Book Review — The Harley-Davidson Story: Tales from the Archives

The Harley-Davidson Story: Tales from the Archives by Aaron Frank is a history of Harley-Davidson inspired by the companies museum. Frank is a Milwaukee-based writer and former staffer at Motorcyclist magazine. He is known for his insightful and clear writing. He has ridden–and written about–everything from 200-horsepower superbikes to 200-plus-mph land-speed racers to 12-foot-long choppers to century-old antique bikes.

Harley-Davidson is a company built on mystique, legend, and lore. It is the machine of choice for motorcycle clubs, outlaws, and Hollywood badasses. It is a company that went from shops in the wrong part of town to modern designed retail establishments. South East Harley-Davidson used to be in my neighborhood in Cleveland. Everything in the area let you know that this is where bikers lived, and I felt pretty cool having them as a customer on my paper route. The shop has since moved to the suburbs and into a neighborhood, unlike its previous one. In Texas, I worked the parts counter and later became a mechanic at the local shop that was transitioning to its new image. It was a great experience and helped pay my way through grad school.

Frank covers quite a bit of ground from the search for the mythical serial number 1 Harley through Toppers, rockets (yes rockets), and the latest Serengeti and Live Wire models. There is the cycling culture that grew from the Wrecking Crew, early women riders, and 1%ers. Harley-Davidson is about evolution and dealer networks. The slow and progressive change in engines — Flathead, Knucklehead, Panhead, Shovelhead, and Evolution engines is being met by fast-changing designs of foreign motorcycle companies. Harley evolves only when it needs to and not just to create new models. The modern-day “tractor engine” jokes, however, do go against the racing history of the company.

The Harley-Davidson Story is different than most histories because it is based on the company’s own records and museum.   Richly illustrated with old photographs and relics of the company’s past this book brings the history alive. Harley Davidson itself is also responsible for the detailed documentation of its own history by keeping complete bikes as well as notebooks, dealer and Enthusiast magazines, and its lifestyle promotions.  The Motor Company has a century of success and is a brand known around the world.  It is also a brand that people want to be associated with even if one does not ride motorcycles.  T-Shirts, bumper stickers, jackets, and other branded paraphernalia remain in high demand.  It is not only consumers but also manufacturers that desire part of the image.  All four major Japanese brands sell V-Twin cruisers made to mimic Harley-Davidson.

Today, Harley-Davidson faces a new challenge.  The middle age professional customers of the 1990s are dwindling.  The Millennial crowd is not interested in tradition, or perhaps it is more attracted to new and different motorcycles than traditional American bikes.   The last two chapters cover vehicles that are not even on the market yet.  The Harley-Davidson Story is not only the history of the brand but also the doorstep to its next evolution.

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