Why Harley-Davidson is building a factory in Thailand

There’s a lot going on in Harley-Davidson world, and some of it may have escaped your attention.

While it’s not always the best practice to focus on one company as the bellwether of how an industry is doing, Harley-Davidson is such an iconic American brand that it does serve as a beacon of sorts for not just American industry, but the overall motorcycle industry as well.

We’re constantly bombarded with “America First” and “Make America Great Again” from the Trump administration, but as recent moves from Harley-Davidson show, manufacturing and business are far more complex than slogans can account for. Capitalism is, of course, built up and torn down at the altar of the Market, and what the Market giveth the Market can taketh – often in one quarter.

harley-thailand-fullOn 23 May 2017, The New York Times broke the story that Harley-Davidson is establishing a factory in Thailand. HD officials say the purpose of the factory is to build motorcycles for Asian and other overseas markets, and that the motorcycles will not be brought into the United States.

This move has been roundly denounced by union officials, such as:

  • Robert Martinez Jr., president of the International Association of Machinist and Aerospace Workers: “It’s a slap in the face to the U.S. workers who built an American icon.”
  • Press Release from the United Steelworkers: “[Harley’s] decision to offshore production is a slap in the face to the American worker and hundreds of thousands of Harley riders across the country.”

Indeed, in a lot of places, Harley-Davidson IS America. Harley has spent decades building its image and carefully crafting the perception that riding a Harley motorcycle is part of a lifestyle worth achieving. To a certain extent, all the motorcycle manufacturers do this, but none perhaps so successfully as Harley-Davidson.

What the critics of this Thai factory are missing are two incredibly important aspects of the motorcycle industry.

Displacement

MY17 107 Engine. Milwaukee Eight.There is a common adage among motorcycle riders that there is “no replacement for displacement,” meaning that the bigger a motorcycle’s engine, the better the motorcycle is. This is not a sentiment shared by the majority of the population of the world, and certainly not in countries where gasoline is more expensive than Americans can possibly imagine.

For example, the average price of a gallon of gasoline in the USA on 19 April 2017 was $2.57 a gallon. In Thailand, it was $3.72; in India, $4.32. The highest average price in the Bloomberg article used as a reference was $7.23 in Hong Kong; the lowest was $0.91 in Saudi Arabia.

The average gas price isn’t enough to form a solid picture of the real cost, however. In the USA, the average worker enjoys a daily income of nearly $163, while in Thailand, the average worker’s daily income is just over $17. That difference is critical – no matter the price difference in gasoline between the USA and Thailand, gas is simply more affordable in one country than the other.

What this means is that where the rubber meets the road, the American motorcycle rider simply doesn’t have to care about fuel efficiency as much as the Thai rider does. That $3.72 the Thai rider spends on a gallon of gasoline has to last him (or her) much longer than the $2.57 the American rider spent.

As a result of this need for extreme fuel efficiency in nearly every country that isn’t the USA, large-displacement motorcycles are a luxury item. For example, in 2014 Americans bought 466,000 motorcycles of all brands. In the same year, TVS Motor in India sold 784,000 units. Neither of them even holds a candle to Honda, however, which sold over 15 million units in 2013, most of them (13 million) in Asia. Even with 15 million units sold, motorcycles are only Honda’s THIRD biggest source of revenue!

The majority of these motorcycles are vehicles that American riders wouldn’t even identify as such, calling them mopeds, scooters or even just toys. Motorcycles with 50cc engines dominate foreign markets – and in the USA, the average walk-behind lawn mower has a 150cc engine! In every other place on Earth besides the United States, most motorcycles come in under 300cc, and many of those are well under even that mark.

In the long run, the motorcycles Harley-Davidson makes are only hugely popular in the United States, and they’re losing market share on this continent, primarily to Indian Motorcycles (manufactured by Polaris Industries).

Putting factories in other countries gives Harley-Davidson access to people and companies who have been building smaller displacement motorcycles for decades, and it won’t be long before we see Harley’s Street 500 being built in overseas factories. Harley may well start making motorcycles smaller than that as well.

Taxes

Income taxThe simple matter of import taxes (tariffs) is the other aspect of why Harley-Davidson is looking to build bikes in Thailand.

Importing a 125cc motorcycle into Thailand carries an immediate 60 percent upcharge. Add to that another 5 percent for the excise tax, 7 percent for the value-added tax (VAT) and 10 percent for the interior tax, and the cost for a run-of-the-mill Harley-Davidson Road Glide jumps from $21,999 in the US to $43,499. The reality of it is, though, that the Road Glide is not a 125cc motorcycle and its import taxes would be exponentially higher, driving the cost closer to $60,000.

In India, the import tax on a 300cc motorcycle is 100%. The price of a small imported motorcycle doubles before it even hits the showroom floor – yet India continues to be the hottest, fastest-growing market for companies like Trimuph, whose sales rose 37 percent … to 350 motorcycles. Triumph’s smallest displacement motorcycle is about 675 cubic centimeters, so even with that ridiculously small number of sales, there is clearly a market in places like India for foreign brands with higher displacements than are traditionally built in India.

When it comes down to the economic bottom line, it makes excellent economic sense to simply build these motorcycles in the countries where the manufacturer wants to sell them. With the Trump Administration backing out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership early in 2017, it really shouldn’t be a surprise to see Harley-Davidson initiating the manufacturing of its motorcycles in Thailand, because Asian nations won’t have the same tax rates for products coming from other Asian nations as they will for products coming from the United States.

It’s smart business.

In the past several years, another well-known motorcycle manufacturer, BMW Motorrad, has started making motorcycles and their components in Brazil and India. Branching out from their core manufacturing homeland of Germany has enabled them to not only keep costs down from a manufacturing standpoint, but to also get around some of these massive import taxes used by some countries to protect their home-grown industries.

