EVERGREEN, Colorado – The beer is cold and the tempers are running hot at legendary biker bar Cactus Jack’s Saloon Grill over President Donald Trump’s ongoing feud with Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
“Harley stands for truth, justice and the American way, not this president,” said rider David Matney, whose bicep sports a flaming skull tattoo. “He’s trying to take our American heritage away. He’s not helping us.”
Matney, who rides a three-wheeled Tri Glide Harley, said when it comes to deciding between Trump and Harley, there’s no choice.
Trump has repeatedly attacked Wisconsin-based Harley over the company’s announcement it will move more production overseas in response to his tariff fight with Europe. That’s setting him up squarely in a fight against one of the country’s most beloved brands.
“Harley-Davidson should stay 100% in America, with the people that got you your success. I’ve done so much for you, and then this. Other companies are coming back where they belong! We won’t forget, and neither will your customers or your now very HAPPY competitors!” the president said in a tweet Wednesday.
Few companies have managed to remain as iconically American as Harley, which was founded before World War I and has long burnished its credentials as an American-made product beloved by military retirees. Wrapping its advertising in flags and adoring its motorcycles with eagles, Harley targets veterans as customers, as well as union workers proud of their brothers and sisters assembling the bikes in Kansas City, Missouri, York, Pennsylvania, and Tomahawk and Menomonee Falls, Wisconsin.
But like most things, there’s a subtlety that’s easily missed: While the motorcycles are assembled in the United States, Harley already does some manufacturing and assembly internationally, in India, Australia, Brazil and Thailand. And the Kansas City plant is being shut down while the plant in Thailand is being ramped up to make Harley-Davidson motorcycles for the Asian market.
Company officials say Trump’s trade war with Europe is forcing them to consider making motorcycles for Europeans in Europe, to avoid the higher export taxes. They have not directly responded to the president’s attacks. Harley buyers in Europe could see prices rise by an estimated $2,200 due to retaliatory tariffs being levied on specific American goods in response to Trump’s higher tariffs on European products.
The president argues new tariffs are needed to balance trade imbalances and restore American manufacturing, but companies like Harley-Davidson are increasingly operating globally.
And this battle comes at a bad time for Harley: Overall, the company’s motorcycle sales were down 6.7 percent in 2017 compared to 2016. U.S. retail sales decreased 8.5 percent and international retail sales were down 3.9 percent, the company said. Company officials see international expansion as a key driver for future growth, hence their quick announcement they would move some manufacturing to Europe.
For 2018, Harley-Davidson predicts it will ship 231,000 to 236,000 motorcycles worldwide, compared to about 242,000 in 2017. Most of those will be sold to American customers. Overall, there’s about 8.4 million motorcycles on U.S. roads, according to federal data.
It’s unclear if the president understands that today’s Harleys are assembled from international parts, or that it already planned to make some motorcycles abroad. Shortly after his inauguration, Trump singled out Harley as an iconic brand and invited company officials to the White House to highlight the motorcycles as American-made.
“A Harley-Davidson should never be built in another country-never! Their employees and customers are already very angry at them. If they move, watch, it will be the beginning of the end – they surrendered, they quit! The Aura will be gone and they will be taxed like never before!” the president said in a tweet Tuesday.
At Cactus Jack’s, where license plates adorn the walls and riders are asked to park their bikes two to a spot to make room, Harley owners are debating the fallout of the president’s feud. Some worry his actions will lead to higher prices, while others think Trump’s bluster will force Harley-Davidson to make American customers its top priority.
Matney and fellow rider Patty Gardner said the president should be doing more to help American companies like Harley, instead of getting into trade wars with our allies. Neither voted for the president, and neither has been impressed with his performance so far. Matney, an electrician at the Molson-Coors brewery in Golden, Colorado, said he supports some of the president’s moves, but this isn’t one of them.
Gardner was more blunt.
“Trump’s an idiot,” she said as strapped on her helmet and pulled on riding gloves. “I can’t stand him.”
But combat veteran and Harley low-rider owner Shawn Moss said the president deserves respect. An Army and Navy veteran who now is a member of the Combat Vets Association motorcycle club, Moss served under three presidents. He said Trump is on the right track in criticizing Harley, especially since so many of the motorcycles’ parts are already made abroad.
Moss said Harley should focus more on lowering prices instead of fighting with the president: Entry-level Harleys start around $7,000 but can cost well above $30,000 for more comfortable, powerful rides.
Jason Converse, a retired military K-9 handler who now manages product safety for a Denver-area manufacturing plant, bought his first Harley last year, a 2017 Fat Bob. He sees the dispute in the same dollars-and-cents calculation as Moss, although he’s reached a different conclusion.
Converse, a member of the Pipe Hitters Union Motorcycle Club, describes himself as a conservative but “not much of a Trump supporter,” and said he understands Harley’s first responsibility is to shareholders, not politics. The Pipe Hitters Union got its start with returning special forces veterans.
“Adding $2,200 onto an already struggling company’s product that might literally put them out of business,” said Converse. “The president does not want the quintessential American company’s demise being blamed on him, so he tweeted at them, which is all it seems he needs to do these days to electrify his supporters. As a biker, I love my Harley and I’m confident that the bike I ride and the bikes I ride in the future will be made in America by Americans. To be able to realize that means that they have to do business globally and if it allows Harley to continue to make these incredible machines? I’m all for it.”
Moss, a high school carpentry teacher, said when it comes to deciding between his beloved Harley or the president, there’s really no conflict. Motorcycles are important, but so is our country.
“I love my Harley and I love my country and I’ll always support the president,” he said.