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When It Comes to Bikers and Age, Harley Matters

November 01, 2000|KEVIN COWHERD | BALTIMORE SUN

I am standing in front of John King's tidy brick rancher in Parkville, Md., when he rolls up on his 2000 Harley-Davidson twin-cam Classic, and the sight just about takes my breath away.

It is a muggy, late-summer evening and the last golden rays of the sun dance off the flawless black paint job and light up the polished chrome as King revs the engine lightly, then lets it idle with that distinctive, throbbing blob-blob-blob sound.

I have never been on a hog in my life, but at this moment, I want one. Bad.

I want an endless stretch of open road and blue skies. I want to roll into a dusty prairie town and have the rubes on the sidewalk gawk with envy, and then I want to roar off at dawn with the mayor's curvy young wife behind me, her arms around my waist, squealing with delight as we race toward the sun-streaked horizon.

By all accounts, I am not alone in my lust for these machines. This is a Golden Age for Harley-Davidson, the legendary giant of U.S. motorcycle manufacturing. After lean years in the '70s and early '80s, the Milwaukee-based company is one of the financial success stories of the last decade.

Harley now owns 51% of the U.S. motorcycle market. Total sales this year are expected to be well over $1 billion. Harley dealerships are thriving.

But there is another statistic associated with these legendary bikes that is startling, all the more so if you don't ride: The average age of a Harley owner these days is 44. In fact, more than eight out of 10 Harley owners are over 35; almost one in five is 55 or older.

Maybe you still have this image of Harley riders: rebels on raked-out choppers of the type Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper rode in "Easy Rider," or brawling Hells Angels, or moody iconoclasts who take to the open road to get away from dead-end jobs and loveless marriages.

But now your average Harley rider is the guy who leaps off his hog and opens a laptop to check on his 401(k), or the woman who picks up her cell phone to find out how the kids are doing at college, or the senior who quietly slips an AARP card out of his wallet when checking into a motel, hoping for the discount.

Take John King, a man who could be Exhibit A for the aging of the Harley ridership. King, 60, has tattoos and long, thinning hair and a bushy beard that looks like shredded burlap. He is, in every sense of the word, a real biker. The word is, too, that he's a former Hells Angel, which he denies, although with something less than ringing conviction.

These days, King works for the Johns Hopkins University grounds department, a tame job for a biker who once rode with outlaws. But he's been riding since 1954, gone through 50 or 60 Harleys, even owned his own motorcycle shop.

He still rides roughly 25,000 miles a year, and his house is a virtual shrine to Harley-Davidson and the biker lifestyle.

"Yeah, a lot of [Harley] riders are older these days," he says wistfully. "But I'm not about to stop riding. I just hope I can make it 'til I'm 85 or so. Until I set on the porch and die."

In the midst of this conversation, King's girlfriend asks if I'd like to see his little dog ride too. The dog's name is Sparkplug, a wire-haired Jack Russell terrier. On the bike, he sits behind King, strapped in like an astronaut in a Mercury space capsule.

You have not lived until you've seen a hard-core biker on his big ol' hog with his little dog behind him, the two of them racing along.

Near the entrance of the Harley-Davidson Store, gleaming hogs and Buell sport bikes (also made by Harley) stand in long, even rows. Not far away are huge displays of helmets, boots, leather jackets, T-shirts and custom accessories.

But during a tour of the cavernous store, Jim Foster, the genial 55-year-old owner, steers me away from the hard-core stuff to an area devoted to something completely different: Harley kiddie apparel.

Ten years ago, the average age of a Harley owner was 34. Now, as Harley riders get older, they're having kids, and their kids are having kids too. Somewhere in this generational chain, Harley figures, is the potential to snag new customers. Hence, we are now staring at rack after rack of Harley baby clothes, Harley "onesies," Harley jammies, Harley toddler overalls, Harley kiddie leather jackets. It's like a Baby Gap for biker kids.

"We've got a lot of [customers] . . . baby boomers, who say: 'My kids are pretty much raised, and I always wanted to do this as a kid. I'm more mature today than I was at 20. [Riding] looks like something that's fun, and now I've got a chance to do it.' "

On the phone from Harley corporate headquarters, Joe Hice, director of corporate communication, offers one simple reason Harley owners are older these days: "Because the bikes are so expensive."

Generally, older people have more disposable income. And you need disposable income to afford motorcycles that can cost up to $20,000, before customizing. Still, 17% of owners are 35 or younger, which means the company has made some inroads into a younger demographic.

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