When it comes to protection, that’s exactly what Harley is trying to do. Polaris Industries bought the rights to the Indian Motorcycle name in 2011 from UK private equity firm Stellican Limited (majority owner, at any rate). At the time they already owned Victory Motorcycles, and Victories were well-regarded bikes despite their low sales numbers. Two years after the acquisition, they announced their 111 cubic inch engine – that’s 1,820 ccs for you metric folks – and started selling motorcycles based around that “Thunderstroke” engine in August 2013. Here it is only four years later, and Polaris has shut down Victory completely to focus on the ten current models Indian offers – a number that is likely to continue to grow.

Harley-Davidson did a similar thing in 2009 when it closed the doors on Buell. Buell motorcycles were touted as technologically advanced, but they didn’t sell in numbers high enough to warrant their continued existence under the HD banner. Many riders cried foul when Harley unceremoniously dumped Erik Buell’s bikes in the dustbin of motorcycling history, but shares of $HOG began to steadily rise through the end of that year. It’s that perceived value, as represented by the stock price, that appeals to shareholders, board members and investors, not how cool or high-tech the motorcycles are.

Even though Indian is still selling a fraction of the number of motorcycles Harley is selling every year, Indian is selling more and more bikes every year while Harley is selling fewer and fewer every year. With Victory out of the picture, Polaris can concentrate all its motorcycle efforts on one brand, and believe that they are doing exactly that as hard and fast as they can.

20050529153007_thunder3
The Pentagon’s parking lot the morning of the annual Rolling Thunder ride.

Harley-Davidson reacted, of course, by coming out with a new engine and redesigning a number of the bikes that use their new “Milwaukee Eight” engines (there are two, air/oil cooled at 107 ci/1750 cc and liquid cooled at 114 ci/1870 cc). Nobody will know until their 2017 annual report comes out if that effort will translate into a slowdown in the loss of market share, and Harley still owns close to 50 percent of the large-displacement, cruiser-style motorcycle market in the USA. However, in the same year (2015) that Polaris’ motorcycle income surged 67 percent, Harley’s fell 5 percent.

However, if Harley continues to lose market share in the United States, long its most lucrative market, they will obviously have to do something to boost their bottom line. Unlike Honda and Polaris, Harley doesn’t have other vehicle sales to fall back on. They cannot afford to continue losing market share year after year, not even to a brand as iconic as Indian. Expanding overseas makes sense, and doing so in a fashion that allows them to minimize their tax burden and maximize their profits makes even MORE sense.

They also have to find a way to reduce labor costs. They’re doing it to a certain extent through layoffs, and Harley has reduced the number of workers at its York, Pennsylvania, facility by over 50 percent since 2009. They recently announced that another 118 jobs will leave the York factory, as the company transfers construction of its Softail line to its Kansas City factory. Nobody is under the illusion that labor costs in Thailand are anything but FAR lower than what they are in the USA, where the average union worker earns about $1,000 a week. In Thailand, the average weekly wage in manufacturing jobs is about $230 a MONTH (based on exchange rate on 24 May 2017).

There’s an old saying in scientific circles that a species that fails to adapt to its changing environment is doomed to become extinct. When it comes to capitalism, the same can be said by substituting in a few words: Any company that fails to adapt to the changing market is doomed to go bankrupt. The people running Harley-Davidson clearly see this, which is exactly why they’re following BMW Motorrad’s lead in India and building a factory in Thailand.

While the “slap in the face” referenced by Robert Martinez Jr. and the United Steelworkers may indeed be more literal than metaphorical, there are solid economic reasons why Harley-Davidson is building a motorcycle factory in Thailand. It has little to do with the American worker and everything to do with the company’s future profit-and-loss statements.


SOURCES

Advertisements

protective tariffs, motorcycles and the beef lobby

In April 1983, President Ronald Reagan ordered a rise in tariffs – taxes on imported or exported goods – on “heavyweight” motorcycles from 4.4 percent to 49.4 percent. If you ever wondered why the 1980s were littered with Japanese motorcycles that topped out at 699cc, now you know why. The tariffs kicked in at 700cc because half of all Japanese motorcycles imported into the US displaced 750cc. This rise in tariffs was based on the 1974 Trade Act, which gave the government broad authority to do exactly this kind of thing to help American companies.

“We’re delighted,” said Vaughn Beals, Harley-Davidson’s chairman at the time. He couched that statement by claiming The Motor Company would improve their manufacturing processes and practices, but we all know that didn’t happen until the introduction of the 80-horsepower Fathead (officially the Twin Cam 88) engine in 1999. The 15-year focus on the 1340cc Evolution engine, released in 1984, ushered out the venerable 1200cc Shovelhead power plants that HD had been relying on since the mid-1960s. The Fathead vibrated so viciously that HD revised it (but not until the 2000 model year), adding counterbalance shafts in an attempt to mollify long-complaining riders.

In other words, Harley had 20 years, give or take, to improve their product, but refused to even make a half-hearted attempt do so until Japanese motorcycles started seriously threatening their market share on America’s highways.

I digress, however, and I do not want you to think this article is out to bash Harley-Davidson. They had 50% of motorcycle registrations in the USA in 2015 for a reason. It is important to note that in 1983, they had only been out from under the disastrous, destructive leadership of AMF for about two years and were struggling for survival. Harley-Davidson is a legitimate American icon, and nothing I say can take that hard-earned status away from them.

Instead, let’s jump back and look at those tariffs. In 1983, the import duty (another word for tax) jumped from 4.4 percent to 49.4 percent. This affected about 20 percent of the over one million motorcycles imported into the USA, and about 80 percent of the motorcycles affected were manufactured in Japan. According to President Reagan’s five-year plan, the tariffs would gradually reduce from 49.4 percent in the first year to 14.4 percent in the fifth, after which they would return to 4.4 percent.

The law carved out an exception for a growing number of motorcycles manufactured in West Germany – our beloved BMWs. By the end of the program, 10,000 German motorcycles would be exempt from the import duties. British and Italian motorcycles (Triumph and Ducati) were also granted a number of exemptions, with up to 9,000 bikes allowed imported at the old 4.4 percent rate by the end of the program.

