So you think you want a Harley.... (for your first motorcycle)

During my time as a Motorcycle Rider Education Instructor, and as a sales person, I have listened to thousands of new riders tell me what they were going to buy, wanted to buy or had just bought. More times than not, it was not a good unit to start off with. Their explanations and reasons for their choice overlooked the most fundamental issue. They were "New Riders."

I am no different than the next rider. What I ride must be something more than a functional "appliance." I want it to be something I enjoy looking at, riding and taking care of. I need a certain level of interest or passion for the machine. The interest can come from my interest in the history of the brand or model, or the technical features it possesses, or how well it accomplishes its intended function. After 34 years of riding, I feel I have the skills to pick and ride just about anything I wish. However, a new rider cannot and should not make that same claim.

Let me spend some time talking about what constitutes a "new rider." A new rider is not just the 16 year old that just passed their license test. I feel a general definition for a new rider would look something like this.

If you can't at least say: 

- You passed your license test
- Have 5 years of regular riding (2000+ miles per year) since passing your test
- Have completed a recognized training course such as the MSF's BRC or ERC
- You have logged miles in wet, dry, light and dark conditions
- You could pass the state test on the motorcycle you are currently riding

You should consider yourself a "new rider"

At first this may seem like a very high expectation to have of a rider. Being a "new rider" is not a bad thing. Simply put, it takes time to develop your skills. It takes dedication, determination, some chance taking and blatant honesty with yourself about your ability. (that's the tough one)

Another new phenomenon that has been recognized here and in the UK is the "Returning Rider or "Born Again" rider. This is the rider that, "rode when they were younger" and are now coming back to motorcycling. First off, good for them! The problem lies in their perception of their skills. I have seen some that made very good open-minded students. Many use their checkbook and a new motorcycle to try and confirm their skills. The problem is whatever skills they had, have regressed while motorcycles have progressed dramatically. I consider these riders to be "new riders." Aside from very young riders on sportbikes, I consider these riders to be in the highest risk category.

I came up with the title for this article as a result of my conversations with students in my motorcycle rider education classes. Many had either wanted, ordered or already purchased a Harley. Good for them. The problem was, it was mid-day on their first day of riding in the course and they were finding it wasn't as easy to ride as it looked. Meanwhile, I'm sure their monthly payments or deposits on their new umpteen thousand dollar, 600 pound Harley was weighing heavier on their mind.

As a sales person and sales manager in a dealership I saw similar ideological mistakes. 20 years olds with limited to no real riding experience would only consider the latest sportbikes. They would tie their decision to specifications separated by tenths of a second and 3 miles per hour of top speed. They would rattle countless specifications that they based their decision on while they explained that it was bike "X" or nothing. I would ask them, "Are you that good of a rider that tenths of a second really matter?" The reason I would asked this was not to insult them, but to get them to look at other more realistic and viable options that they could afford. Hopefully, this would enable them to learn to ride and live long enough to enjoy the experience of motorcycling. This is not an exaggeration. The year the Honda 600 hurricane was introduced we were allocated 4 units. It was one of the few units I did not have to negotiate price on. They saw it, they wanted it, they bought it. All four Hurricanes that were purchased fit the general description I just mentioned. 3 of the 4 units returned to our dealership within 30 days as a totaled or heavily damaged unit. Coincidence?

Lets return to the original question of buying a Harley for your first bike. It is not hard to see the attraction to the image. Marketers could never have developed an image that is so easily recognized and immediately associated with so many aspects of "Americana." That's all well and good. Remember, you're a new rider. That means you have skills you need to develop. The machine needs to work for you.

Reasons I hear from students and potentially interested persons as to why they HAVE to start out on a Harley-Davidson:

  1. It's the only real American made motorcycle
  2. It is the best motorcycle on the road
  3. All their friends ride them
  4. They are the oldest motorcycle company
  5. They are a good investment
  6. They don't want to ride "Jap Junk"
  7. They don't want to start on something small and lose a lot of money when they trade up.

To list a few......

My thoughts on each of these:

