Willie G. Talks

Harley-Davidson’s Senior VP and Chief Styling Officer on…

Willie G.Davidson

Harley-Davidson's Senior VP and Chief Styling Officer: Willie G.Davidson

...the line between mechanical fluidity and technology required by modern bikes

When I think of motor cycle, those two words, it’s really an engine and a wheel. Some of the prettiest motorcycles in the world are dirt-track bikes, which are just an engine and a set of wheels. Function has to lead, but what’s neat about Harley-Davidson is the engineers work hand-in-hand with my team so we can come up with the best combination that’s both visually acceptable and meets all the criteria for function. So, there are certain necessary things that will be designed into the motorcycle. The ABS pickup in the center of the front hub is a good example. It was minimized to not detract from the beauty of the wheel.

...the role liquid cooling will play in Harley-Davidson’s future

I’m not at liberty to tell you about new models—I’d lose my job!—but there are certain advantages to a liquid-cooled engine. We’re well aware of that. But there’s a certain visual about a Harley-Davidson that’s recognized and really loved and embraced by a lot of people. We want to maintain that look. The V-Rod doesn’t need fins. That engine could look like a water pump. But, no! It’s a beautiful engine, right? If you’re going to transition, it should be something that still visually connects; you can’t go from round to square. A radiator is a very difficult thing to design around, but we faired it in on that V-Rod, so it’s a fairly nice shape. As designers, we can probably handle either direction, but we just need to be very cautious.

...the Sportster

It’s classic Harley-Davidson. It goes back to 1957. And it’s a price point. We’ve reinvented it many times. I’m very proud of our department and its ability to take that basic motorcycle and…well, line ’em up: If you look at the brochure and see what we’ve done over the last six, seven years, it’s working really well for us. Some of them have that raw, blacked-out, garage-built look. The Seventy-Two goes back to the Sixties and Seventies look. It’s all timing and how you arrange those parts.

...Harley-Davidson and younger riders

Are you familiar with rat rods? There’s something magical about that back-to-basics look. You can cut up something, weld it if you’re handy and use a rattle can to spray it. That’s been embraced by skateboarders and X Games people. It’s a culture and a look, and it also has some price advantages. The flat-paint bikes, as well as our new “big flake” look, are all intended to keep the fashion alive and appeal as an art form. It’s a functional piece—that’s got to be number one—but it still can be an interesting art form.

...retro models

A lot of people ask me if we will redo a Knucklehead or something. But you have to remember that those early Knuckles and Pans didn’t have the finesse we’re used to. I’ve got a collection of early bikes, and I love them, but we can’t replicate them because they don’t meet requirements that weren’t in place in those early years. I think we need to keep reinventing our bikes. They’ve got to have all the right requirements and still have the magic, the wow.

...the V-Rod and deliberately veering away from tradition

The V-Rod is a great motorcycle. Man, that engine is really cool. We can’t make enough of those for Latin America. We’ve found that the V-Rod buyer is not a traditional Harley rider. So, it’s very valuable to us because, to be a viable company, you have to bring in new customers. Volume and profit is how you stay in business, so we have to continually invent areas to go into and still maintain that bread and butter—air-cooled bikes are a major part of our volume. So, we’re trying different things…carefully.

On March 16, Willie G. Davidson announced his retirement from Harley-Davidson after nearly five decades as head of styling. Davidson, 78, says he will remain involved with The Motor Company as a brand ambassador. VP and Director of Styling Ray Drea will continue to lead the design team.