The justification for these tariffs was twofold. First, the US International Trade Commission determined that imported Japanese motorcycles were hurting Harley-Davidson. Second, Harley testified before the USITC that they planned to start manufacturing motorcycles in the 750cc segment, what today we call a “midweight” motorcycle.

Harley’s 1986 Sportster came in at 883cc, well above the 750cc mark. The only 750cc motorcycle Harley built in the 1980s was the XR750, a well-known flat-track racing bike, which also saw action in other styles of racing. When HD finally made a street version of the XR750 in 1983, they put out a Sportster with a 1000cc engine based on the XR750 design. The bike sold so poorly they made it for just two years, ending its production well before the protective tariff law’s five-year plan expired.

Harley brought back the XR in 2008, with the XR1200, but discontinued that bike after the 2012 model year due to poor sales. (It’s too bad, too, because I rode an XR1200 and it was a fantastic motorcycle.)

The “motorcycle wars” of the 1980s spurred the Big Four – Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki and Yamaha – to innovate. They couldn’t rely on big profits from large-displacement bikes such as Honda’s CBX – a 1047cc six-cylinder behemoth – so they simply stopped making it and many other similar bikes, focusing instead of smaller displacement motorcycles that weren’t affected by the giant tax increase.

In the end, Harley was still making motorcycles, and the Japanese companies were still importing huge numbers of bikes into the US. Nobody really won the motorcycle wars, but nobody really lost, either, except for maybe motorcycle riders who loved big-bore Japanese bikes.

Looking back, we can understand why this all happened.  Harley was hurting after a recession. Their technology was stuck in the previous generation. At the same time, the Japanese and European motorcycle manufacturers were leaping forward as fast as they could – remember, BMW introduced the first ABS-equipped motorcycle (the K 100) in 1988 – and their economies weren’t as hindered by the 1981-82 recession as the USA’s was.  It made sense for Harley to go to the government to ask for help, and the help they got in the form of protective tariffs made sense in the grand economic scheme, even if it ultimately did not show Harley-Davidson a huge amount of benefit.

Which brings us to today. As you may know, Europe’s economy is in a weird holding pattern and right on the verge of chaos. The turmoil comes from a set of poorly performing countries (PIIGS – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain) and the impending exit of Britain from the EU. There are motorcycles made in those countries, but other than Italy, none of them sport a first-line street bike manufacturer.

It may come as a surprise to you to learn that, once again, it seems as if protective tariffs may come to imported motorcycles. This time, however, the target is exclusively European motorcycles. The government institution involved is not the International Trade Commission, but the United States Trade Representative. The reason for the hoped-for protective tariffs is not a flailing Harley-Davidson, but rather the beef industry.

Wait, what?

Since 1981, the European Union has banned the importation of any meat from any animal raised with synthetic hormone treatments; it was a gradual ban that took full effect in 1989. You may have heard of BGH – bovine growth hormone – and substances like that are exactly what they’re keeping out of their food supply. Europe has a troubled history with beef in the 20th century, largely due to several outbreaks of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, more commonly known as “mad cow disease.” Britain suffered the continent’s worst outbreak of the deadly disease, with millions of cattle slaughtered between 1986 and 1998 to prevent the spread of the disease. While BSE’s causes lie in cows consuming the remains of other cows and not the treatment of cattle with hormones (natural or synthetic), the fact remains that Europe is wary of beef, period, and imported beef is granted a high level of scrutiny.

When the EU’s ban on US beef went into full effect in 1989, the US responded by putting 100% tariffs on a variety of European food products.  Like the 1980s tariffs on imported Japanese motorcycles to protect Harley-Davidson, these tariffs on food make sense. They were a simple tit-for-tat measure to hit back against the EU’s meat ban.

What doesn’t make sense is that the USTR is now considering imposing tariffs on sub-500cc European motorcycles imported into the US over an argument about beef. After losing an appeal to the World Trade Organization, the “beef lobby” seems to think a 100% tariff on all sorts of scooters and dirt bikes as well as street bikes like the KTM RC 390 and BMW G 310 R will force the EU to rethink its ban on hormone-treated meat. This is the third time the beef lobby has tried to get these tariffs imposed; previous attempts in 1999 and 2008 failed.

When it comes to BMW, the proposed tariff is, at best, symbolic. BMW sold 13,730 motorcycles in the USA in 2016 and not a single one of them was under 500cc. BMW announced its first sub-500cc motorcycle since the R 51/3 in 1956 last year, the single-cylinder G 310 R and its sister, the G 310 GS. The 310 R isn’t even expected to make it to dealerships until the third quarter; a 100% tax on it would obviously double its $4,995 price tag and destroy any sales potential the motorcycle has.

The American Motorcycle Association has naturally spoken out against this measure, but it is incumbent upon all American motorcyclists to act when our sport is threatened unreasonably. I am all for protecting American companies when they need the help, but it is unfair to punish European motorcycle manufacturers for the EU’s meat importation policies. The AMA says the 2008 attempt to get these tariffs in place received about 600 thumbs-down comments. If that was all it took to defeat the measure, imagine what we could generate in these politically charged times.

There are three ways you can make your voice heard on this matter:

  1. Point your web browser to the USTR’s website and leave a comment about this measure on the appropriate page, which is https://www.regulations.gov/comment?D=USTR-2016-0025-0001. You must do this no later than 30 January 2017.
  2. Attend the public hearing on this issue. The hearing starts at 9.30 in the morning on Wednesday, 15 February 2017 in Rooms 1 and 2 of the US Civil Service Commission building, located at 1724 F Street NW, Washington DC 20508. This building is also known as the US Trade Representative Annex and it is on the Department of the Interior’s National Register of Historic Places. If you attend the hearing, plan ahead and allow plenty of time for the D.C. area’s notoriously terrible traffic. 1724 F St NW is just a few blocks from the White House. Parking is limited. Farragut West is the nearest Metro station.
  3. Contact your federal senator and/or representative in the US Congress and express your opinion on this matter and ask them to get involved. If you don’t know who your senator or representative is, head over to the website whoismyrepresentative.com and plug in your ZIP code.

letter to the editor of Airmail and the board of the Airheads Beemer Club (ABC)

Letter to the Airmail Editor
From Wes Fleming, #3120

Re: June 2015 issue and the apparent feud between the Editor and Joe Glowacki

The kids today, they have this acronym they use whenever they’re perplexed by something. Like “dude,” it’s a catchall for a variety of emotions and reactions, and it can be applied to many situations.

