On The Indian Chief Dark Horse

Dark Horse-2

It’s time to stop with the matte black.

Matte black was once the hardest, baddest, nihilistest finish you could put on a bike. It wasn’t even a finish, really. It was the antifinish. It was riding around in primer, and a bike in primer is basically naked, walking around not giving one swingin’ god-damn what anybody thinks.

Matte black said, fuck chrome. Fuck your fancy, expensive custom flame paint job or your “factory custom” glitter-pony candy wrapper. All’s I want to do is ride. I refuse to even reflect light.

It’s the color of a deep bruise. An old tattoo. A stealth bomber. Joan Jett. Rot. The color that chooses not to. I doesn’t even bother to sneer.

Harley brought matte black into the mainstream in 2007 with the Nightster, which brought some much-needed and long-absent cool back the the H-D brand. The Nightster was pretty effin tough-looking for a mass-production bike, and it embraced the Sportster’s true potential as lean, gnarly, high-torque-to-weight strike fighter, instead of forcing it to be a smaller version of the fat, chrome-heavy cruisers.

The Nightster was a hit, and Harley developed a whole line of “Dark Customs” (which sounds like a cheesy soft-core goth porn series), which included some fine, handsome machines (like the Street Bob) and some obvious jokes that somehow made it into production (like the Cross Bones). The Harley motto, translated from the Latin, reads roughly, “We had this one great idea; now we’re going to beat it to death until you can’t stand it,” and they certainly lived up to those lofty words. They put matte (sorry – “denim”) finishes on any surface that would take paint. (Somehow I can’t get my head around the point of matte orange.)

Of course, every other manufacturer with a cruiser in their line-up had to mimic the alpha ape. Matte black is everywhere, often on bikes speciously branded as “bobbers.” Hilariously, these bikes are sometimes “special editions” with special price tags. The idea of paying a premium for matte black has its own special absurdity: turning the antisocial into a social status symbol. Paying extra for that pissed-off loaner look. How much would they charge for some rust and a few dents? Of course, this is nothing new: designer jeans with holes in the knees have been around for thirty years. People probably pay like fifty bucks for those! I don’t know what designer jeans cost, but Soul Custom will sell you a brand-new ratty old t-shirt for $25.

But I digress.

Now Indian has unveiled the Chief Dark Horse, the sadly predictable matte black version of the Chief. (Let’s ignore the urge to point out that the name “Chief Dark Horse” is getting uncomfortably close to “Kemosabe” territory.)

The Indian Chief is no hard-core garage custom. It is gorgeous American luxury. It looks like Marilyn lying on her side. It has hips. It has the style and grace we once associated with American automobiles like Packard, Cadillac, and, dare I say, Duesenberg.

1930-Duesenberg-J2Not matte black.

To paint the Indian Chief matte black is to throw a drink in its face. It just looks dour and full of self-pity. You see, what makes the Chief work as a design are its three-dimensional complex curves. You cannot appreciate this design by looking at a profile photo. When you walk around it, you appreciate the whole shape, and it makes you want to touch it. It is highly sculptural. The matte black paint ruins all that. It flattens your whole perception of the bike. The paint job conflicts with and undermines the overall design. That’s why the Dark Horse looks so anonymous. It looks like any of a hundred nameless cruisers and loses that distinctive Indian character.

 

Dark Horse-5Pictured: Some Cruiser

 

On the plus side, though, the Dark Horse is a full $2,000 cheaper than the Chief Classic. That’s a big discount, and it’s plenty of money to get whatever paint job you wanted.

With this paint option, Indian is opting for what is trending at this moment – or, more accurately, what was trending two or three years ago – over good design. Industrial and product design always has a tension between what is best and what is popular, and it’s hard to blame them for doing something so simple that might really sell, but it’s also hard to look at a matte black Indian Chief.

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2015 Harley Line-Up: Can’t Even

I’m not asking for miracles. I don’t expect to be amazed with every new model year. I don’t expect manufacturers to abandon their bread and butter. I just want something worth getting out of bed for – something even a little exciting. Something that doesn’t obtusely confirm the worst stereotypes about American bikes, American bikers, and, well, just Americans in general.

 

While Indian is chewing up highways and raking in drooling, slobbering, elegiac reviews, H-D’s 2015 line-up is a depressingly regressive parade of ponderous pachyderms. The biggest (in every sense) addition is the Freewheeler Trike, whose very name is so blandly optimistic it competes with the Bounder RV and that other three-wheeled transport, the Rascal, for unctuous pandering. I am genuinely curious to know how one trike wasn’t enough in their lineup. This model appears to be a little (can we say) ‘sportier’ than the Tri Glide Ultra, and it has a less staggering price – it actually costs less than a BMW 2-series! Also, to be fair, the Freewheeler actually looks like it was designed as a trike, as opposed to an unholy hybrid. Those fenders are really nicely styled… what is happening to me?! Look away!

 15-hd-freewheeler-1-zoom

Can’t unsee.

