Welcome to 2018, when a U.S. president takes to Twitter to threaten a 115-year-old American company that it will be “taxed like never before!” in retaliation for the company’s decision to move some production to Europe. The decision came after the European Union imposed a 31 percent tariff on imported motorcycles in response to the president’s new unilateral tariffs on imported steel and aluminum.
The company is Harley-Davidson, founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903 and still headquartered there.
A 1912 ad for Harley-Davidson, modestly touting “the motorcycle that is not uncomfortable.”
The meaning of the Harley-Davidson name is right there on the surface: The company was founded by William S. Harley and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson back when naming companies after yourself was standard operating procedure. But there’s plenty of other Harley-Davidson naming lore that makes for good reading.
Harley-Davidson’s current advertising slogan, “All for Freedom, Freedom for All,” introduced in 2017, acquired a little extra nuance this week.
Start with the fond and familiar nickname for H-D motorcycles: hog. There are at least two credible stories about its origin, both of which involve actual porkers. Here’s how Russ Brown, motorcycle attorneys – toll-free number 1-800-4-BIKERS — tells it:
In the 1920s there was an official Harley Davidson company racing team known as the “Wrecking Crew”. This racing team dominated the dirt track races that they entered and were known for their winning combination. For fun, the team decided to designate a small mascot as part of their team—a pig. Whenever they won a race, they would pick up the pig, place him on the gas tank, and take their victory lap. It didn’t take long for racing fans and news media to catch on and begin calling them the “Harley Hogs”. Over time, the nickname “Harley Hogs” changed into simply “hogs” and became a popular slang term for the beloved Harley Davidson motorcycle.
Then there’s this version, told by the Coca-Cola Company – yes, that Coca-Cola Company – that begins with a 200-mile road race on Labor Day weekend, 1919:
That race was won by the colorful Ray Weishaar at a blistering average speed of 71 miles per hour, a new record. In the hours leading up to the race, Weishaar adopted a piglet from a local farmer and named him Johnny. Johnny was immediately named the team’s mascot. Among the many photos taken after Weishaar’s victory was the image of Weishaar jokingly offering Johnny a celebratory sip of Coke from the famous Coca-Cola bottle, which was just a few years old at the time.
The photograph has become one of the most iconic in Harley-Davidson history. In fact, the use of the word “hog” as it relates to H-D, started in this era. A motorcycle journalist began to remark on team H-D “hogging” all the race track records. Some say another journalist began calling the racers “The Harley Hogs” after the Weishaar photo. In later years, “hog” became a more common slang term for the motorcycle, as in “Nice hog, man.”
Cross-marketing! Photo via Harley-Davidson archives.
In 1983, Harley-Davidson established the Harley Owners’ Group (HOG). And on August 15, 2006, the company had its New York Stock Exchange ticker symbol changed from HDI to HOG.
The Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, which opened in 2008, is open 365 days a year. I haven’t been able to verify whether the exhibits include a couple of notable Harley-Davidson flops: a line of branded perfumes and colognes with names like “Hot Road” and “Cool Spirit” which debuted in 1996 and disappeared several years later; and a Harley-Davidson cake-decorating kit, which was named “worst brand extension of the year” for 2005 by brand agency Tipping Sprung (now Tipping Gardner). I can tell you, however, that H-D perfume has been enshrined in the Museum of Failure, because I’ve seen it there with my own eyes.
You’ll be pleased to know that the spirit of brand extension is not dead at Harley-Davidson. The company licenses its name for men’s and women’s footwear, and not only the type usually categorized as “shit-kicking.”
Harley-Davidson has cycled through many advertising slogans over the years, including “The Sport of a Thousand Joys,” “Here’s the Mount for a He-Man,” and, from World War II, “I Miss My Harley-Davidson Like My Right Arm Was Gone.” My personal favorite, though, appeared briefly in 2009 in response to a New York Times article that pointed out that the Harley market was mostly “graying baby boomers, whose savings, in many cases, have gone up in smoke in the market downturn.” Harley’s retort was graphic in every sense: “Screw It. Let’s Ride.”
Update, 7:10 a.m.: Outlaw Bikers Stick with Harley Despite Foreign Production (via RideApart).