When did the business story become the story?
“Amazon,” said company founder (and world’s richest man) Jeff Bezos to his staff, “is not too big to fail. In fact, I predict one day Amazon will fail. Amazon will go bankrupt. If you look at large companies, their lifespans tend to be 30-plus years, and not a hundred-plus years.”
Chaos and instability are the order of the world. Bezos—to the horror of shareholders—gets it. Did anyone predict the failure of Sears? And Amazon is merely the Sears of a hyperconnected age. It isn’t just you and I that live and die. Every society, in time, falls. Every company, eventually, fails. (Or is diminished to the point of irrelevancy—think Kodak.) But humans are wired with a built-in flaw that short-circuits reason. Despite lived experience that should make us wise to the ways of the world, we believe a good day today promises a better day tomorrow.
A peculiarity of contemporary reportage is a fixation—to the brink of distraction—on the financial ledger. But while behind-the-scenes financial machinations make for amusing theatre, it’s distracted us from what’s important. The finances—the good, the bad, the muddy in-between—of companies are mere footnotes to history. What matters is what’s made.
Lamborghini built the most beautiful car (the Miura) and the most outrageous car (the Countach) in automotive history. Founder Ferruccio Lamborghini lost control of the company, and in 1978, just 15 years after its founding, Lamborghini was bankrupt. The perpetual chaos of Italian politics is mirrored by its industry. Claudio Castiglioni, during his ownership of Ducati, led them from stuffy heritage brand to racing and design powerhouse. Shortly after the birth of the 916, he off-loaded the company to American investors. And then Castiglioni resurrected long-dormant MV Agusta, and after his death, his son, Giovanni, took Russian money to keep MV solvent.
The oft-repeated refrain amongst critics is disbelief that Italians, amid this perpetual upheaval, can make wonderful machines. But it should be self-evident by now that instability aided the creation of the Miura and the Countach and the 916 and MV’s tasty little triples. In the way that a bandit firing a gun at your feet will make you jump higher than you thought possible, impending financial doom adds a layer of intensity that brings out brilliance in people. Why? Because this bike or this car must make an impact significant enough to keep the company from the jaws of insolvency. It doesn’t matter if it rarely works out that way. What matters is that pressure brings out the best in us.
Wonder why Harley is struggling today? Big Twins above and below are separated by nearly 70 years (hint: the older one has a hand-operated gearshift adjacent to the fuel tank).
So much for progress. The company is just now waking from a deep slumber generations in the making.
Success does not foster creativity. Success creates stability, which can lull a company into complacency. Desperation is far more useful for the creation of inspiring works than security. This is not a contrarian view. Bankruptcy laws exist so that innovations can be attempted without the authors of these inventions risking the shirts on their backs.
Harley-Davidson’s 30-year run of outrageous success put them in a perilous situation. Their boom-era lineup doesn’t make any sense in today’s flat-busted economy. Harley sat on its ass and counted the cash, just like Sears did. But now Harley, for the first time in a very long time, is desperate. The company will do anything to convince investors they’ve got a plan for the future. Electrified machines that look like bicycles from the ’70s? On the way! Streetfighters and adventure bikes? Why not! Harley, once notoriously tight-lipped about new products, is releasing computer renderings and design concepts sketched on cocktail napkins. It’s odd. A bit alarming. And wonderful.
Viewed in the context of the top two machines, the Livewire is a Hail Mary of epic, damn-near-Italian-industry proportion. Will it, or its offspring, save Harley? Likely not. But what a brilliant machine.
Harley-Davidson is the first major manufacturer to have released an electric motorcycle. Harley-Davidson. This is the company that, for generations, feared overhead cams and functioning brakes and supple suspensions. The company so paralyzed by its Make America Great Again ridership that it tried to patent the warble from its V-twin. The company that makes new motorcycles virtually indistinguishable from 70-year-old motorcycles has made an electric bike ahead of Honda and Yamaha. Now that’s desperation.
I haven’t ridden the Livewire, but it’s beautiful. It looks like a proper motorcycle. Its motor looks like a motor and not the innards of a blender. And, from what I’ve read, the brakes work and the riding position facilitates spirited cornering. Yes, the range is so-so and it’s expensive. I can’t afford one. But if I eliminated the things in this world I can’t afford we’d all be putting around in quarter-million-mile Jeep Cherokees and savaged-by-depreciation ’90s Ducatis. But the oddest aspect of media coverage about the Livewire is the fixation on Harley’s desperation as a negative.
Desperation—more often than you’d think—is a significant catalyst to brilliance. The star-crossed ’70s band Big Star made one of the greatest records in pop music history with Sister Lovers. The recording process was fraught with in-fighting, the band disintegrated, and the record company dismissed the work as “unviable.” But the very hopelessness that surrounded the Sister Lovers recording gave the work a wildness, a depth, and an electrifying despair. After the recording, the band’s leader, Alex Chilton, gave up music for a decade and moved from Memphis to New Orleans to wash dishes in a restaurant. Rolling Stone cited Big Star’s significance as second only to The Velvet Underground’s in the history of American pop music. A “successful” band could not have made Sister Lovers.
A film critic wrote that in the ’70s, if you talked movies with a cab driver, you talked about the movies. Now every Monday on chat radio the talk is about how the movie did at the box office. As if making money is what it’s all about. Fiat will always outsell Ferrari. The coffee chain in Canada named after a dead hockey player will always sell more swill than the millennials in my village shop that make exceptionally good coffee. Bigger, fatter, richer is not better.
Rather than fixate on the profitable, why not celebrate what’s good? Or innovative, or beautiful, or adventurous. Harley-Davidson, to me, seems like a brand about to be eclipsed by modernity. They didn’t see it coming, and it’s likely too late to change their fate. But that their most invigorating work is coming at what may be the swansong of the company’s lifespan is a feat worthy of our admiration.