Wednesday, August 3, 2011

BMW v. Harley - Divergent Biker Cultures

There are some things Americans aren't as good at. We all have our strengths and weaknesses. It's okay to fess up and admit them.

I know that some people like Harley Davidson. In fact, it's a bit like the following Mac computers has - their fans are religious. And of course, I'm a heretic when it comes to both brands, because I hate them. I hate Harleys. They're loud, obnoxious, covered in chrome and just scream "American" to me, in the worst possible way.

Don't get me wrong, they're powerful bikes. They have a legacy, and people congregate around them. Those things are good and cool and fine - for someone else. But, as my husband tells me, the things about the bike that are so flashy and obnoxious to me, are completely superfluous to how the bike runs. He also likes to make jokes about their engineering... but I don't know anything about that. I just know what he doesn't joke about - BMWs.

BMWs are everything that Harleys are not. They aren't flashy. They don't have anything on the bike without purpose - everything about how the bike is designed is deliberate from the handle bars and seat to the last tiny bolt. Half of their models can be used both on and off-road. The modifications available for the bikes are about increasing their comfort and utilitarianism, not their appearance. And of course, they're German. They embody German engineering in a two-wheeled vehicle. And I like and respect them a lot - and I mean a lot.

As you would expect the owners of each set of bikes are very different. The culture surrounding the bikes is different because they do different things. Last night I got a chance to sit in on a BMW owners meeting. The attendees were relaxed, generally middle aged and older. They wore comfortable clothing, but there were a few button shirts in the group. There were a lot of pairs of trail-sandals and Tevas in the room. Their conversations were about camping, sailing, kayaking, and off-roading on their GS models. But they also weren't shy about owning other brands of vehicles. You got the feeling they would be comfortable in just about any place or situation. There was no peacocking - just love for the outdoors and riding. It felt like a good safe space.

This is in direct contradiction to the Harley owners meetings I've been to - there everyone was talking at once, and loudly (with such loud pipes, you lose your hearing early), and of course there is always excessive amounts of black leather. Often times it feels like Harley riders are awkward, or wouldn't be comfortable in say, an art gallery or seeing a string quartet. They tend towards tattoo parlors, country concerts, and bars. And of course, mentioning owning another brand of bike is some kind of sacrilege - if you do mention it, you should do so in an apologetic tone unless its something Harley doesn't make. Then it's okay - like an ATV or something.

These differences are interesting because despite what most people think, Harleys and BMWs are in the same price range. Frankly, they're both expensive. The poor kids on the block are more likely to own a Suzuki or a Honda than either a Harley or a BMW motorcycle. That being said, the culture of the people is radically different because the bikes are radically different. So despite the fact that each group has to have the income to support their motorcycle habit, money doesn't necessarily imply preference or culture.

I strongly doubt my husband would ever purchase a Harley. He would much rather have that elegant German engineering that he can use in most situations with every part present for a purpose. And after sitting in on a BMW owners meeting, he fits there more than he does with any motorcycle group I've ever seen. And that's saying something, because he's a rare breed. But then again, so are BMW riders.

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