project bike.
Zac and Michael debate how much embroidery is too much on their CMG café racer project bike. (Photo : Kalup.com)

To that end, ride what you want. Drive what you want. We live in a society that prides itself on freedom of choice and economic affluence. But it is important to remember that with that freedom comes the freedom of dissent, and that with an affluent society comes transparency of fact. Just because you don’t like what you hear or read, especially if it based on repeatable, demonstrable facts, does not make it a personal attack. As a motorcycle cultist myself (my Laverda is still better than any Norton or Ducati of the same vintage) I welcome rigorous challenges to my beliefs. Pour out a glass of your favourite beer, and tell me why I am wrong. As with motorcycling it’s the journey that’s the more enjoyable experience, not the destination.

17 thoughts on “The Sacred Cows of Motorcycling”

  1. I do not think that the “Cruiser” entered the motorcycle vocabular until the Japanese designers started copying the Harley Davidsons……So if the cruiser is dying, that does not mean that the softails and dynas are dying. The Ducatis, BMW’s, Lavardes and Moto Guzzis are like soccer,, best to leave them in Europe…

    1. “Almighty DR650”, the bike that hasn’t changed one iota in what 23-24 years except for paint and decals ?
      Surely you jest.
      “I don’t want to talk to you no more, you empty-headed animal food trough wiper!
      I fart in your general direction!
      Your mother was a hamster and your father smelt of elderberries!”

    2. Ah. The DR650. Bike of choice of wipe-swappers, debutantes and Amaretto drinkers.

      That bike may be a ‘Doctor’, but it is a gynecologist with too many strokes and not enough cylinders.

      Slow, lame and tedious is no way to go through life, son.

  2. You’re wrong cuz I say so, so see there, nyaah, pthtp!( how does one write a raspberry anyway?). Never let a little thing like facts cloud the issue.

  3. Article just ended with a throw away final paragraph. I thought it might have been going somewhere but NOPE.. just the same, nothing sentiment the author poo-poos in his Harley comments: that it’s cool. ride what you want. we are interesting (naval gazing) motorcycle people. what a bummer

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