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Choppers Cool Again, Harleys Not

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Editor’s note: recently a friend of mine made a guest blog post on my site, Small Business Trends. It’s been one of our most popular posts and so I thought I would share it here. John Wyckoff, a motorcycle market expert, explains why Harley Davidson is no longer “cool” …and profiles the new kind of competition. And how reality TV is fueling the trend.

By John Wyckoff

The famed motorcycle designer, Arlen Ness and I were chatting at a trade show recently. Our subject was what was “cool.” Arlen reminded me that a few decades ago if you had a Harley-Davidson in your garage that alone made you cool. “Not any longer,” he told me. “Now Harley-Davidson is just another bike. They lost their ‘cool’.”

There are new players in the motorcycle “cool” market. Big Dog Motorcycles and American IronHorse are two of the biggest “cool” bike makers. Big Dog Motorcycles have produced over 10,000 bikes and American IronHorse a bit under that. The big question is what’s happening? Why the paradigm shifts?

Here’s what I see. First, the Alpha buyer, those leading edge buyers, got to have the coolest, baddest, biggest…. They don’t want a bike that looks like anyone else’s. They want to stand out in the crowd. Even in a crowd of fellow bikers. They’ve concluded you can’t do that on a stock Harley and even a custom Harley really doesn’t cut it.

An old friend of mine is responsible for most of the growth of American IronHorse. His name is Bob Kay, and he knows more about V-twin motorcycles and their owners than most of the folks at the Harley factory. His company makes bikes that “start where Harley leaves off.” Their engines are bigger, the rear tires wider, the paint unbelievably complex and graphic, with raked forks, polished alloy wheels and a mass of machined billet parts. The prices start where Harley-Davidson leaves off too.

When I visited Big Dog Motorcycles last year and photographed the bikes ready to be shipped to dealers I was impressed by the fact that of the hundreds staged in the shipping area there were NO TWO ALIKE. High tech abounds in both manufacturers. Electronics are state-of-the-art. Teams of artists and dedicated technicians create the one-off paintwork. Both these companies occupy the narrow, top of the pyramid of custom bikes.

Why all the interest? Bike build-offs and custom choppers shown on Discovery and Speed Channel on cable TV have attracted millions of viewers. They show the creation of one-off bikes while the viewer watches. They show the camaraderie and accessibility of the bikers and the creators. They make the viewer want to be a part of this unique world.

The bike shows are like reality TV, only … more real. What you don’t see are the prices. The bikes they produce are in the six-figure range and are more artwork than roadwork.

The “Chopper” is having a rebirth. Why? They’re cool. No, I’m not a chopper guy. I like creature comforts like a suspension system that works on both the front and rear of the bike, a seat that allows me to ride long distances and a riding position that doesn’t cause pain. I’m not alone. American IronHorse, Big Dog Motorcycles and other entrants like Viper, also make a limited number of very comfortable, very high quality high performance V-twin bikes.

From a marketing perspective these two companies (and soon several more) are like Ferrari and Lamborghini; high priced, high performance, attention getters. They too are in short supply. Big Dog Motorcycles and American IronHorse tell me they are sold out through the spring of 2005.

Is this concept new? No, it’s not. Baton Advertising Handbook published by Prentice-Hall back in 1950, talks about a success formula by dealing in the fringe area of the mass market with a unique product. That’s what these two companies do and why they are successful. By the way, this book remains my marketing bible.

For more trends insights like these, visit Small Business Trends.

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  • markus

    i saw american choppers last night and they were building a bike dedicated to dave manning. Is this his correct name? I was tring to find a website with more information about him and his art work, can you help me out with this, thanks!

  • Hmm, I’m not sure. There are a lot of Dave Manning’s around. One is mentioned on this site dedicated to motorcycle drag racing:


    Maybe someone there can help.



    I Love watching American Chopper. Even thought I don’t ride, the creativity that comes out of the OCC shop is phenomenal, and the interaction of the crew is really great as well.

  • Dave

    I seen this blog and had to check it out. Dudes, say what you want but HD birthed the cool in motorcycles. anyone who pays the price for those fast short trippers aren’t ever going to enjoy the coolness and comfort of riding your bike hundreds of miles a day and remembering every ride you’ve ridden. yeah your cool on your Big Dog riding uptown but it’s just for looks! HD was and still is the COOL in motorcycling, hands down!!!

  • bliffle

    Hardly Abelsons have never been cool, except among balding overweight retired dentists.

    I remember attending the famous Redwing Minnesota hillclimbs back in the 50s and watching Hardlys with tire chains go back and forth in the hill climbs setting times in minutes. Then one day a Brit on a Triumph T110 Bonneville showed up and shot straight up the hill in about 30 seconds, leaving spectators gaping.

    Please note that Marlon Brando and the other Wild Ones rode Triumphs.

    I needn’t recount the various humiliations administered to Hardlys by Vincent Black Phanthoms.

    And for smooth long distance high speed cruising the BMW R60 and it’s descendants is hard to beat.

    Hardly Ableson? Cool? Never. It’s all just advertising.