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Inside Every European is an Outlaw Biker

September 19, 1991

BERLIN (AP) _ You can order one, but it may take six months to get here. You can rent one, but book way ahead. You can buy an old one, but it may cost as much as a new one.

Europe has gone a little hog wild over Harley-Davidson, the quintessential American motorcycle, the classic ″Hog″ with the Big Bob tank.

The Milwaukee-based manufacturer is a bit baffled by the sudden fascination among foreigners with the big, bad bike.

″We are totally hot right now. It’s really amazing,″ said Catherine Tenke of Harley’s international marketing department.

In 1988, the company peddled 9,400 Harleys overseas, about 16 percent of its total $400 million in sales. Last year, it sold 16,000, nearly 30 percent of its $600 million in sales, she said.

This year, the company expects to sell about 20,000 bikes in its main export markets: Britain, France, Australia, Japan and the largest foreign customer, Germany.

But what the numbers don’t describe is the Harley lifestyle made famous by old biker flicks and now embraced by Europeans, for whom American pop culture is a chief import.

Last year, Klaus Schmitt was a balding, gray-haired limousine driver. Today, he is a balding, gray-haired owner of a Heritage Classic, which looks like a motorcycle on steroids. His wife bought a Sportster.

But Schmitt didn’t just buy the bike. He bought a black leather vest, a T- shirt that says ″The Strong Survive″ and a gold hoop earring. He bought the lifestyle.

″It’s Hollywood. This is history, this is a motorcycle with personality,″ said Schmitt, 47. ″All the movies ... it is like no other motorcycle.″

Manfred Kozlowsky, advertising manager for Western Europe, says he doesn’t do much advertising. Supply is meeting only 40 to 50 percent of demand, he says.

People who want Harleys sometimes wait six months, he said. Some regularly stake out dealerships, waiting to catch the delivery truck and buy crated bikes sight unseen.

A top-of-the-line Harley sells for about $16,500 in Germany. Dealers say a 10-year-old model will fetch its original price, the demand is so great.

″We’re going to hold a press conference on Sept. 25 to tell people worldwide why we can’t meet demand. We can only guess why this (demand) came about,″ Kozlowsky says.

While Harley always had mystique, the bikes were eclipsed in the 1970s by Japanese motorcycles, which were cheaper, faster, handled better and were much more reliable.

Harley-Davidson made a much-publicized turnaround in the early ’80s, improved quality substantially and regained U.S. dominance, albeit with the help of tougher import rules.

″People always wanted a Harley but didn’t dare buy one,″ Kozlowsky said. ″You had to be some kind of mechanic. Now, no screws fall off.″

Kozlowsky’s division is making plans to open one dealership each next year in Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

Ken Schmidt, a spokesman in Milwaukee, said Harley-Davidson’s major goals are to increase production capacity and substantially expand the overseas network, where the growth is.

He said Europeans to a greater degree have embraced the ″outlaw biker″ image the company doesn’t particularly endorse.

″Our image has softened a lot in America. We attract a lot of upscale, white-collar people. Riders in Europe tend to follow more of our ’70s image.″

People like Manuel, 31, the only person allowed to speak for the Hell’s Angels chapter that formed last year in Berlin. Its headquarters are in a red building in a working-class neighborhood. A sign that says ″The Angel Place″ hangs outside.

For ″security reasons,″ Manuel spoke on the condition his last name not be used.

″The Harley, it is difficult to say,″ he said. ″It means freedom. When someone asks you if you believe in God, you don’t know why, but you do. It is like that with Harley.″

For people who don’t want the depth of commitment that the Angels demand, there’s always U.S.-based Budget Rent-a-Car. Its German subsidiary, Sixt, has a fleet of 70 rent-a-Harleys.

″We usually can’t meet the demand when the weather is good on the weekends,″ said Konrad Hafner, Sixt marketing chief.

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