1.5 Since 1960 to 1979
In 1960, America was booming and motorcycle sales were strong, but Harley-Davidson wasn’t getting as much of the action as it would have liked. Part of the reason was that the scooter market had taken off in the affluent 1950s. Period sales brochures showed scooters being piloted by well-scrubbed college kids in checked shirts. This market was fed by domestic producers and also by imported machines from Italy and Germany. It was unfortunate that when Harley-Davidson chose to enter the market in 1960 with its Topper scooter, the market had started to shrink.
Meanwhile, British-built 500 and 650cc twins continued to sell well, and the arrival of Honda (in 1959) and other Japanese manufacturers changed the market again. Their marketing campaigns, targeting people who hadn’t previously thought of buying a motorbike, expanded the market for small motorcycles. In addition, they knew that some of the people who started on a small bike would soon be looking for bigger machines.
Harley was able to offer a couple of small bikes of its own for, as well as the Topper, the company had developed a 165cc lightweight two-stroke based on the 125 which first appeared in 1948. Ultimately, however, it was not enough and Harley must have figured that it didn’t have the expertise or inclination to compete for small-bike sales without outside help. In 1960 it bought a 50 percent stake in the Italian company Aermacchi and instantly acquired a selection of small-capacity machines. Aermacchi’s bikes were re-badged as Harley-Davidsons to immediately increase the Harley range. Unfortunately, Harley dealers were even more suspicious of the Italian-built machines than they had been of the scooter, and sales were disappointing.
The arrival of high-spec Japanese imports had another consequence. People wondered why, if a Japanese 125cc machine could have an electric starter, an American 1200cc machine could not. Harley’s response was to fit an electric starter to its FL models from 1965 to create the Electra Glide, possibly the most famous motorcycle model ever built. It even had a film named after it, Electra Glide in Blue (1973).
From 1967, all Harley’s lightweights were Italian-built, leaving the Milwaukee factory to turn out Sportsters, Electra Glides, and the Servi-Car. But foreign competition was taking significant chunks out of Harley’s market share and production figures were in decline. Despite being offered on the stock market in 1965, extra cash was still needed and it was decided that Harley-Davidson needed a heavyweight partner. In January 1969, AMF (American Metal Foundries) bought a controlling stake in the company.
By this time, the customizing trend had switched from «Bobbers» to «Choppers.» Bikes were given raked frames and improbably long forks, wild paint jobs, and decorative chrome. These additions looked amazing, but often affected performance and handling. Harley-Davidson officially frowned on this trend, but the director of styling, William G. Davidson—the grandson of founder William A. Davidson—was watching it with interest. In 1971 he paid homage to the chopper craze—and to the look popularized by the film Easy Rider (1969)—with the FX1200 Super Glide. This new model combined the big¬twin engine and frame with the front end of a Sportster to create a new style of factory-built custom bike that is the basis of Harley’s success today. And since the FX, Harley-Davidson has realized the benefits of putting out a range of models all based on similar engines, but with different styles.
The 1970s was not a good decade for the motor industry in general and Harley in particular. The oil crisis and tooling problems resulting from the merger with AMF hit sales hard. This was despite the introduction of the XR750, which would go on to become the most successful dirt-track bike in the history of the sport. Harley bowed to the inevitable in 1978 and sold off its interest in Aermacchi, thereby ending its brief flirtation with lightweights. By 1979 Harley sales made up just four-percent of the US market and its bikes were seen as unreliable. As the company moved into the next decade it was in desperate need of better quality control and a broader range of products. Things had to improve before the bikes appealed to a wider range of buyers.