Even though I’m not a kid – though many Airheads might consider me so at the tender age of almost 46 years old – but after reading (eagerly, from cover to cover) the June 2015 Airmail, I have to invoke the kids.

WTF!

While I think many of us can figure out what that means, I’ll relay the kinder, gentler version – WTH, or What The Hell! As in WTF is going on between B. Jan (Hofman) (editor) and Joe Glowacki (chair)?

When I opened the June issue and started reading, I found myself quickly confronted by five (5) – FIVE! – pages of Editor Hofman defending himself and blaming current leadership for spending/cash flow problems. I wasn’t aware until that moment that the editor received a stipend at all.

After perusing the Board of Directors Minutes covering meetings from September 2014 to March 2015, I found myself asking myself WTF have I gotten (back) into? People getting removed from their positions and booted from the club? Disappointing to say the least. I’d also like to know where the financial report mentioned in the November meeting minutes is – the comment “upon the submission of his report” is vague, and there’s no further mention of that report. If finances are an issue, then where is this report and why hasn’t it been made public?

The capper, though, is page 17, on which Chairman Glowacki makes aspersions against Editor Hofman and lays out a pay schedule that (apparently) clearly shows that the $1,000-a-month stipend schedule isn’t what’s being paid to the editor at all. I’m pretty sure $1,000 a month means $12,000 a year, and the $16,688 paid in 2014 isn’t $1,000 a month. Now, of course, there could be other expenses built into that amount (and the others) that aren’t being relayed, but that’s beside the point right now.

First of all, I don’t know nor have I ever met Mssrs. Hofman or Glowacki. It’s clear that Glowacki has no fucking clue how much work goes into the production of a monthly magazine – even one of just 24 pages. A thousand dollars a month is a paltry sum, a mere drop in the bucket, for doing a job with relentless deadlines and little in the way of thanks.

Having said that, for $1,000 a month, I definitely expect a higher-quality publication. Pages 2-11 of the June issue could have been laid out by my 13-year-old daughter using Microsoft Pages. While this reflects the club canon “Airheads believe that the simplest [engineering] solutions are best,” there’s no reason to pay somebody (anybody) even 12 grand a year for this kind of amateur product. I’m not generally one to toot my own horn, but in this instance, I’m going to do just that and encourage every Airhead reading this to visit the website for the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington and check out a recent issue of Between the Spokes, the monthly newsmagazine that I produce for the club – AS A VOLUNTEER. I know exactly how much work goes into releasing a monthly publication at the club level and I know what an amateur in his off hours can produce with some dedication and effort. I’d gladly take $1,000 a month for the work I do for BMWBMW, but because I care about my club, I stepped up as a volunteer and receive no payment whatsoever.

I let my ABC membership lapse for a long time, and when I came back, I find the ABC in turmoil. It’s one thing to see this kind of crap on the Internet, where you expect trolls to go after each other, but quite another to see it in our signature publication.

Reading this issue, I find that the club’s leaders are violating several canons, to wit: “Airheads appreciate function over form, fact over fiction, and friendship over friction,” “Airheads regard money as a tool, not a status symbol,” and “Airheads don’t take themselves, religion or life too seriously.” This issue is filled with fiction (Hofman and Glowacki can’t both be right, can they?), friction, money issues, and Airheads taking themselves far too seriously.

It may be indifference that kills publications, as Hofman writes on page 5, but controversy is what kills clubs. B. Jan Hofman and Joe Glowacki are killing the ABC, and they’re doing it in the pages of Airmail.

Everybody involved in this kerfuffle should be ashamed of themselves and given just my short exposure to what is clearly an internal power struggle, it’s clear to me that the best solution is for EVERYBODY involved to switch from German to Japanese traditions and fall on their sword. I’m calling for the Editor and all current Board members to RESIGN, followed by a snap election to seat all-new Board members and a new Editor as well.

Sincerely,

Wes Fleming, #3120, Fairfax, VA

IMG_1372

you can’t kill free speech

As some folks know, I’m a member of the BMW Bikers of Metropolitan Washington, or BMWBMW. I’m also a volunteer Board of Directors member, and in addition to my role as the Media Chair for the club, I also put together the club’s monthly newsmagazine, Between the Spokes. When I first started my editorship of BtS, I decided to run a periodic editorial column called “Between the Gutters” – a play on both the title of the club’s publication and magazine design, where the “gutter” is the space between columns or the space between the right side of one page’s content and the left side of the facing page’s content.  These columns have run the gamut from ethanol to tinnitus, and in the February 2015 issue, I addressed the issue of free speech. Most of the correspondence I have received so far has been positive, but this column did draw my first ever negative response. While it was well written and not at all aggressive, it did suggest that such a politicized issue as free speech had no place being discussed in a regional club’s monthly newsmagazine.  While I disagree, it’s certainly that person’s right to say so!

Now – on with the “offending” column!

In December and January, the attacks on free speech escalated. This is not a good trend, no doubt about that, but it’s not a new trend, either. We may think quashing free speech is a political, economic or religious issue, but it permeates many layers of our society, including the many thousands of words written by and about motorcyclists as well as the machines and products on which they rely.

While part of me still thinks it was a hoax, the cyber attack on Sony Pictures surrounding its release of the buddy comedy The Interview drew our attention in a small way to the issue of free speech. The film is a satire that bases its plot on an American TV personality, played by James Franco, and his producer, played by Seth Rogen, being granted an interview with North Korea’s leader, Kim Jong-un, and then being asked by the CIA to assassinate him.