  1. Fact: It is not the only American made motorcycle. Their is a myth that Harley is the only American made motorcycle. To believe that, you would need to overlook the Honda of America plant in Marysville, Ohio and the Kawaski Plant in Nebraska to name a couple. Both are MANUFACTURING plants, not assembly plants. That means that Honda DOES NOT ship in boxes of parts and put them together here as part of some evil conspiracy. Simple fact, it makes good business sense to manufacture their motorcycles in the USA. They will be the first to tell you that the work force here is skilled, the U.S. suppliers and vendors produce excellent pieces. Take a good close look at a contemporary Harley-Davidson. It has quite a collection of foreign made parts. I don't have a problem with this, lets just keep it in perspective. Finally, manufacturers cannot just claim something is "Made in the USA." The FTC has specific criteria for what percentage of the parts must be made and sourced in the USA. Also there is a minimum percentage of assembly and manufacturing requirement. There have been years where a larger percentage of a Honda Goldwing was U.S. made and sourced than a Harley-Davidson.
  2. Lets be serious. Everyone wants to think their motorcycle is "The best." What does that mean? I would have to estimate that I have owned over 20 motorcycles and ridden a few hundred models and brands over the years. I wouldn't call any of them "the best." Yes, maybe they were best sportbike in a given year, or mid-size touring model, or trail bike at that moment. But each and everyone of them had room for improvement. So what would make a Harley-Davidson the best? Best should be defined as a motorcycle that suits YOU and your primary use for it. I think if you got right down to it, most of the people that were saying this to me felt it had the best "image." Sure, image is a part of it. Should it be the primary basis for the decision? I think not......
  3. So all your friends ride Harleys? This is easy. So what? If their not paying for it for you, it is a moot point and a free country.
  4. They are not the oldest motorcycle company. If they are, it would only be by a few months based on some quick research on my part. Are they the oldest original motorcycle manufacturer in the USA. Yes. Company history is not always a good reference point. Harley is a company who's product's success depends very heavily on nostalgia. That is all well and good, except it has also slowed and restricted their ability to innovate. Their customers are looking for a specific image and experience. If they vary too much and to quickly from this their long term customers can get a bit cranky. The introduction of the "Evolution" engine first stirred this sentiment up. One of my motorcycles is a BMW. They suffer from the same restrictive thinking to some degree. 
  5. A very select few motorcycles are a "good investment." These are usually vintage items that belong to marques that no longer exist. Time has established them as a good investment. There was a time in the early to mid 90's when there was some truth to this. It was much like the the investment surge the Dutch saw in the 1600s called "Tulipmania." It ended and those who over invested lost out. Production, for the most part, has caught up with demand. This always softens the price of a product. Additionally, a lazy economy causes non-essential items like a motorcycle to receive the domestic axe before other items. Unless you are very knowledgeable about the motorcycle industry. Do not buy a motorcycle as a serious investment. You'll end up unhappy.
  6. The "Jap Junk" theory is a typical defense mechanism. However, the Japanese don't make junk. I've watched firsthand what countless customers have done to their Japanese cars and motorcycles. I know what I've done to them! In spite of the neglect and abuse dished out to these well engineered units, they are hard to kill. I've seen them run out of oil, run with 2-stroke oil in the crankcase, ridden without air filters and revved off of the tachometer endlessly. For the most part, they always come back for more. I don't think too many Harley-Davidsons (or a BMW for that matter) would take the abuse the average Japanese motorcycle would take. As a new rider do you want durability and reliability? I would sure think so.
  7. "I don't want to start out small." I've heard this used by dealers and I really disagree with it on a couple of levels. First of all you are a new rider. You are going to be learning on this motorcycle. Yes, it will probably fall over a time or to and you will make mistakes on it. Additionally, how do you REALLY KNOW what you want in a motorcycle. What point of reference do you have? It took me several years to know. I now know very specifically what I want a motorcycle to do. The good news for the new rider is, "ignorance is bliss." Anything will be fun for awhile and that is what it should be. It should be something that is fun and not intimidating to ride. Rider Education students are quite surprised when they find out that most bikes used in training only weigh about 300 pounds. The weight for an 883 Harley-Davidson, which is the smallest V-twin they make, is about 500 pounds. Plus, you need to consider the balance of the bike. Where is the Center of Gravity (CoG)? Bikes will feel heavier or lighter based on this. The reality is that you will learn more about your skills, motorcycling and what you want from a bike. This will happen because you are not being overwhelmed with a 500 - 700 pound motorcycle. As a new rider you will "manage" a larger bike and not truly learn to ride it. Why tie up money on a hunch or the pursuit of an image? Ride and learn what you like and want, make some mistakes and then move on up. As for losing money. Most likely you will not sell it for what you paid for it. So what? You had use of it. You learned from it. What price is that worth? From my 10 years in dealerships and my 24 years as an Instructor I can tell you there are always people looking for a good small "starter" bike. There should be a demand for the bike when you sell it.

The bottom line is that this is YOUR decision. That means you reap the rewards for your decision and you endure the consequences. Make the decision with complete honesty to yourself.

Think of it this way. If you own a few bikes before you buy the bike of your dreams and all that happened was that you waited a little while and spent a little extra money then it was worth it. In the long run you probably save some money. Plus, you got to ride a few different bikes, became a better rider and you are still here to enjoy it.

Article by: Tom Burklow

2005