Motorcycle theft is an epidemic, but one brand stands out among the rest
By Dr Ken German (Past IAATI UK Branch President).
Riding my Harley Davidson along the N340 through the Southern Andalusian mountains, the golden eagles floating above, was absolutely magic. But my ride came to a halt when a Spanish Guardia Civil police officer marched out in front of me and waved me to the back of a queue of other riders, all destined for an all-too-frequent road check.
Spain has a motorcycle theft problem amounting to 32,000 machines stolen per year. Many simply disappear.
The irony of my stop was that it happened in a town called Tarifa, once believed to be the origin of the word tariff, meaning duty payable, and I was on a Harley Davidson. In a double irony the friendly English speaking officer told me they were looking for drugs and stolen motorcycles, particularly Harleys, leaving the Spanish mainland through Algeciras.
I admit to jumping the queue simply in the act of swapping police badges, and just in time, as the officer leaped in front of a pick-up truck carrying three bikes muttering something which broadly translates to a common British police phrase JDLR – just doesn’t look right.
The coincidence got me thinking of the current fight between President Trump and the American Harley Davidson factory based in Wisconsin mainly over tariffs, which seems to be one the factory can’t win. It’s the their threat of moving some, if not all, of its HQ and two other factories in Missouri and Pennsylvania to somewhere in Europe or the Far East that is upsetting the president who says it could be the beginning of the end for the company.
The iconic Harley Davidson motorcycle, after 116 years of production, may well have reached a catalyst in its history through no real fault of its own, and it sad to say that it could affect its passionate and loyal following bigtime.
Whilst this unfortunate impasse continues, the 700 members of the UK branch of the Hells Angels club many of who are devoted Harley fans were riding from Crawley to Brighton for their 50th anniversary celebration run watched by a huge police presence expecting trouble, many of whom had their leave cancelled.
Thirty-four of the club's members were arrested for either possessing offensive weapons or drugs but a police spokesperson said after the event that the H.A.U.K. had not proved as troublesome as the police expected and certainly not a patch on the violent thugs riding mopeds that he normally had to deal with on his ‘manor’ in the Met.
It was the comments from some HA members however, when asked their opinion about the possible move by the Harley Davidson factory, that indicated all was not well with their fan base. One member suggested simply that the Harleys were not what they used to be, and look more like Japanese cruiser replicas of ‘look alike’ Harleys, with a quality that was simply not there anymore. His mate agreed that it was the older models they preferred and rued the day when the Dyna series of machines stopped production.
While the HA is largely committed to riding just the Harley brand, he suggested it was not beyond the bounds of possibility that the club might have to look around for another manufacturer such as Indian, Triumph and Royal Enfield in the future. The club made it clear that whilst the H.D. company might not admit it, the thought of losing the bikes' ‘outlaw’ credibility would be a disaster for their image.
There is one rare fact about the Harley Davidson motorcycle however and that is they have been consistent throughout the last half century in being the most popular of all machines in the world – to steal. Not by volume perhaps, as that remains with the Japanese manufacturers who took over that title in the 1980’s from Triumph, BSA and Norton.
But even today the desirability for Harley Davidson machines matches only the Brough Superior, Vincent, Porsche, Land Rover, Toyota Land Cruiser and certain other two- and four-wheeled classics that can be sold left or right hand drive in any country of the world at any time, a fact that the organised gangs of car & bike thieves know full well; hence very few of these most iconic vehicles are ever recovered.
This iconic ‘Marmite’ bike is not loved by all motorcyclists and even those that do like them admit to wanting to redesign them to their own liking which often involves changing the ‘heavy bits’ like the frame to a lighter or chopped version and also replacing the ‘dreadnought’ crankcases with other more efficient ones. It’s all a matter of taste.
This designer practice however removed the VIN number identifying the original frame and the engine number from the standard crankcases, which would on any other make of bike leave it bereft of all its true provenance and ownership.
Not so the Harley, which could be placed to a registration and owner based on the markings etched on half a dozen of its component parts should a machine ever be found stripped down.
Here in the UK last year, of the 27,000 motorcycles and scooters reported stolen, 154 were Harley Davidson machines of which only 7 were recovered (5%).
In the USA 46,200 motorcycles of all makes were reported stolen last year, 3,907 of which were Harley Davidson machines and again only 313 were recovered (12%) against a general recovery rate across all bikes that was 40%.
In France 55,100 machines were reported stolen, Italy 53,700 and Spain 34,300 all of which reported recovery rates for the HD range of bikes between 5% and 9%.
In Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia and South Africa recovery rates were again surprisingly similar and in Australia where 8,200 bikes were taken last year, of the 202 Harley Davidsons taken according to a police source ‘only a couple have been found to date’.
Some accolade for the Harley factory perhaps to be the most desirable motorcycle in the world for people to steal, but there is a conundrum in that whilst motorcycle theft has risen over the last few decades, the Harley Davidson brand has remained a champion of two wheeled crime prevention, more than any other manufacturer simply by marking many of its component parts with both covert and overt serial numbers to help police with the identification of stolen parts.
Today manufacturers rely on aftermarket forensic etching and passive transponders to establish provenance in cases of suspected theft and it’s this commitment to the police that prevents motorcycle theft skyrocketing as it did thirty years ago.
The thought of any of its passionate owners proudly wearing there patches and regalia riding by on any other machine doesn’t bear thinking about. After all, it JDLR.