The assault on free speech related to this movie came from the attackers threatening more attacks and the release of private information if Sony went ahead with the film’s release as scheduled. Sony initially pulled the film, blaming major movie theater chains for refusing to show the film due to threats of violence against any of them that did. Under pressure from a wide swath of Americans, including President Barack Obama, Sony reversed course, releasing the film in a limited number of theaters and online through various websites in late December, more or less as previously scheduled. After earning more money than any previous digital release in Sony’s history, Netflix is — as of this writing — in negotiations to secure exclusive streaming rights for The Interview.

The incident that precipitated this column was the terrorist attack on the offices of Charlie Hebdo, a weekly satirical newspaper published in Paris, France. On 7 January, three masked men armed with assault rifles killed two policemen, including one who was serving as the editor-in-chief’s bodyguard, along with ten employees of the paper, including four cartoonists, two columnists and the editor in chief, himself a cartoonist and columnist.

Charlie Hebdo is well known for its anti-religion stance; they regularly publish full-color, front-page caricatures of Mohammed, Jesus, the pope, other religious figures including generic Muslims, Christians and Jews, and a wide variety of French and European political and social figures. Many of these covers depict these people in humiliating or sexual situations and are patently offensive to many.

The paper’s offices were firebombed in 2011, without loss of life, but this time, the frontal assault resulted in a bloodbath. One of the policemen killed was lying wounded on the ground with his hands up when one of the Kalashnikov-toting terrorists shot him in the face. The terrorists shouted “Allahu Akbar,” a common Islamic invocation usually translated as “God is great.” These shouts were caught on video by onlookers, as well as a comment from one of the terrorists that they had exacted revenge for the newspaper’s portrayals of Mohammed. The outrage and sympathy at this horrific event focused on the perceived intention of the terrorists: punishing Charlie Hebdo’s writers, cartoonists and editors for their words and images, and by doing so, frightening other writers, cartoonists and editors into silence.

DSC02426

Not even 24 hours after this terrorist attack, the Chinese government arrested and imprisoned the three brothers of a Chinese-born US citizen. Shohret Hoshur is a Uighur, and the Uighur are a long-oppressed ethnic minority under Chinese control. The implication here is clearly that if Hoshur continues to report on anti-Uighur events taking place in Xinjiang, his brothers will be subjected to unspecified punishments extending beyond the five-year sentence one of them has already received for discussing his arrest on the telephone with Hoshur.

In 2014, a dustup called “Gamergate” shook the video gaming world; while it spreads through a variety of issues, one of the core concepts is the active suppression of the opinions, ideas and efforts of female game designers, programmers and reviewers. Several women were threatened with rape, assault and death in an ugly, misogynistic attack on a perceived minority in the gaming world. In reality, females make up 52% of those playing video games according to the Internet Advertising Bureau’s study published on 17 September 2014.

Anita Sarkeesian is a feminist writer who writes for the website Feminist Frequency and regularly discusses tropes that denigrate and marginalize women; one repercussion of Gamergate was the cancellation of Anita Sarkeesian’s talk at Utah State University after an unknown person emailed the university promising to commit “the deadliest school shooting in American history” if the talk proceeded. Sarkeesian, as well as game developers Brianna Wu and Zoe Quinn, later fled their homes in the wake of numerous death threats.

All of these events above are ways in which somebody attempted to infringe on free speech in ways that evoked or threatened violence. They don’t have anything to do with motorcycles, though, so I’ll give you an example that does relate to our sport.

Most of us are familiar with Motorcyclist magazine. I have a subscription and read it cover-to-cover when it arrives. It’s a good magazine, but its administrative staff once fired a writer over a negative article he wrote for a completely different publication.

Dexter Ford contributed articles to Motorcyclist for three decades, but was summarily fired in September 2009 for an article he wrote for The New York Times. In “Sorting out differences in helmet standards,” Ford examines US and European helmet certification standards, which can often be confusing as they overlap and contradict each other. He criticizes the Snell Foundation for its 2005 and 2010 standards and reports that some helmet manufacturers have stopped submitting helmets for Snell certification in favor of US Department of Transportation (DOT) and United Nations ECE certifications.

Ford’s article is clearly critical of Snell, but does not mention any helmet manufacturer by name; the closest he comes is a passing mention of a “$400 Snell-certified helmet.” In 2009 in the US, that meant only a small number of helmets.

It wasn’t long before emails got leaked showing exactly why Ford was let go. Brian Catterson, then the Editor-in-Chief of Motorcyclist, said, “I’m getting serious heat over [Ford’s article],” because, as Catterson writes, Ford “greatly downplayed” the Snell 2010 standards.

“Sorting out differences in helmet standards” wasn’t Ford’s first blast at Snell’s standards. He wrote an exposé of just how bad the Snell 2005 standards were for Motorcyclist called “Blowing the lid off.” He researched extensively for the article, even backing his assertions with data from scientific tests, proving to himself and many others that Snell standards were inferior to DOT and ECE standards. Unfortunately, the article is no longer available on Motorcyclist’s website, but you can find it with a quick Google search.

The heat felt by Catterson came from helmet manufacturers Arai and Shoei; in 2005 and perhaps even 2009, these two manufacturers dominated the motorcycle helmet media, if not the market, enjoying their heyday before the proliferation of Korean- and Chinese-made helmets. It’s reasonable to think they were also major contributors to the Snell Foundation, which is a not-for-profit group that operates with funding from helmet manufacturers.

To boil the issue down to its component parts, Arai and Shoei threatened to pull their advertising from Motorcyclist because Ford wrote an article denigrating Snell standards for The New York Times. By doing this, both helmet manufacturers engaged in an attempt to quash free speech. They threw their weight around like the industry giants they were and cost a man his job. (Disclaimer: I currently own two Shoei helmets and have owned two Arai helmets in the past. All are/were excellent helmets and a Shoei RF800 and an Arai Quantum/f protected my head during two separate crashes. The RF800 most definitely saved my life in 1999.)

