Is the Motorcycle a Leisure Product or an Identity Marker?

When Japanese motorcycles entered the US market around 1960, they were small—ranging from 50 to 305cc—and posed no threat to established brands like Harley-Davidson, Triumph, BSA, and Norton. BMW was present in the US but mainly owned by university teaching assistants who brought them back from Europe.

Brian Wilson and Mike Love captured this sentiment in their 1964 song “Little Honda” with the lyrics, “It’s not a big motorcycle/Just a groovy little motorbike.” These small, fun, and non-threatening bikes were a stark contrast to the larger, louder, and more intimidating motorcycles of the time, which often faced parental disapproval. They were essentially toys for adults.

Grey Advertising’s 1962 campaign, “You meet the nicest people on a Honda,” directly challenged the American mainstream prejudice against motorcycles and the so-called “antisocial tendencies” of their riders.

Motorcycle sales in the US doubled from 1965 to 1970 and doubled again from 1970 to 1975. A Harley-Davidson representative remarked, “Everything the Japanese have done has boosted our sales.”

I soon joined the racing scene, initially with crudely modified production bikes and eventually with Yamaha's affordable two-stroke production racers. This introduced me to a community not defined by racing clubs and arbitrary rules, but by a camaraderie where people helped each other. If you needed a part, someone would lend it to you. Friendships formed and endured, and the racing paddock felt like a family.

In the 1960s and '70s, when I rode Japanese street bikes, I would wave to other riders. Harley riders rarely returned the gesture, as acknowledging newcomers risked diminishing their status.

I was offended to see motorcycles labeled as “leisure products,” akin to hiking shoes or badminton sets. For me and many others, our real lives began on Friday nights of race weekends, as we loaded bikes, tools, and parts into vans and drove up to 500 miles to racetracks, stepping into a life of sharp intensity.

As Japanese manufacturers expanded in the US and British brands faltered, Harley-Davidson briefly considered direct competition. The "Nova" V-4 from the late 1970s was a notable attempt but looked more Japanese than Milwaukee. After regaining independence from AMF, Harley-Davidson worked with Minneapolis ad firm Carmichael Lynch, which linked Harley’s traditional look with American values and the image of the lone adventurer. Riding a Harley became synonymous with embodying American independence.

In contrast, Triumph’s attempts to modernize—such as the oil-in-frame twins and the stylized Trident/Rocket III triple—alienated its core fans. Triumph’s riders had a fixed image of what their bikes should be, and any deviation caused them to recoil.

Harley-Davidson’s successful branding even attracted promotional partnerships with Ford and GM, linking their motorcycles with the American lifestyle epitomized by pickup trucks.