In the spirit of this thread, let’s have another thread of Made-Up Things That Kinda Sound True, But Aren’t.
Until recently, Harley-Davidson motorcycles, in the US at least, were legally required to sound like that.
It all started in the early eighties.
Japanese motorcycles were moving into the US market in a big way, and were perceived as being newer in design and more technically advanced. At the same time, the Japanese looked around at the American market and started to copy the look and feel of big American bikes.
At the time, Harley-Davidson was a much smaller company than it is now. It found itself in a bit of a jam. H-D did not have the breadth and depth of engineering talent required to perform a full-on effort to copy and adapt the technologies that the Japanese bikes were bringing to the market. And meanwhile, the Japanese were eating away at their traditional market.
Clearly, non-technical measures were needed to buy some time while H-D brought its engineering and product teams up to snuff.
The first tactic was legal. Harley-Davidson sought and secured a trademark on the sound of its bikes. No other manufacturer would be allowed to sell a motorcycle in the US exhibiting H-D’s unique sound, rhythm and tone. This was a stopgap to end the erosion of its core market.
H-D knew this measure would soon be overturned in the courts, so its second tactic was cultural. H-D’s marketing department went full out to create the Harley Mystique.
H-D bikes were portrayed as strong, powerful, rugged, independent, manly. Their unique sound was an unmistakable reflection of that. They appealed to the stubborn, unvanquished outlaw in their audience (ironic, considering the number of police agencies that used Harley bikes). When you heard a Harley on the street, you knew a Real Man was arriving.
As Harley-Davidson waited nervously to see whether the Mystique marketing campaign worked, the Japanese manufacturers were making some moves of their own. Unable to immediately overturn the H-D trademark, through a still-controversial legal manoeuvre they made it mandatory. In the US, Harley-Davidson was forbidden from selling any motorcycle that did not exhibit the Harley sound.
Harley-Davidson fought to get the ruling overturned, but in the short term, it did not matter… because the Harley-Davidson Mystique proved popular beyond their wildest dreams. Whether it was the burgeoning neo-conservative culture of the eighties, or some other factor, it was hard to say, but sales of Harley-Davidson’s traditionally-styled motorcycles grew and grew again, even outside the US.
H-D’s effort to market newer designs outside the US came to naught, because the Harley-Davidson Mystique dominated everything the company did. No-one bought the newer designs.
Meanwhile, H-D doubled down on the Mystique. There were side deals and spinoff products galore. Accessories. Pipes. Apparel. Jewelry. Music. Toys. Movie placements. A deal with Ford yielded a co-badged edition of the F-150 light truck. There was even a wine.
Frustrated H-D engineers were quoted as saying, “We could make these engines purr like kittens… but we’re not allowed to.”
Eventually, the trademark restrictions were overturned, and Harley-Davidson could sell motorcycles with any sound. But by that point, they no longer wanted to. The H-D Mystique had become H-D reality.