The re-birth of Harley-Davidson

In 1988, the Harley-Davidson Motor Company loaned me a brand new red Harley Electra Glide and invited me along on a ride from Maine to Milwaukee to celebrate Harley’s 85th birthday. I wrote several stories about the ride and about the company’s resurgence from the road. I also had a blast! This story was one that I wrote once I returned to Maine. This clip was published in the Chicago Sun-Times, but the story was also published in papers around the country, as well as in Europe and Australia.

Harley roars back to lead the cycle pack


MILWAUKEE (UPI) – Harley –Davidson Motor Co., careening toward extinction just five years ago, has roared back to lead the pack, scooping up an increased market share from the best of the Japanese motorcycle builders while placing itself solidly in the black.

It was a different story in 1983, when Honda and other Japanese motorcycle makers pushed Harley, America’s only surviving motorcycle manufacturer, to the edge of bankruptcy.  But Harley searched its past and re-discovered a formula that seems to be redefining the company’s future.

The quality of the big V-twin engines Harleys had declined seriously over the years, and antiquated manufacturing techniques kept costs high and production low.

When Japanese builders such as Honda and Yamaha began building low-cost, high-tech super-heavyweight touring bikes, once the sole domain of Harley-Davidson, a number of former Harley riders jumped ship.

“We simply weren’t building a product that the customer wanted from a quality point of view, “ said Richard Teerlink, Harley’s president. “The customer needs quality, especially when he is paying a premium price for the product.”

Harley had once dominated the large-displacement motorcycle market, but by 1983 Harley’s market share for motorcycles of 851cc or more had faded to just 23.3 percent, while Honda’s share of the market had swelled to 44.3 percent. And there seemed to be no end to the downward trend.

“They used to call me Dr. Doom around here – my reports were always that the sky was falling,“ said Frank Cimermancic, Harley’s director of business planning.

With its back to the wall, Harley began fighting back.

The company claimed Honda and other Japanese manufacturers were dumping big-displacement motorcycles in the united States in order to harm Harley, and asked the Reagan administration for stiff tariffs on the biggest Japanese bikes,.  The administration responded with a five-year tariff plan.

With the tariff providing some breathing room, Harley went to work and began devising a strategy for getting back on solid ground. Harley’s strategy worked so well that by the end of 1987, its market share had zoomed to 40 percent, and was still climbing steadily.

1988 Harley-Davidson Electra Glide 85th Anniversary Edition

In the first quarter of 1988, Harley’s share climbed to 50 percent, while Honda slipped to 22 percent.

“We are really smoking,” Cimermancic said. “It is hard to believe, if you had told me five years ago we would be doing this kind of volume now, I would have asked you where you got your drugs from.”

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Magazine writing: My barn-find Harley


When I found this old Harley-Davidson in a barn, I thought it would make a great story for one of the motorcycle magazines. I wrote this story and shipped it off and was surprised when it was rejected. I sent it to a couple of other magazines and they rejected it, too. I soon figured out why: Motorcycle magazines love “before and after” stories. They want to see the old unrestored bike, and then they want to see the bike all done over and like-new. I thought the fact the bike was still in the barn somewhere was interesting, but I guess the editors didn’t agree. The lesson: Stick to the formula, no matter how tired and hackneyed it may be.

Editors note: I just found an old photo of the bike, which I have inserted (12/01/2014).

I found it in a barn



You’ve seen it a million times. You page through your favorite motorcycle magazine and come to a dazzling spread on a beautiful antique Harley, restored and polished to perfection.  The story always says something like:

“This fine-looking 1948 Panhead has been carefully restored to better-than-new condition. Before the restoration, the only thing left of the original was a valve stem cap and a half-pint of gear oil.”

And then comes the worst part:

“The Panhead was found in an old barn.”

There are a lot of old barns in New England and I’ve looked through plenty of them, but I’ve never found an old motorcycle. Never an Indian, never an old Knucklehead, never even some interesting old parts. Nothing.

Nothing, that is, until two summers ago.

image002I was at a party at a house out in the country, about 50 miles from home. I was making small talk with the host, standing around in the front yard, when he brought up my favorite subject.

“You’ve got a Harley, right?” he asked. Then he nodded toward the barn that was hidden behind some pines a hundred yards away. “You know, I’m glad you’re here, because you might be able to tell me what I got out there in the barn.”

Oh, boy, I thought, maybe this is the big one. An old Harley, buried up to its passing lights in hay, complete and waiting for a little polish and some fresh gas. It was hard to keep from running ahead of the guy, but I wanted to act nonchalant.

It was dark in the barn and it took a bit for my eyes to adjust.

“It’s over here,” the guy said, squeezing himself past an old pickup that was parked near the door.

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Tale of the Cobra

  This is another example of stories that sort of fall in one’s lap. A small group of us were riding some mountain roads in Tennessee and North Carolina last fall and we pulled into a rest area on the Cherohala Skyway. We were only there a few minutes when a beautiful silver Cobra pulled in and parked.  We talked to the man and woman who got out of the car, and this is the story that resulted.

     Before we got to the Tail of the Dragon last weekend, we spent some quality time on the Cherohala Skyway, which winds its way through almost 40 miles of Tennessee and North Carolina back country. 

   At one point, Scott led us off the road and onto a scenic overlook, where we spent a little time taking pictures. While we were there, a really beautiful silver Cobra came in and parked near us. A middle-aged couple got out. 

  The woman headed for the rest room, and Scott approached the man and asked him about the car, specifically whether it was an original Cobra or a reproduction. The man said it was built from a kit.

   “I don’t own it, but I helped build it,” the man said.  “It belongs to the lady.”

   The fellow went on to tell us that the woman’s husband had purchased the kit, but he soon was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s Disease and had to stop the construction project before it had really begun.

   “I was a friend of his,” the man said. “When Don got sick, 40 friends got together and we all pitched in and finished the car.”

   ImageThe car was completed in 2009. The owner, Don “Vorcy” Voorhis, got a chance to drive it. He died just three months after it was completed.

   The driver said that the woman, Cheryl Voorhis, didn’t drive the car, but every once in a while she liked to take a ride in it, so he would go over and they would get the car out of the garage and take it for a spin.

   A beautiful car, and a beautiful story.

   If you would like to see a step-by-step report on the build process for this car, visit:


Bill riding the Dragon in North Carolina

Bill riding the Dragon in Tennessee

FULL DISCLOSURE DEPT.: I did not take this picture of myself. It was taken by a roadside commercial photographer as I rode past him last fall (2013) on the Dragon at Deal’s Gap, a stretch of roadway popular with motorcyclists that has 318 curves in 11 miles. I’ve posted so many motorcycle-related stories here that I thought this picture would make a nice complement to them.