 

What’s sad here is the overt attempt to lean on the geriatric end of the demographic, to squeeze a few more riding years out of granddad even if he can’t swing his leg over a bike any more. Is this really safe? How long can we do this before we have to come out with a Weekend at Bernie’s CVO Ultra Special? Actually, maybe that’s not too far off…

 

The problem with granddad’s trike is that the kids won’t covet it. There is nothing better in this world than a motorcycle that is handed down from one generation to the next, but I think this hand-me-down would be greeted with less, “Gee, thanks!” and more, “Um, thanks.”

 

Apart from this particular piece of morbid machinery, the Road Glide is back for 2015, which means apparently it was gone. It is very important to remember that the Road Glide is totally different from the Street Glide, which is also totally different from the Electra Glide. The Road King, of course, is the other one. (If you’re ever unsure of which one is the Road King, it’s the one that actually looks rather bad-ass.)

 

In addition, there are several “Ultras,” “Lows,” “Specials,” and a couple of “Limiteds.” This is where those terrible American stereotypes I mentioned come into play. It’s not just excess, it’s pointless excess. It’s paying more money for something that’s just heavier. It’s like portion size is all that matters. “Why do we always come here, honey? The food is awful!” “But just LOOK at the portion sizes!” Every time I see one of these overboiled bikes, I just want to strip all that crap off, because the truth is there is a beautiful machine under all that pudding. They could use a serious Jillian Michaels treatment, and none of this “you’re-beautiful-just-the-way-you-are” bullshit. Call in Michelle Obama! No more french fries for these bikes.

 15-hd-cvo-limited-1-zoom

Urp.

 

Special or limited editions typically feature a special paint job. In fact, this, along with some chrome bling, is often the main special feature. Unfortunately, the paint job is invariably some 90s-looking tribal or stylized flame schtick that is at once gaudy and aesthetically timid. If you’re going to do something tacky, do something awesome tacky – 60s psychedelics, or crazy 70s airbrushing. Even the mega-metal-flake “Hard Candy” paint, which is unquestionably very tacky, has some serious awesome. Either be classy or go crazy. Don’t just be a frat boy tattoo.

hardcandy4-002-500x446

Awesomely tacky.  Tackily awesome.

 

Maybe after the trim, water-cooled Street 500/750 last year and the uber-sexy Livewire teaser earlier this year, our expectations were pegged too high, but what cruel bathos to go from that to the Freewheeler Shuttlebus! We demand a lot from a brand that we care about as much as Harley – and don’t kid yourself, every biker cares about Harley, love it or hate it. We fixate on the sparks of innovation, obsessed with the hope that soon there will be a fire again. We hope that changing market demographics, a leaner economy, a global marketplace, and of course the rivalry with Indian will force H-D to move forward, so this line-up feels like a move backward. Maybe this is just the flat spot in the torque curve, though. Maybe this is the twilight of the old gods.

The Livewire: The Harley We Didn’t Realize We Were Waiting For

Innovation has not exactly been the core of H-D’s brand. Before the Street 750/500, their only really new bike in living memory was the V-Rod, which has always been a weird cousin in the brand family. For decades, while some marques traded on novelty and new models, Harley built their brand on nostalgia – er, I mean “heritage.”

 

Lately (belatedly?), though, they have realized that unless they want to start competing with Invacare, they need to broaden their brand. This is tough, because that heritage is a huge reason why a lot of people love Harley. Abandoning their past would be brand suicide. Even the XR1200, a timid departure and a fantastic bike, just didn’t work for them (we could argue about whether they gave it adequate marketing support).

Harley-Live-Wire-001

So Harley’s decision to unveil the Livewire Project electric bike – leapfrogging Honda, BMW, and all the other majors you might expect – is laudable, bold, strong, and kickin’ awesome. This really changes what we can expect from The Motor Company. Suddenly they are in a position to push engineering advances on other brands. We’ve been waiting for the moment that would take full-size performance electric bikes from the fringe to the mainstream, and this might be it. Any remaining electric bike skeptics can shut their collective pie-holes – at least for the moment.

 

There are other electrics already on the market struggling to get a foothold: Brammo, Zero, and the mind-blowing Mission. Other than a bar-and-shield badge, what makes the Livewire different? The two most important differentiators for the Livewire that the other electric bikes lack actually have nothing to do with the bike itself: distribution and production capacity.

 

Harley has a massive international dealer network. They’re practically in the lobby of every Applebee’s. As soon as this bike is ready to hit the street, there will be one in a showroom close to you. It will be easy to test-ride, and that, pals, is the only way to sell a bike. Prediction: there WILL be a waiting list for this bike. Add to this their ability to throw serious production capacity at any new endeavor (albeit maybe in India), and they will be able to feed that need.

 

Of course, the ride itself is critical. Harley has always preached the gospel of torque, and the additional of a big electric shows they weren’t just TV evangelists but true believers. Riding an electric bike can turn any route into the Road to Damascus. Halleluiah.

