Motorcycle Production - Conspicuous In Their Absence

Exhaust Notes

We tend to think of production motorcycles as the products of a series of faceless committees. The concept may start with one person. But by the time it has been altered and approved by groups of designers, engineers, bean counters and marketing people, the personality has largely been smoothed off and scaled back, making the final flavor more plain vanilla than Coffee Coffee BuzzBuzzBuzz(r).

Part of Harley's genius has been to make Willie G. Davidson, its head of styling who has direct ties to the company's founders, a very public and prominent part of its management. This provides customers with an individual they can attach to their motorcycle's look, a sense of continuity, a very able spokesman and someone who could embody Harley leadership for the faithful.

But even though we rarely hear about them, individuals at other companies have also had considerable influence in shaping our motorcycles. Sad to say, we sometimes don't know what we have until it's gone. This was demonstrated too dramatically a few years ago when in one awful tragedy two of Honda's product-development people, Joe Boyd and Dirk Vandenberg, died in the same testing crash. Both were great guys who were well-known, liked and respected within the industry, and their losses left emotional holes that haven't been filled.

Their absence from Honda's testing program also affected the products that emerged after they were gone. The Honda cruisers created while those guys were at the top of their game-the Magna in 1993, the Valkyrie in '96 and the Ace Tourer in '97-were among the best sorted-out cruisers ever built, with exceptional suspensions, ergonomics and handling. (Of course, their influences extended beyond cruisers; Boyd's nickname was "GL Joe" for his role in the Gold Wing program.) The Honda cruisers introduced since Dirk and Joe's demise have been quite average in those respects. They had such an influence on Honda's motorcycles because they were very good at what they did and their superiors recognized the fact. When they said something needed to be changed, it got changed. Unfortunately, those of us outside the company could only tell how they improved our motorcycles when they were no longer here to do it.

Yamaha also recently lost an individual who played an influential role in its cruiser program for decades. Ed Burke was a driving force in Yamaha cruisers from the first Specials back in the '70s to the Road Stars (and probably beyond, in products we haven't seen yet). An enthusiast who understood and shared the aesthetic standards of American motorcyclists, Burke pushed the company to develop the first Japanese cruiser with a purpose-built engine with the Virago in '81, and was the champion of the current Star series. Star owners and lovers owe much to Burke for the style and savvy of their rides. We don't yet know what effects Burke's retirement will have on future machines, but I expect we will detect the repercussions in a few years.

As this is written, Kawasaki is about to lose one of its prime movers to retirement. John Hoover didn't invent the Vulcans, but he was a major influence in the successful reinvention of the concept. Hoover, Kawasaki's director of product development, played a crucial role in setting the direction the Vulcans should take. It couldn't have been easy to get a company that had always made performance a priority to create a new generation of its flagship cruiser that was slower and less sophisticated, but also very pretty, more comfortable and at the leading edge of cruiser style. But Hoover's understanding of American riders (as an enthusiast himself) enabled the company to develop its modern cruisers, the first Kawasaki products that meshed with the tastes of American cruiser enthusiasts. The most spectacular example of that turnaround was the Vulcan 1500 Classic, which graced our first cover back in '96. It was a huge hit for Kawasaki. Hoover's influence in the success of the Vulcans extended well beyond the planning, however. He made sure the new bikes got to people making aftermarket products so that owners would have lots of opportunities to personalize them.

Hoover understands his customer and likes him because, if things had worked out differently, he would have been one. Six or seven years ago at Daytona I watched as a Kawasaki rider's bike died on the boulevard right in front of Kawasaki's demo-ride area. The annoyed rider pushed his dead motorcycle into the Kawasaki area, and the first person in Kawasaki apparel he encountered was Hoover. Hoover immediately realized the battery was dead. Now this rider had festooned the motorcycle with lights and other electrical accessories. Hoover pointed out that the bike couldn't support that kind of drain at idle-which was virtually all it could do in that sort of traffic-and suggested the rider turn off some of the lights. At that point he could have simply told the owner to take his battery to be charged, offered to charge it and have him come back later, or presented other inconvenient alternatives. Instead, Hoover removed the dead battery and, since there was no spare charged battery available, pulled one from a demo bike, put it in and sent him on his way. The funny part to me, watching from our booth nearby, was that guy was as clueless that he was dealing with a Kawasaki executive as he was about how his charging system worked. I suspect that was just the way John wanted it.

In big companies, the influence and appreciation of people like John Hoover wax and wane. I have gotten to the point where I can usually see the presence or absence of Hoover's touch in a new cruiser.

Even if we don't always know the names, faces or even roles of people who shape the motorcycles we buy, we enjoy (or occasionally, tolerate) their influence on every ride.
-Art Friedman