During a weekend-long celebration at Atlanta Motor Speedway last summer, Journey, Blues Traveler, and Tim McGraw were the featured musical acts. However, the pop stars were soon relegated to the roles of backup singers for the event’s lead vocalists: thousands of roaring Harley-Davidson V-Twins, crooning in chorus and puffing exhaust into the already steamy air.
Atlanta was the first stop on Harley’s 10-city, 14-month Open Road Tour, a portable party celebrating 100 years of the world’s most famous motorcycle. The tour continues throughout this year with festivities in Sydney, Tokyo, Barcelona, and Hamburg, capped by the Ride Home in August to Harley’s hometown of Milwaukee, where 250,000 riders are expected for a three-day gala that will launch the company into its next century.
First and foremost, the Open Road Tour is a celebration of the company’s history; exhibition tents displaying vintage Harley bikes, engines, and artwork are the focal points of the event. But the roving bash is also Harley’s opportunity to green its aging population by showcasing its performance-oriented V-Rod without alienating its main audience. Rest assured, Harley’s core group of customers is still hard-core. On the Open Road Tour, the standard Harley uniform consists of Levis, a black T-shirt, a leather vest, and boots. A ponytail is the preferred hairdo—for those who still have enough hair to form one.
These Harley enthusiasts savor the historical exhibits, of which the centerpiece is a re-creation of the backyard shed in which William Harley and Arthur Davidson completed their first motorcycle in 1903 and launched the company. Other displays feature Elvis Presley’s first Harley, Harley-related memorabilia from the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, various engines from the last 100 years, and video screens playing clips from Easy Rider and The Wild One. One exhibit includes a retrospective of motorcycle clothing, showing how fashion has mirrored the development of the bikes. Bikers once wore waxed cotton riding gear, eventually progressing to protective leathers and today’s high-tech synthetic fabrics.
The displays underscore the notion that Harley’s success can be credited to the culture the company espouses, perhaps more than to the motorcycles themselves. In fact, today’s Harleys are little changed in basic design from the company’s earliest models. They continue to reflect the traditional Hog rider’s desire: a simple and basic heavyweight cruiser that bestows an air of rebellion.
Harley introduced its 2003 centennial models in Atlanta, and to please loyal owners, the bikes do not feature any major design or mechanical changes from previous model years. Every bike in the Harley lineup comes with 100th-anniversary medallions on the engine crankcases and anniversary-model nameplates. Commemorative paint schemes decorate some models, including the V-Rod.
The new bike has wowed performance-driven bikers but drawn criticism from staunch Harley traditionalists. Ultimately, there should be room for both within the Harley ranks, considering that the marque has always been a unifying force for a diverse group of riders. “Within our chapter, we have so many different people and so many different lifestyles,” says Jim Payne, a computer network administrator and treasurer of the Fort Lauderdale chapter of the Harley Owners Group. “But when we put our suits away and pull on our leathers, all the differences disappear. All the barriers go down, and we have a sense of family.”