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Harley-Davidson Thinks Young as It Turns 100

MILWAUKEE August 29, 2003; Susan Kelly writing for Reuters reported that Dennis Stamm, a lifelong Harley-Davidson rider, remembers getting around town on the back of his father's motorcycle when he was a boy and the family of five had no car.

"I was born and raised with Harleys," said the 61-year-old machinist from Leesport, Pennsylvania, wearing a black leather cap and T-shirt promoting his local Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) club.

After raising three children of his own and working two jobs most of his life, the open road beckons. Riding a custom Electra Glide touring bike, he is among hundreds of thousands of Harley faithful who have made the cross-country pilgrimage to this blue-collar Midwest city to mark the manufacturer's 100th anniversary.

"To me, it's family. It's tradition," he said. "You ride and forget all your worries in the world. You just think about getting out in the fresh air and having a good time."

At times the roar of the engines was deafening as Harley enthusiasts from across the country converged in a blur of chrome, wheels and leather to pay homage as much to the Harley lifestyle as to the manufacturer's status as a bona fide American legend.

The Milwaukee celebration, capping a yearlong blitz of parties, rides and record revenue boosted by sales of special-edition bikes and Harley-Davidson Inc. anniversary memorabilia, attracts the most die-hard of Harley loyalists.

"It's a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity," said a jittery Bob Rietzler, 56, just minutes before marrying his sweetheart under the midday sun in a makeshift chapel in the parking lot behind Harley-Davidson's red-brick headquarters in downtown Milwaukee.

The bride, Lisa Dibrino, wearing a red dress, arrived in a sidecar attached to a Harley bike as the groom looked on, his long, wavy gray hair flowing over the shoulders of his silver-studded tuxedo.


Company-sponsored anniversary events, from parades and concerts to drag-racing demonstrations, began on Thursday and continue through the Labor Day weekend. Activities were spread out across several venues near the city's lakefront, snarling traffic along the Lake Michigan shoreline.

The experience only seemed to energize local residents, who stood on highway overpasses holding signs welcoming the riders "home" to Milwaukee, and the mostly middle-aged bikers who waved back.

"We learned a lot about America during this trip. The villages are really very small," said Herman Weltns, a 58-year-old German engineering executive at Tenneco Automotive Inc. who got his first Harley when he turned 40. Weltns traveled from Germany to attend the celebration, taking the back roads after arriving in Detroit.

Harley-Davidson, which survived the Great Depression and rebounded after foreign competition drove the company to near-bankruptcy in 1985, today is revered as much by Wall Street as by its loyal customers.

Its bikes can carry price tags upward of $30,000 when outfitted with custom colors and accessories.

Vern Berreth, 54, the owner of an auto parts store in Denver said: "What I like about Harley is the accessories. You can make each bike your own."

To broaden its appeal beyond the legions of affluent, but aging baby boomers, Harley has revamped its line of entry-level Sportster bikes and rolled out stylish new models of its V-Rod "power" cruisers. The 2004 bikes were unveiled to the public during the Milwaukee celebration.

Harley is hoping to attract more of the younger riders like Chris Steinmetz into the fold.

Steinmetz, a 28-year-old Chicago firefighter, bought his first Harley, an $11,000 Sportster model, last year. He chose a Harley, he said, even though it was a stretch to afford.

"It was the only one I wanted to get," said Steinmetz, who admitted to "peer pressure" from co-workers to buy a Harley.

"There's something about a Harley. They are just noisier and cooler," he said.