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High on the Hog

FX Magazine, April 1999

by Aidan Walker

'A new temple to the lifestyle that is Harley-Davidson is being built on the King's Road. Aidan Walker looks at how the HD has gone from being a bad boy's bike to a fashion icon.'

'Harley-Davidsons used to be absurdly expensive, idiosyncratic and unsuited to British roads. They are still all of those things, but they have over the last 10 years or so, after a series of takeovers and investment famines, begun to benefit from a sharp marketing-oriented management team - one that recognised the sense in selling the bikes as a brand, as a lifestyle, rather than on sheer performance or utility, which is how most bikes are sold.

'Bike brands? Ducati is perhaps a name to conjure with, but Honda or Suzuki hardly set the blood racing. You can't sell Harleys on cornering speeds or convenience; the kick from the 45 degree V-twin engine is likely to snap your neck if you twist the throttle sharply, but you get the feeling very few of the King's Road cruisers - the 'Cappuccino Club' - ever do. It was straightforward marketing sense to realise that here was a brand waiting to be built on, an image, a style.

'Then HD also benefited, in this country at least, from the American Retro style explosion. Ed's Diner, the Levi ads, Budweiser and Michelob, Marlboro country, the wide open spaces, dusty roads and cowboy boots - freedom myths as powerful in their imported version as cod British Victorian pub themes are in the States. Hard Rock got here early (the'70s), selling themed Americana and good hamburgers, but HDs had been rolling since 1904.

'For HD enthusiasts, the brand in the UK is only a tad more significant and evocative than the bike shop that has promoted it in Britain since 1924 - FH Warr and Sons. Grandsons, it is now, in fact - or rather grandson, in the shape of Mr no-nonsense, no training, natural retailer with a passion for bikes of any sort, John Warr. His grandad FJ Warr acquired a HD dealership in 1924, and set up at 611 King's Road, Chelsea, SW. Now, 75 years later, John Warr is spending the equivalent of his company's annual turnover on a brand new showroom, a 'temple to the Harley', as he likes to call it, which in scale, grandeur and ambition is more on a par with premium automobile brands such as Mercedes and Rolls Royce. Except at Warr's in the King's Road you'll be able to hang out, drink coffee and ponder over parts in the customer-involved way that characterises any grubby bike shop.

'John's father Fred (hence FH) obtained the UK import licence in 1957, when HDs 'were the price of an aircraft', to bring in just 80 bikes a year, and became the official concessionaire in the '60s. The '70s was the low time when the firm was owned by faceless corporate Amenca in the form of AMF. A management buyout in the US in 1982 came at the time motorcycling was appearing on a more affluent, older middle class agenda, and HDs began to clean up.

'The third Warr, who took over in the late '80s, won't be drawn on the comment that the growth in his market was more fashion and style-driven than genuine blood-red biker enthusiasm, and points to the fact that motorcycling in general was already growing at the time he took over. 'It isn't an explosion in numbers terms the import numbers aren't that much greater than in 1989. We just sell the stuff right. It isn't just bike sales; it's service, and the whole other thing that comes afterwards.' By which he means that what HD had to sell was a lifestyle: 'With HD you're failing if you don't sell the accessories.'

'In fact the Harley clothes business has been moved away from the current shop to the other end of the King's Road. 'We tried it in here but it didn't work, so I opened a separate shop and it works perfectly. They don't have to have anything to do with bikes up there,' says Warr - as if halfway up the King's Road was another part of the country.

'Having obtained a site for a workshop just up the road from the current shop, he was fortunate to acquire a site right next door to it, an oval-shaped piece of land that is actually number 611- the same site where Grandfather Warr opened his doors in 1924. With QS Tim Jupp of de Leeuw Jupp, with whom he had already worked on previous projects, Warr appointed architect Cullum and Nightingale to design an oval-shaped showroom, parts emporium and service department.

'The 20,000 sq ft building, which opens in June, is at the moment half an oval in plan and is designed to expand both outwards and upwards. The idea is to build into the other half of the oval, and ultimately to add floors for offices and residential accommodation above. There will be 'the best display of new and used Harley-Davidson and Buell motorcycles in Europe and a range of rare and collectable HDs from the past', an extensive parts and accessory market, a custom shop, the 'largest service department in Europe', a large display of HD memorabilia and a customer lounge and a coffee shop.

'Architect Richard Nightingale, mild-mannered and bespectacled, rides a Vespa in town and uses a 1950 Bentley for the other half of his transport needs. Why did Warr choose him and how do they get on? Like many successful client-designer relationships, there seems to be an element of mutual education going on. Cullum and Nightingale, not renowned for retail work, has done some fine modernist residential buildings and Graff, a tiny jewel-like jeweller's in Bond Street which impressed Warr. Nightingale confesses surprise at this: 'It couldn't be more different from what we're doing here.'

'He decides that what must be attractive to Warr is the architect's insistence on using solid, dependable materials and finishes; they design and build to last. The brick exterior walls of the showroom are solid bnck, not cavity; the wave-form concrete ceiling, a miracle of engineering, goes from 200mm to nearly 800mm to back again, complete with fixing holes to hang two-ton Hogs from the roof. Fittings and walls are glass and steel, flooring and 800mm thick countertops are heavy black American walnut. Everything speaks quality and durability.

'Warr's contribution is about the value of the experience of buying and using a Harley. Harley buyers want more than just want a bike, and with the new shop they're going to get it. 'Most bike shops I go into, I wouldn't want to buy a bike from,' says Warr. 'The sales guys are sloppy, there's no after-sales. I hate those places. Here it's a hobby for these guys, they come in every weekend, hang out, buy some bits. Even if someone comes in here knowing nothing about bikes, they can't fail to be impressed. With people who like bikes, there won't be any comparison. There won't be another bike store like it in the country, if not in Europe.'