According to the termination letter sent by Catterson to Ford in October 2009, Ford wasn’t being fired for the hit piece he wrote for the Times; rather, his termination came from what Catterson characterized as Ford’s inability to prevent personal vendettas from infusing his work. Catterson mentioned specifically a press conference — not even a written article! — Ford participated in after the publication of the article. Of course, the leaked email chain refuted Catterson’s assertions, exposing the real reason why Ford was fired – because he crossed two of the magazine’s biggest advertisers, who complained to management. It’s also clear from the emails that Catterson shares Ford’s opinion of Snell, yet Catterson throws Ford under the GS, blaming him directly for costing Motorcyclist about $100,000 in advertising money.

Dexter Ford only lost his job. He wasn’t gunned down like the Charlie Hebdo staffers, he wasn’t threatened with rape and murder like the women of Gamergate, and he wasn’t even arrested like Shohret Hoshur’s brothers. From the day that Ford was fired, though, nobody writing for Motorcyclist would be able to continue to do so without taking into account the magazine’s advertisers — no matter what outlet they were writing for. Arai and Shoei are heavy hitters, but once manufacturers of their size and strength were able to force Motorcyclist to punish a writer for what he wrote, it’s not hard to believe that larger advertisers — say, motorcycle manufacturers — or even smaller ones wouldn’t be able to do the same. Once the seal is broken, as they say, it’s all downhill.

I’m not in any way trying to equate the firing of one motorcycle journalist to the brutal murders of ten political/cultural/societal satirists and two policemen, but both situations show the extent to which people will go to prevent the publication or dissemination of information with which they disagree or find offense.

There’s a reason that the freedom of speech is one of the very first things codified in our Bill of Rights. Free speech and a free press are fundamental concepts of social contract theory, a body of sociopolitical philosophy that has come to govern much of the world since its emergence in the 18th century. The American and French Revolutions, and the Constitutions that came after them to guide each country, were built upon the bricks of social contract theory. The citizens of the free world should never allow the actions of radicals and malcontents to curtail this fundamental freedom and must endeavor to protect these freedoms at all costs.

Without the freedom of speech and of the press, there is no freedom at all.

The article that got Dexter Ford fired is available at http://www.nytimes.com/2009/09/27/automobiles/27SNELL.html.

an ode to motorcycles

This post discusses certain behavior that may or may not be legal in all 50 states. I do not advocate breaking (or even bending) the laws of your state, county or municipality.

IMG_3873

There really isn’t anything you can do in a car that you can’t do on a motorcycle. Sure, there’s some stuff you can do in a truck that you can’t do on a bike, but who wants to put a new refrigerator on the back of even a large motorcycle?

Whether you ride a 125cc dirt bike or a behemoth Gold Wing, you’re part of the brotherhood (even if you’re a sister!).  We smile, we wave, we chat each other up at gas stops.  No matter how clapped-out that guy’s ride is, we’ll always say, “Hey, nice bike” and ask some questions about it.

On Sunday, I got grilled by a 10-year-old about just about anything you could ever wonder about motorcycles. It was great fun, and I even managed to work in a suggestion to him and his father that he take the Motorcycle Safety Foundation’s Basic RiderCourse.

I’m a giant proponent of ATGATT – All The Gear All The Time – but like most people, I’ve been known to head off to the store wearing, for me, what passes for the basics – boots, jeans, jacket, gloves and helmet. The few times in my life I’ve ridden without a jacket on, I’ve felt so uncomfortable it’s not even funny.

I don’t understand why people fight against laws that require helmet use.  This, to me, is the most critically stupid thing a motorcycle rider can do.  Frankly, I don’t understand why all riders don’t use full-face (or at least flip-front) helmets to start with.  The point of a helmet is twofold – 1) to prevent your brain from suffering catastrophic injury (which it does by slowing down the rate at which your brain bangs around inside your skull – as your skull deforms the EPS lining of the helmet, it decelerates your brain) and 2) to prevent skin, eye, mouth, nose, chin and penetrating damage done by objects external to the helmet like roads and guard rails.

There isn’t a half or even three-quarters helmet made anywhere in the world that will prevent your chin from scraping along the ground if you should be separated from your motorcycle at high speed.  I simply don’t understand why all motorcycle riders don’t recognize this.

Yes, a full-face helmet is warmer in the summer than a half helmet.  You know what else it does besides make your face & head hot?  It protects you from sunburn (provided your face shield blocks UV rays, which most of them do) and windburn.  It protects you from getting smacked in the face with bugs of all sorts (imagine getting your cheek splatted by a big ol’ butterfly or cricket).  It cuts down on noise, thus protecting your hearing (though you should not rely on your helmet alone to do this).  In the winter, your helmet helps your face and head stay warmer.  A full-face helmet keeps your whole head and face dry if you’re riding in rain, sleet or snow.  (Riding in sleet is just no fun, and it’s even worse if your face is being pelted with tiny, angry slivers of ice.)  If your full-face helmet is a bright color (yellow, orange, white, silver, etc.) it gives you a lot of real estate to be seen by car drivers.

You get the point.

Motorcycles are just plain fun, too.  I discovered in the past few days that both of my bikes will get up to about 90 mph in 3rd gear before the rev limiters kick in – which is impressive considering one of those bikes has a giant heavy sidecar hanging off it (and it had a passenger in it at the time).  One of my bikes gets 40+ miles per gallon – on a bad day!  When you’re out on a motorcycle, you’re more in touch with nature.  You can smell everything, see everything better, hear the sounds around you (that is, if your bike isn’t obnoxiously loud).

I think I might be rambling at this point, but I’m having fun. Not as much fun as I’d be having if I was out riding somewhere, but I’m supposed to be working, so the 10-minute break it took to write this counts as my union 15, right?