 

The genius of the Livewire really is the styling, though. How do you balance Harley’s tough, old-school image with forward-looking tech and modernity? The V-Rod kind of failed to answer that demand, and I believe that is the main reason it hasn’t been more successful. The Livewire nails it. How do you build a design around an engine that, well, isn’t much to look at? The first correct decision they made was to not make this a cruiser. This is a – a what? a naked? sport? streetfighter? bobtail X-wing?

 

The trellis frame takes the place of the engine as the compositional anchor, tying the whole together and paring well with the swingarm. The bike is stout but small and agile-looking. It is built like a swimmer, with huge lats and its head way down. Practically the only nod to “heritage” is the chrome belly, which is more of a wink than a nod, giving the bike a – dare I say – touch of class and keeping it from being too emo.

 

Fact is, this isn’t only the baddest looking electric bike I’ve seen, but by far the baddest looking Harley in the line up. It just sneers at any Heritage Softail or Custom Fatglide. Yet still is is beautiful, probably because all these design moves are rather subdued. The branding identity is subtle but unmistakable (even if the grayed-out tilted logo idea seems to be stolen from the 2013 Star Bolt).

 

Harley also has the marketing horsepower to make this happen. Just as they placed the Street in the latest Captain America movie, the Livewire will be in the next Avengers movie: “Avengers Ad Nauseam.” It has already been featured on CBS, who spent an inordinate amount of time focused on the lack of potato-potato sound, which maybe says more about network news’ fixation on the obvious than anything else. They barely mentioned the 53-mile range which, if not fixed, could be the Livewire’s fatal flaw.

 

The Livewire should actually help those other electric bike brands. Any promotion for the Livewire will raise awareness of electric bikes in general, and not every potential buyer will want the Harley. I don’t think Harley is eating their lunch; they’re making the pie bigger. It changes electric bikes from being just the fringe choice for the super-eco-conscious: this makes it a serious competitive choice, as it should be. This is NOT a Prius. Does this say that Harley cares about the environment? No, it says something much more important: that Harley cares about young riders.

 

Just when Indian hit H-D in the solar plexis (i.e. Sturgis), Harley spins and uppercuts the industry. Who thought a fat guy had moves like that? It’s a beautiful thing to see.

The Street 500 & 750: One Line Changes Everything

Harley-Davidson’s new Street 500 & 750 are a departure for The Motor Company in more ways than one.  They are an attempt to capture a new market that is younger, less wealthy, and more diverse, and a recognition that the largesse of Boomer fantasy-life is not an inexhaustible trough.

The Street is the most visible and most important part of HD’s “Project Rushmore,” which is not, despite the name, a staging of the play “Heaven and Hell” by Max Fischer with motorcycles, which would be awesome.  Project Rushmore is a tricky maneuver, because it is an attempt to redefine the brand without undefining it.  By far the most important feature of the Street is its price, which is wonderfully competitive for an American bike.  If this machine is fun to ride, this may be what makes their elusive Rushmore goal attainable.

Everyone is talking about the marketing, specs, and strategy of this bike, but right now I want to focus on design and how the Street departs from the expected Harley aesthetics.  Three things in particular:

1: The 60-degree, water-cooled engine.  The V-Rod has a 60-degree, water-cooled engine, but we all know that’s not really a Harley, right?  We all knew water-cooled engines were coming, but we were still in a little denial.  Well, here it is, and it kind of looks like all the other non-HD cruiser engines.  The 60-degree angle allows the machine to be a little lower, but it dilutes the distinct heartbeat rhythm.

2: The subdued styling.  Most recent Harley styling adventures have been more extreme, hypertrophied versions of normal HDs.  Consider the 72, the 48, V-Rod Muscle, or the ill-fated caricature Cross Bones.  These go way out on the limb, but the Street stays closer to the trunk.  The Street’s styling doesn’t scream and is very lightly branded, presumably an intentional move to make the bike more appealing to a broader market, who don’t necessarily equate riding with the spreads from 70s issues of EasyRider.

3: The Line.  This is the most significant move.  The typical Harley design has a compositional axis that is low in the back, high in the front.  This is exemplified most clearly in the Softail, as shown in Fig. 1.

              Softail

Fig. 1

This gives the bike its relaxed stance.  It is an angle of repose.  From the rear axle, through the upper part of the swing arm, under the seat, and up over the dashboard, this ties the elements of the bike together.  It’s something the imitator cruisers lack, and it is distinctively Harley.

Now consider the Street.

 Street 750

Fig. 2

The primary line of composition here runs from high in the back to low in the front.  The line runs from the rear seat framing, across the top of the side panel, through the exhaust header, and points to the front axle.  This is a line that impels forward motion.  It is not relaxed.  This is the line of a sport bike, and it makes it visually more active, light, and nimble.

Of course, this is no sport bike, but this compositional shift changes the whole attitude and balances the more cruiserly elements for a well-rounded whole, something that could be called a “standard.”  This will go up against the Bonneville, the Honda 500s, and others to help fill out a real new standard class, and that’s a good thing for riders.