Harley-Davidson wears most patriotic of colors: green

October 18, 2001|By Kevin Cowherd

YORK, Pa. - I was tired of hearing all this gloom and doom about the economy, about layoffs and production cuts and Chapter 11 proceedings, and so I did what has always proved helpful when faced with an onslaught of depressing news: I hit the road.

On a gorgeous fall morning, I drove up I-83 North to this gritty southern Pennsylvania city where the sprawling Harley-Davidson assembly plant is located.

Even though the economy is officially in the toilet, Harley, the legendary American motorcycle manufacturer, had just announced record sales and earnings for its third quarter: a 19.1 percent jump in sales and a 34 percent increase in profit.

After the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, Harley reported a brief slowdown in retail activity. But now, according to a company news release, sales had returned to their expected level, a result, no doubt, of the fact that demand for Harleys almost always exceeds supply.

So I came here to tour the plant and bask in the glow of a true financial success story, one that even Osama bin Laden and his fellow lunatics could not spoil.

Even though it was early on a weekday, I was not alone; the plant, which covers more than 200 acres, offers tours five days a week and annually draws 100,000 visitors.

Our tour guide was a tall, lanky man named Charlie Landis, who wore a black Harley sweatshirt and a headset, which made him look vaguely like a guy trying to sell you a magazine subscription over the phone.

It's very loud inside the Harley plant, Charlie explained, so all two dozen of us were given a tiny radio and earpiece so we could hear him over the roar of the assembly line and all the machinery.

More than 3,000 people work at the York plant, and just minutes into the tour we discovered this: a whole lot of 'em look like bikers.

The uniform of the day was a T-shirt and jeans, and there was a preponderance of long hair tied back in braids, do-rags, ZZ Top-beards, tattoos and piercings.

And that was just the women! Actually, quite a few women do work at the plant, although from their appearances, they seemed less likely to be jumping on a chopper once their shift was over.

Katy Moudy, a Harley communication manager who accompanied me on the tour, said the company estimates that over half its workers ride.

"If you come here on a nice day in spring or summer," she said, "the employee parking lot is filled with Harleys."

It only stands to reason, of course, that men and women who love motorcycles - and the freedom of the open road that Harley always touts with its famous motto "Live to ride, ride to live" - would want to work for the company.

As Moudy and I spoke, a huge, bearded guy in a black cut-off T-shirt, with arms the size of ham hocks and multiple earrings, walked past a rack of exhaust pipes.

"There's one guy who's not tooling around in a Volvo station wagon," I began to say to Moudy, but just then a fork lift rumbled by and that was the end of that conversation.

Our tour passed the area where gas tanks are fitted over the frames of the motorcycles, and the area where exhaust pipes are turned out, and the wheel-assembly area.

The factory, originally built during World War II as a defense plant, has been turning out Harleys since 1973 and is clean and modern-looking.

It devours 30 tons of steel a day for its products; the assembly of a motorcycle, from beginning to end, takes about two hours, Charlie said.

Soon, we came to my favorite part of the plant: the road-test area.

Here, the motorcycles are placed on rollers and "ridden" at speeds of 60 mph to 70 mph to detect any flaws in the finished product.

In the test bays, the workers rode perched on the frame of the bikes, rather than the seats. "So if anything has to be replaced, they don`t have to take the seats off," Charlie explained.

"The average price of these motorcycles," Charlie went on, as we looked at the Heritage Softails being tested, "is $15,000." At this point, though, I remembered that the shiny black 2002 Ultra Classic Electra Glide that we had passed in the lobby as the tour started, the most expensive bike in the new Harley lineup, was listed at $19,185.

Then Charlie noted that Harley employees get a 10 percent to 20 percent discount off the sale price of one motorcycle a year.

At this, the face of one of the men in our tour group lighted up.

"You want to work here now, right?" Charlie asked.

"No," the guy said, "I just want the discount."

On several occasions during the tour, we passed under large American flags draped on walls and across racks of machinery.

I wondered if these were flags that had been put up by plant workers since the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, to symbolize a renewed sense of patriotism.

But Moudy said no, these were not new flags. "They're very patriotic here normally," she told me later.

Harley-Davidson motorcycles have always been viewed as a uniquely American product, recognized all around the world for their distinctive design and craftsmanship.

"The workers are very proud of the products they turn out," Moudy said. And there was no doubt they were equally proud that Harley - the company that was born way back in 1903 in a 10-by-15-foot tool shed in Milwaukee - was not only surviving in these tumultuous times, but thriving.

An hour after we started, the tour was over and we spilled back into the bright sunshine and turned in our radios and earpieces.

A few people headed over to the gift shop, but I headed past the American flag near the entrance and out into the parking lot, feeling much better.

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