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The Competition Between Japanese Manufacturers And The Harley-Davidson Motorcycle

By H. Ong

The motorcycle is widely regarded as a symbol of the rebel, a representation of youth, and an icon of Americana. The first recognized motorcycle design was made by a pair of German engineers in 1885, in what was, essentially, a bicycle with an engine. While Japanese manufacturers like Suzuki dominate the motorcycle market globally, in America, the Harley-Davidson company has firm control over the market.

It was during the late eighties and early nineties that Japanese manufacturers such as Suzuki, Kawasaki, Honda, and Yamaha gained a foothold in the worldwide motorcycle market that they have never let go. They were designed and built with better performance, better handling, and better quality. It is no secret that their promotional campaigns during the early years also targeted the negative reputation of the Harley-riding bikers and the public fear of biker gangs. While such attacks ceased quickly, the tarnish it left in the reputation of the Harley has not been removed. That alone is speculated to be the cause of Japanese manufacturers holding such a strong presence, even with the American buying public. Also, by reputation, the Japanese machines were easier to maintain and the general public did not associate them with leather-clad degenerates, though the biker stereotype is drastically incorrect.

However, competition has not driven the main American manufacturer, Harley-Davidson, into the background. After taking time to formulate the proper strategy, the American manufacturer returned to take back its market share. The company did so not by attempting to match the more family-friendly reputation of a Japanese motorcycle, but by exploiting the appeal of their older designs. Marketing the re-worked designs as distinctly American machines, the company rapidly regained its former customer base. They increased their hold further by appealing to collectors, such as comedian Jay Leno, and making their machines easy to customize and re-tool. In fact, it is the customization market that has really allowed Harley-Davidson to stay so long in the game despite stiff competition from the likes of Kawasaki and Honda. There is a saying that goes to state that the rarest type of Harley one can find is one that is completely stock; that is, one that has not been modified in any way. Indeed, many Harley enthusiasts believe that the main weakness of Japanese bikes is that they are not as easily customizable as a Harley is.

Regardless of whether or not one believes the reputation of Harley biker gangs or enjoys being able to customize their personal motorcycle, these machines are here to stay. Production of both Japanese and American bikes have not slowed down and there are, statistically, more bike owners than automobile owners. That statistic holds especially true outside the US, where a bike is a more common means of private transportation for the average citizen than a car is. This embracing of the motorcycle is happening despite the higher accident rate for bikes than any other private land vehicle out there. It doesn't seem to matter what country one goes to; the youth of every culture seems to view these two-wheeled machines as symbols of teenage euphoria and thus, the adrenaline rush associated with a bike ride is, as they say, like nothing in this world.

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