What is a motorcycle?  Or better yet, what is a Harley Davidson Motorcycle?  I have experienced the emotional power of the HD brand through my father in law and family.

My father in law at the age of 60 was diagnosed with prostate cancer, an extremely scary time for any of us to be forced to begin the process of thinking about our own mortality.  When it came time for his surgery, the family made a pilgrimage to Rochester, MN to the world famous Mayo Clinic.  This is where the HD experience started for all of us. 

Surgery day was upon us and we all waited anxiously for him to be out of surgery.  After what seemed like eternity he comes wheeling by on the gurney.  The team attending to him stopped for a brief moment in the hall to let his nervous family show him the love, this is where it happened.  As my mother in law leaned in to give him a kiss he spoke the words, “Mother, (that’s what you call your wife after 35 years) I’m buying a Harley”. 


He didn’t say “Mother, I’d like to buy a motorcycle”, he somewhat forcefully said in his anesthesia hang over “Mother, I’m buying a Harley”.  That’s where the brand journey began.  When he checked out of the hospital they drove directly to the Rochester Harley Davidson dealer and he did it, he bought his first Harley.  In the 11 years since he has purchased 3 more Harleys to bring him to his ultimate motorcycle, the Road King.  He also has purchased every piece of HD clothing and paraphernalia possible including but not limited to;  HD slippers, HD jackets, HD watches, HD boots, HD jeans, HD hats, HD t-shirts and even HD boxer shorts with flames.   Very rarely do you see him dressed in anything but a HD hat, HD  t-shirt and black jeans.  After his launch into the HD brand two of my brothers in law, a sister in law and a nephew have also purchased Harley Davidson Motorcycles.  They now make an annual pilgrimage to the Mecca of motorcycle rallies, the world famous Stugis Bike Rally.  But, it’s not about the bike or it being a Harley. 

So, what is a motorcycle or better yet what is a Harley Davidson? 

I believe to my father in law it is an unbelievable conglomeration of emotions.  He was raised in a very dysfunctional family unit and basically orphaned so the first thing the Harley is to him is the reclaiming of a lost childhood, he wasn’t able learn to ride a bike as a kid like most of us because it was sold right after he bought it.          

It also is a new sense of independence, he has worked very hard as a farmer most his life and this was his way to feel the wind in his hair.  You decide where you are going and how fast you want to get there when you have your hand on the throttle of a Harley and by the way he does get there fast. 

He also acquired a whole new circle of friends; most of us would call them acquaintances but to him they are friends.  They cannot pass a Harley shop without stopping and he will never miss an opportunity to talk Harley (their own language) with anyone who will listen.  A HOG rider he doesn’t know is just a friend he hasn’t met yet. 

The Harley also gives him a whole new sense of belonging.  He gets HOG magazine, Harley Owners Group, reads it cover to cover and saves every issue.  When two Harley riders pass each other they hold up their fist to each other in an unspoken act of solidarity.  It’s like watching two marines get together, they have a bond that is unbreakable.  Most of us will never have this sense of belonging so strong, although we all search our entire lives for it.

Another emotion I believe the Harley gives my father in law is a sense of control.  When people are diagnosed with cancer they feel like they have lost all control of their lives.  What they do and when they do it is ultimately controlled by the disease and the treatment of it.  Often cancer survivors live their lives with the black cloud of possible recurrence looming in the back of their mind. 

I also believe the Harley experience gave my father in law his manhood back.  I know this is a very bold statement and do not want to imply that he lost his manhood but to a man the prostate surgery can lead to various challenges that restrict his feeling of being a man and his sexuality.  I know most of us men would like to believe that we would just be happy to be alive but I don’t think you can know how you would react until you are placed in that situation. As most of the women in our lives know, being a man is a highly fragile environment and it is threatened easily.  Who wouldn’t feel manly when you have the “dub,dub,dub,dub” of the Harley exhaust noise in your ears and the power of the bike under you. 

Last but certainly not least, I believe the Harley experience gave my father in law his life back.  He survived the cancer scare and has stayed cancer free ever since his surgery.  His health is attributable to several factors, the grace of God, the love of his wife and family and the fact that he is one tenacious bastard.  He has had the opportunity to do as the Tim McGraw country song says, “Live like you were dying.” I do think the Harley Davidson experience played a major part in this for him. 

So, in a very round about fashion I am back to the original question; What is a motorcycle?  Certainly it is not just a piece of machinery; it is huge emotional piece of the owner’s life.  Just about every brand in the world has the opportunity to create emotional connection with its brand in some way.  Very few brands have effectively done it as well has Harley Davidson and the owners of their experience machines.