Decades of Easy Rider, Boozefighters, and Hell's Angels folklore have painted an indelible image of what a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is and does. Harley fans are knuckle draggers focused solely on the sound and style of their machines. Performance doesn't count.
Honda lives at the opposite end of the image scale. Only the nicest people ride Hondas. The winged two-wheelers thrive at the leading edge of technology and sophistication. Honda's status as the world's largest engine maker sustains a menu ranging from 49-cc junior dirt bikes to 1832-cc Gold Wings for seniors who prefer their Winnebagos on two wheels.
Like most stereotypes, the above picture is out of focus. Harley has lasted more than a century by fighting off Indian, the British, Victory, and the current tag team of four Japanese brands. Harley is smart enough to include a hint of bad boy in every machine it sells to law-abiding citizens seeking a taste of the wild side. And if you doubt the speed and sophistication of the bikes brewed in Milwaukee, check Harley's flat-track, drag, and speed-record prowess and ponder the overhead-cam V-Rod engine it developed with Porsche.
Honda threw Harley for a loop in the 1960s with affordable, technically advanced bikes that drew millions to the motorcycle world. But lately, Honda's second-place U.S. sales status is under threat from Yamaha while Harley sits at the top of the heap. How could this be? It's all about cruisers, the type of motorcycle Harley has nurtured for ages and the one nut Honda has found difficult to crack.