The reason that the Harley-Davidson motorcycle company has had so much success over its 105 years is that the owners are riders, according to Willie G. Davidson, vice president and chief styling officer of the company.
"We're riders, that's why it works," he said in a recent telephone interview.
Because he's a long-time rider, Davidson is bound to have some great road stories, right? He declined to reveal the goofiest thing he'd ever done on a motorcycle.
"I never tell what I did on the road," he said and laughed.
Then, lapsing into his safe-rider spiel, Davidson said, "You learn and your skills develop. You feel one on one with your bike. I rode a lot of cross-country stuff years ago. It's a cool thing to do. You build your enthusiasm for the sport every time you do it."
Staying true to the history of the venerated motorcycle company has also contributed to Harley-Davidson's success, he said.
To keep things fresh, while also honoring the company's history, takes "many different variations on a theme," Davidson said.
Willie G. is the son of former Harley-Davidson president William H. Davidson and the grandson of one of the original founders, William A. Davidson. He was also instrumental in the revival of the brand when it was bought back from AMF in 1981. Willie G.'s son, William J. Davidson, is the fourth generation involved in the company. William J., or Bill, is director of motorcycle product development.
Bill did recount the tale of when he was run over during a motocross competition when he was younger.
"But because I had the right gear on, I was able to get up and go on … a little slower," he said. "You need to respect the motorcycle, because you can get yourself in trouble if you don't."
Harley-Davidson has seen a resurgence in business as the affluent baby boomer generation has bought up the big cycles and joined the Harley Owners Group (H.O.G) in record numbers.
"We're certainly riding the baby boomer wave," William J. said.
Once that wave crests, however, will Harley's sales take a downturn?
Bill said he doesn't think so. He said the company is attracting enough young, new and women riders to the industry to keep the company clicking along. In addition, the company has beefed up sales overseas where owning one of the rumbling, American-made machines is definitely a status symbol.
Willie G., who many consider the patriarch of motorcycling, will be attending this year's H.O.G. rally in Billings. He said he'll be searching out the backroads while riding in Montana's big sky country.
"There's no better way to see" the state than on a motorcycle, he said.