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Harley-Davidson celebrates 100 years | Events

This year, Harley-Davidson celebrates a century Down Under. Matt ‘too young for a cruiser’ O’Connell rolled on down to the party, and came back a convert

If there was ever a brand synonymous with motorcycling, it’s got to be Harley-Davidson. That bar-and-shield logo has been ingrained in popular culture for as long as most of us can remember. But not so many people realise just how far back Harley-Davidson’s legacy stretches back here in Australia.

Turns out the first Harley dealership opened Down Under in 1917. Think about that. Think about all the Australian companies you know of lucky enough to have made a century.

Not many can claim to be older. Outside of the big banks there’s Wesfarmers, David Jones, AGL and Myer to name a few. Now there is a new name on that list: Morgan and Wacker.

In 1917, when Harley-Davidson was just 14 years old, it decided to open its doors in Australia through the Morgan and Wacker dealership. Now it’s the oldest Harley-Davidson dealership outside of the United States. It’s quite an achievement, and one that would not be possible without the constant innovation from the Milwaukee brand itself.

Of course with that sort of achievement comes celebration, and AMCN was invited to the party.

Let the games begin

The main event was a group ride down the east coast of Australia, starting where it all began, at Morgan and Wacker in Brisbane, and continuing almost 2500km to Melbourne. A couple of journos were invited to ride along, sampling bikes from the vast H-D touring range.

Things really kicked off on the Friday night at Morgan and Wacker HQ in Brisbane, with a massive crowd of H-D fans from the river city and beyond. It was here, I’ll admit, the passion really started to take hold. And if the Friday night was impressive, the next morning was incredible. Hundreds of Harley-Davidson devotees lined up, ready for the ride, and their enthusiasm was contagious. It was like going to a church but with chrome, rubber and rock bands.

Some of you reading this will be familiar with the way everyone claps and cheers when you buy a computer at an Apple store … I’m going to be kind to Apple here and say it doesn’t feel 100 per cent genuine, but I still kinda buy into that ‘special’ feeling. With Harley Davidson, the feel-good vibes and passion for the brand are authentic, and this turnout was proof. It was a mighty show of thumping twin-cylinder horsepower as the armada rumbled out of Morgan and Wacker and headed south through Brisbane’s Clem Jones tunnel.

I don’t consider myself a cruiser person, but there’s something about riding in such a huge group of big V-twins that makes it an undeniably powerful experience. When we first turned up, the Harley-Davidson guys predicted the journos who came along for the ride would be Harley converts in a day and a half. Although I wasn’t against the idea, I thought a timeframe of around 10 years was more realistic. But I’ll admit it – they got me. And it wasn’t just the history, hospitality or the sincerity of the fans and H-D staff alike that won me over.

I can sum up the clincher in two words: Milwaukee Eight.

The ride

If you are going to do 921km of highway riding in two and half days, it may as well be on something comfortable! All of the H-D finery on hand was powered by the Milwaukee Eight engine.

I spent most of my time on the Street Glide, and from the first twist of the throttle, I was sold. You can stage all the birthday parties in the world, but without awesome machinery it doesn’t mean much. (Actually, I lie, it means a lot, but bear with me.)

I hadn’t ridden a Harley in a few years and my experience had been limited to a customised Fat Boy Lo and the 883 Iron. The current touring range is absolutely nothing like those.

The Street Glide is snappy and responsive, and the torque and exhaust note from the Milwaukee Eight leaves an instant positive impression. For a classic type of heavyweight cruiser, I expected old-school performance. Nope. Power comes on smooth and strong throughout the rev range, with a nice kick down low. And this bike was standard. The engine feels refined and modern, but still with plenty of the character I remembered from my time with the Fat Boy.

And for a brand that is so staunchly traditional, H-D is beginning to embrace technology. There’s a ride-by-wire throttle with a natural feel, and I liked the way you could twist the throttle back past the stop to cancel cruise control.

I was also pleasantly surprised by the handling. The weight bias was neutral and I felt like I could tip into corners at will and with confidence. Suspension was dialled just right for me, handling the Pacific Highway bumps and providing stability in corners.

With the power and handling getting a tick in the box it was time to focus on the finer touches. It was the first time I’d ridden a bike with a stereo, and blasting up the highway with my favourite tunes was a cool experience, all being streamed via Bluetooth from my iPhone.

The comfy seat made easy work of the distances – even though we didn’t do any brutal stints – and I felt fresh at every stop. Luggage-wise, the hard panniers have enough room for a fun weekend away without hassle. The shape of the fairings at the front? Sometimes I loved them, and sometimes at different angles I didn’t, it’s just a style choice. All up, the Street Glide – along with its Milwaukee Eight siblings – are very comprehensive tourers.

It might not be tomorrow or next week, but the day will come when I own a cruiser. And with the quality of machinery and passion around the brand, Harley-Davidson has well and truly staked its claim. Happy Birthday H-D.   

Moments in time

1936 Knucklehead

With a 1000cc displacement, the Knucklehead engine was the first big overhead valve engine of its era. It got its name from the resemblance of the rocker box ends to the knuckles of a fist! The Knucklehead produced a claimed 27kW, and dealt with heat problems better than the side-valve engine it replaced.

1957 Sportster

Designated XL, the ’57 Ironhead produced a claimed 30kW from a 900cc overhead valve engine. Weighing 225kg and with an estimated top speed of 160km/h, the Sportster was designed to compete with the faster European models of the time and celebrates its 60th anniversary this year.

1984 FXST Softail

The very first Softail was released with the brand-new Evolution Engine and ‘hidden’ rear suspension. This came after a dark period for Harley – from 1969 to 1981, AMF controlled the company and quality plummetted. H-D stalwart Willie G. Davidson helped buy back the company, and return it to its roots.

2001 V-Rod

Jointly developed and designed by Porsche, the Revolution-powered V-Rod featured EFI, overhead cams and liquid cooling, and produced a claimed 86kW. It marked a new direction for H-D, with Willie G. saying at the time: “The V-Rod is an extension of our air-cooled V-twin heritage.”