'Rich Urban Bikers' boost company's sales


October 13, 1991|By Leslie Berkman | Leslie Berkman,Los Angeles Times

The veteran bikers, wearing their trademark black leather and sporting full beards, sipped beer while their brightly chromed Harley-Davidsons, the heavyweight champs of motorcycles, sat nearby.

Suddenly a new group of bikers roared onto the scene, but this crew was different.

These were the Rich Urban Bikers -- Rubs or Rubbys as they are derisively known by the more rough-hewn Harley devotees -- a group that is likely to know more about stocks and financial planning than V-twin engines.

They are people such as Frank Chirico, co-owner of a chain of California beauty salons who rode atop a $13,000 Harley that he spent another $8,000 customizing.

Wearing a white French antique jacket with red lining, Mr. Chirico opened his coat and pulled a cellular phone from the inside pocket -- the perfect tool, he said, for the biker who just happens to want to make brunch reservations.

Mr. Chirico belongs to the fastest growing segment of Harley-Davidson bikers: business owners and professionals in their mid-30s and older who spend their weekends wheeling on motorcycles that are more often associated with a different breed of rider.

They are certainly a different sort from the blue-collar workers with mechanical aptitude who once dominated the sport, or the outlaw Harley bikers glorified by Hollywood in such movies as "The Wild One" and "Easy Rider."

And perhaps to no one's surprise, the new bikers are not warmly welcomed by many of the longtime Harley riders who view them as just so many spoiled dilettantes who are soiling the rich tradition of their beloved road machines. Designer jeans, French jackets and cellular phones just don't belong on Harleys, they say.

But the new upper crust of Harley bikers is also credited with pumping much-needed new money into the corporation that makes the celebrated motorcycles.

The management of Harley-Davidson Inc. acquired the Milwaukee company in 1981 in a highly leveraged buyout. At the time, a combination of national recession, product-quality problems and competition from Japanese motorcycle-makers had nearly forced the company to shut down.

But Harley-Davidson's financial picture brightened in the mid-'80s, after the company introduced a new engine that was lighter in weight and more dependable than previous models.

Ray Malzo, owner of a Harley dealership, said the greater dependability of the newer models attracted a more professional, albeit less mechanically gifted, clientele. Moreover, he said the bike recently has benefited from a wave of 1950s nostalgia with the baby-boom generation.

Mr. Malzo said that the typical new buyer of a Harley, ranging in price from $4,359 to $14,000 -- has an annual income "pushing $80,000 on the average." More women also are getting into the sport, giving up the passenger seat to take up riding.

Largely because of the new clientele, Harley sales are booming. The company now controls 60 percent of the national market for heavyweight motorcycles, up from 24 percent a decade ago.

For the more fashion-conscious biker, Harley-Davidson dealers offer flashier-colored motorcycles and a much broader array of clothing with the Harley-Davidson logo, from lambskin jackets to jewelry. There are even paste-on tattoos for the man, or woman, who dresses for success during the week but wants to take on a rougher image on the weekend.

Nonetheless, many people still find Harley bikers intimidating, especially when a large swarm of them pulls into a restaurant or gasoline station, said Ken Caplan, a financial planner who often rides with such groups.

Mr. Caplan, a short man with thick glasses who hardly fits the traditional Harley biker image, recalled with amusement an incident last year when he was on a group ride to raise funds for the Muscular Dystrophy Association.

He said a group of about 7,500 bikers was nearing a beach in California when some of them turned into a gas station. He said a man who was filling the tank of his BMW nervously asked what was going on, after his wife inside the car had pushed down the door locks.

Mr. Caplan explained that the motorcyclists were raising money to fight muscular dystrophy and hoped to break last year's record of $550,000.

He must have been favorably impressed, Mr. Caplan said, because "he promised a donation and said that in the future, if he could get approval from his wife, he would buy a Harley."

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