Ride. Eat. Sleep. Repeat.

this is my GS. there are many others like it, but this one is mine

IMG_0319This is my GS. There are many others like it, but this one is mine. My GS is my best friend. It is my life. I must master it as I must master my life. Without me, my GS is useless. Without my GS, I am useless. I must ride my GS true. I must ride straighter than my enemy, who is trying to kill me. I must avoid him before he runs over me. I will…

My GS and I know that what counts on the road is not the miles we ride, the noise of our exhausts, nor the dust we kick up. We know that it is avoiding the hits that count. We will avoid…

My GS is human, even as I, because it is my life. Thus, I will learn it as a brother. I will learn its weaknesses, its strengths, its parts, its accessories, its controls and its engine. I will keep my GS clean and ready, even as I am clean and ready. We will become part of each other. We will…

(Quite blatantly adapted from the USMC Rifleman’s Creed – with apologies to the Corps.)

I spent the day with my bike – a 2005 BMW R 1200 GS – and three of my friends. For the first part of my day, I worked on the bike. I…

  • changed the engine oil & oil filter (4 qts synthetic 15W50 & a Mann filter)
  • changed the final drive oil (Mobil1 75W140 – exactly 180 ml), which requires dropping the final drive to vertical & reconnecting it; one of my friends showed me a great way to more easily get the drive shaft re-engaged
  • changed the transmission oil (same 75W140 – most of the rest of the bottle)
  • made a huge mess when the hot engine oil splashed off the bottom of the catch pan
  • cleaned up said huge mess
  • cleaned spilled final drive oil off the rear brake disc

It doesn’t seem like much, but between doing the actual work, talking to people, lollygagging, drinking a soda, eating a donut, and all the other things you do when a bunch of folks are working on bikes, it took about 2 hours to get all this done.

What I meant to do but didn’t because I didn’t want to delay the rest of the day:

  • change the air filter (requires removing body panels & I just didn’t want to mess with that)
  • change the spark plugs
  • adjust the valve clearances
  • replace the rear brake pads (also I didn’t want to buy them where I was as I know I have to get the aftermarket pads I prefer elsewhere)

After the work was done, I verified nothing was leaking out of my bike, and I cleaned up my mess & loaded up my bike, I headed out to lunch at the Waffle House with my buddies. From there we went to a very nice (rustic) rural private gun club site and did some shooting.  Mostly handguns, but I got to shoot a lever-action rifle for the first time ever, and a shotgun as well.  I did not enjoy firing the shotgun and I’m sure my friends got a little chuckle at a) how inept I was with it and b) that it left me with a very sore right shoulder.

Motorcycle riders don’t have to talk to each other to have a good time. Yes, we did talk to each other throughout the day, from the morning through brunch & at the shooting range – but I knew we’d have been just as pleased with the day if we’d met up at the crack of dawn, ridden until lunch, wolfed down some food, and ridden again until the sun started to smear in the sky.

I greatly admire the friends I spent the day with. Each has strengths and weaknesses, but they always seem to make the most of their strengths and find ways to minimized their faults. I’ve never known any of them to speak or act grossly inappropriately – except, of course, when the time for shenanigans presented itself.

The four of us are from different backgrounds and have pursued different paths.  As you know, I am a professor and a news writer/editor.  My friends are a public servant (and veteran), a financial advisor and a computer programmer/software developer.  We’re all in that vaguely 40-to-50ish age group, married, and with kids or dogs (or both).  We’re from New Jersey (the good part), Virginia, New York City, and everywhere (I’m a military brat).  We practice different religions, have some widely varying political & social ideas, enjoy different types of entertainment, and are in most ways quite different from each other. Except for that we’re all four of us white guys, you couldn’t probably randomly pick a more diverse group.

However.

I realized as I started the ride home that all four of us ride the exact same motorcycle. Mine is a 2005, 2 of them have 2009 models, and the last is a 2011. The seemingly ubiquitous R 1200 GS is the bike in question, and in the two-wheeled world, it is quite literally a giant.

In 1980, BMW produced the first large-bore “dual sport” motorcycle – the R80G/S. G stood for “Gelände” – terrain/ground as in off-road – and S stood for “Straße” – street. Off-road/on-road.  Dual sport.

(Yes, I know the eszett (ß) is now rarely used in written German, but when I learned German, it was still quite common. They (the Germans) revised their written language a bit in 1996, which was long after I had left that fine nation. Because it is an iconic … er, icon for me, I will continue to use it both appropriately and inappropriately. Deal with it.)

BMW didn’t realize they were initiating an archetype in 1980, but that’s exactly what they did – they created the adventure motorcycle genre that is now simply littered with bikes. The R 1200 GS remains the premier example, the pinnacle of the genre, but there are excellent adventure bikes being put out by KTM, Triumph, Yamaha, Ducati, and other manufacturers.

Yet it’s the big GS that draws the four of us together. Some people call the GS the SUV of motorcycles – I call it an urban assault motorcycle. Mine has straight street tires on it, but one of us has knobbies on his, another usually does as well, and another goes with the stock 90/10 tires (meaning 90% of the time on road, 10% of the time off road – usually with blocky, but pavement-appropriate, tread). We each have aftermarket luggage on our bikes as well – aluminum panniers (side cases) that, despite their trendy nature, are incredibly sturdy and unimaginably practical.

As we rode through some just beautiful winding roads in Stafford County, even at one point having to get on the brakes to avoid clipping a deer running across the road, I thought a terrible thought.

A horrible, terrible, very bad, no good thought.

Maybe we’re no different from the Harley guys.

Perhaps that’s just a fleeting thought, though, I thought as I quickly tried to brush it aside. We – and by “we” here I mean BMW riders – tend to look down on cruiser (not just Harley) riders because of their stereotypical reticence to engage in the widespread and regular use of protective gear. When we see a cruiser rider out wearing jeans, vest, t-shirt & one of those “brain bucket” helmets, we kind of laugh at him and disparage his “uniform.”  When we see a sport bike rider out wearing shorts, t-shirt, sneakers & a brightly-patterned full-face helmet, we kind of laugh at him and disparage his “uniform.”

