By: Lukas Kaiser
We got a chance to sit down with Harley’s newest bikes and while they’re not as sexy as those Lexus concept cars we showed you recently, we think you might really dig what Harley Davidson has in store. You’re probably thinking, Really? Harley? But, hear us out.
What’s the image you get in your head when you hear the word "Harley?" Huge bike, right? Lots of leather. Shiny chrome, probably. A fat, old guy dressed in all denim in the driver’s seat.
Harley Davidson, the 107-year-old Milwaukee-based motorcycle company, knows what you’re thinking. They’ve seen the writing on the wall — people in their 20s aren’t interested in the same company that outfitted their fat uncle with a double-wide "motorcycle."
Enter the Dark Custom line. Launched in 2008 and overseen by Willie G. Davidson, the grandson of founder Arthur Davidson, Dark Custom is Harley’s splinter line of motorcycles intended for a younger, hipper audience.
At a recent press event showing off new bikes, a video screen was showing footage of 20-somethings holding surfboards and skateboards while roaming around scenic spots in New York City and LA. The aspirational footage was cheesy and a bit ham-handed but Harley’s up front about what they want to do with the Dark Custom line.
"[This is a] bike for the times," Willie G. Davidson said at the very same press event. Talk is talk and videos are videos. It’s nice stuff but ultimately the company must rest on its products. So, how are the Dark Custom bikes? And how is the newest entry into the line, the FortyEight?
They’re pretty damned cool. Rather than attempt to grab onto the Honda so-called "crotch rocket" market or sporty motocross bikes, Harley turned inward, grabbed some classic designs from their past and updated them with the modern accouterments and incredible pitch-black finishes.
The FortyEight, for example, is built around the design of the classic motorcycle tank the company devised in 1948. The bike is slim and dark and harkens up images of James Dean rather than Uncle Earl.
Ray Drea, the senior director of styling for Harley, explained that motorcycles in general gain around a quarter of an inch per new bike. That explains why the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the US is putting out such large bikes. By paring back the bike to its simplest elements (a motor, two wheels and a few other things), the bike gets smaller, sexier and, as an added bonus, gets better gas mileage.
When companies attempt to move their customer base to some invisible, so-called "youth market," it often reeks of cynicism and bald consumerism (tobacco companies putting out candy cigarettes is the classic example).
Harley’s Dark Custom line is different. The company is drawing on its rich design history, its market dominance and a niche audience who have much in common with the hipsters of the 1950s and 60s who associated freedom and cool with motorcycles. And that’s pretty cool.