By Melissa McCord
The Associated Press
MILWAUKEE - Harley-Davidson Inc., the iconic motorcycle maker whose bikes call to mind James Dean, The Wild One and leather-clad easy riders cruising down the open road, has reached its centennial, surviving the Depression and near-bankruptcy to become an American success story.
Along the way the company has collected thousands of fans who love the freedom-of-the-road lifestyle and the bike's classic chrome-and-metal look, dependability and a distinctive engine rumble known to Harley riders as "potato, potato, potato."
The company will throw itself a four-day 100th birthday celebration in Milwaukee this week.
More than 250,000 people are expected for the party, which officially begins Thursday. Some have participated in ride-home programs, in which Harley bikers from around the world began tours headed to Milwaukee.
A Saturday parade will feature about 10,000 Harley motorcycles.
But the real draw will be nonstop concerts by more than 40 bands and musical artists on 10 stages.
The acts include the Doobie Brothers, Kansas, 38 Special, REO Speedwagon, Peter Frampton, Joan Jett, Poison, Billy Idol, BB King, Styx and the Fabulous Thunderbirds.
Harley-Davidson is also celebrating a 46 percent share of the North American heavyweight motorcycle market, an impressive showing for the company that William Harley and Arthur Davidson started in a wooden shed.
"When they're buying a Harley, they're buying an image and a lifestyle first, and a motorcycle second," said Tim Conder, an industry analyst with A.G. Edwards & Sons Inc. brokerage firm.
But analysts say Harley has to do more to ensure another 100 years of success.
Aging baby boomers form Harley-Davidson's customer base; the median age of Harley buyers is 46, compared with an industry average of 38. Nine percent are women, and only 16.5 percent of Harley's revenue comes from outside the United States.
"Harley will rightly argue they have plenty of boomers left. But in the long term, the most critical issue of Harley is whether buyers will start looking at Harley as the old guy's bike," said Don Brown, an independent motorcycle analyst in Irvine, Calif.
Although Harley dominates the North American heavyweight market, it comes in second to Honda in the overall U.S. market, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council. Younger riders and those overseas prefer the faster Japanese sports bikes that cost less than the $15,000-plus price tags most Harleys carry.
But for Harley fans, owning one of the bikes - known affectionately as "hogs" - has been a transcendent experience. "Getting your first Harley is like having your first love, sometimes more," said George Miller, 46, a Harley rider who works at a Houston refinery.
The hefty motorcycles have left indelible marks on American culture - giving rise to the rebellious motorcycle culture immortalized in the movies The Wild One in 1953 and Easy Rider in 1969.
William Harley and Arthur Davidson publicly debuted their first motorcycle in 1903. Since then, the company has grown considerably:
Number of employees: 7,100
Number of dealerships: 1,300
Number of Harley Owners Group members: 750,000
2002 sales: $4.1 billion
2002 profit: $580 million
2002 motorcycle shipments: 263,653
---USA Today contributed to this report.
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