It made me wonder if the cruiser riders or sport bike riders look at us, laugh a bit and disparage our “uniform” – weatherproof jacket & riding pants, gloves, boots, and a flip-front helmet. (We’ll leave it out that I use a full-face helmet and was wearing chaps today.) It struck me that they laugh at us just as we laugh at them – and for the same reason.

“Look at those assholes, wearing their uniforms and riding their adventure bikes. Don’t they ever act like individuals?”

I mean … seriously … the four of us (even though one wasn’t riding his GS today) even own the same brand of helmet. How ridiculous is that? It’s no different than the Harley guys that wear the totally unprotective brain bucket helmets – “skid lids” I’ve heard them  called – except that, you know, our high-tech, German-made helmets are far more likely to save our lives and preserve our rugged good looks (or at least our jawlines) if our heads come into contact with something hard in case of a crash.

It’s really no different conceptually, though it is quite different functionally. My three-season jacket that is both waterproof and vented – and comes with a fancy quilted zip-in warm-your-body-right-up liner – is, from an identification-with-a-group standpoint, absolutely no different than a leather vest covered with patches that say things like “Sergeant-At-Arms” and “DILLIGAF” and “Loud Pipes Save Lives.”

Having that thought really got my attention, and not in a good way.

I suppose, however, if I’m going to buy into a motorcycling trend, I could do a lot worse than one that include bikes that can go anywhere and do just about anything as well as a “uniform” that involves probably excessive levels of protection from the terrible things that can happen to a rider in a crash or collision.

At least that’s what I’m telling myself.

yeah, I judge

IMG_0238I admit that I judge people.

Scooter people.  I hate ’em.

(Except for one of my Facebook friends & former coworkers, who I can tell is a conscientious rider, but hey, Charlotte is just the exception that proves the rule as far as I’m concerned.)

I’m not proud of it… well, not entirely, but there it is just the same.

It’s pretty simple why, and I’ll tell you.

Motorcycle people are, in general, pretty aware of other motorcycle people. When we park, we tend to leave enough room for another bike to get into the space with us and when we park in a space where there’s already another motorcycle (which, honestly, we will usually only do if we’re sure we know the owner of the other bike), we leave enough room to make sure the other rider can safely get out of the space. It’s not much more than common courtesy, but it’s important because it makes sure car drivers aren’t given another reason to hate us.  Seeing one bike per space just pisses people off, especially folks with those massive SUVs.

(Wow, I’m not making any friends here, am I?)

I have noticed, however, that scooter people (in general) are not like this.

Everybody knows I work from home now, but up until March of this year, I worked in a regular office in Arlington (and before that, Alexandria). Of course I rode my motorcycle to work as often as logistically possible and when I parked it at the office, I tried to take a space that a car either couldn’t fit in or that a car driver wouldn’t particularly care for (low ceiling, next to a pole, straddling a speed bump, that kind of thing).

In that same office building in Arlington, however, were several scooter riders.

There was more than one occasion where I came out after work to start my commute home and discovered my bike blocked into its parking space by one or two of these things. Blocked, I tell you! As in I had to physically move the scooter(s) to be able to get my bike out of the parking space. The first time, I figured the guy (or gal) was just in a hurry, so I carefully moved the scooter just barely enough to squeak by bike past it. The second time, I wasn’t as sure the scooterati was in a hurry, so I was … well, less careful but still doing nothing that would get me in trouble.

The fifth or sixth time I had to move this person’s scooter, I took the time to go back up to my office, grab a piece of paper, write “Please stop blocking my motorcycle in the parking spaces, thank you” on it, and squeeze that piece of paper into a crevice on the scooter.

I found the paper lying on the ground the next morning with the scooter once again blocking me into my space and this time, it had a bicycle lock run through the front wheel so I couldn’t roll the thing out of the way. Luckily I am strong and scooters are light, so I just picked it up and moved it – only this time, in a very hateful move, I carried the scooter 30 or 40 feet and left it in a very inconvenient (yet still accessible/viewable) spot.

You’d think that would have ended the parking lot standoff, but no. A week later, I found my bike once again blocked in by this scooter-riding knucklehead. After that, I started parking my bike at an angle across the front of the space I was in, basically preventing anybody from blocking me in – thus becoming the parking space-hogging dick I was trying to avoid becoming. I occasionally discovered the scooter in question parked behind me, but it never blocked me in again.

Fast forward to now. I live in an apartment complex with a parking garage. They charge $90 a month for garage spaces, but they allow motorcycles & scooters to park in the garage for free – they just ask that we either use a space a car can’t use or bunch together with multiple two-wheelers in one space.

Guess what’s happening.

It’s actually worse than just some insensitive prick blocking me in. The scooterati here park inappropriately in multiple places, and some of them even have left their broken-down scooters (leaking oil, gas, etc.) lying around like so much post-apocalyptic detritus.

I’ve witnessed reprehensible behavior on the part of scooter riders around here, including riding on sidewalks, running stop signs & red lights, and more. I’m not saying motorcycle riders don’t occasionally do those same things, I’m just saying I don’t SEE motorcycle riders doing them with any regularity.

It could just be that I’m getting all “GET OFF MY LAWN,” but this shit is irritating me to the point where all I want to do is kick these little bastards out of my way and get on with my life.

I guess what I’m trying to say here is that no matter how big or small your two- (or three-) wheeled conveyance is, we all reflect on each other. When a swarm of sport bike riders attacks an SUV driver, that makes us all look bad. When an open-pipe bike gets revved for 2 minutes at a stoplight by its rider for no apparent reason, that makes us all look bad. When a guy (or gal) on a scooter acts like a dick in the parking lot, that makes us all look bad.  We have enough to worry about just getting from place to place without getting run over that the last thing we need is car drivers actively hating us for behavior they witnessed  that we weren’t even involved in!

Scooter, moped, bike, trike or sidecar – we all have to look out for each other.

If you ride a scooter, I’ll look out for you … as long as you quit blocking me in my damn parking space!!