Skidmarks: Made in the USA

Gabe Ets-Hokin
by Gabe Ets-Hokin

Is there even such a thing as an American motorcycle?

Here’s probably the only thing I know for sure about global trade:

It’s complicated.

In fact, if some person told me he or she truly understood how this bewildering behemoth of a trade machine worked, and could predict what would happen if somebody fiddled with a piece of it, I would stick my fingers in my ears and shout “la la la la la la,” unless somebody from the Department of Homeland Security was in earshot. I wouldn’t want them to think I was yelling “Allah! Allah! Allah!” There’s a lot of room in Guantanamo these days.

Still, motorcycle enthusiasts wind up knowing a lot about global trade, whether we want to or not. Where our products come from is important to us, as we depend on the quality of a motorcycle’s components for performance, reliability and safety. We also appreciate different approaches to the sport other countries may take when it comes to apparel, accessories and modifications. And of course, we’re all terrific cheapskates who would probably happily sacrifice a loved one’s limbs to save $50 on a set of tires. “Stop whining, mom! They can do amazing things with prosthetics these days. And I got these Pirelli SC2s for $299 a set. A set!” Knowing where your stuff is made arms you with the info you need to make good choices.

skidmarks made in the usa, Please tell me you make your tank badges in the US Harley Please
Please tell me you make your tank badges in the US, Harley! Please!

Of course, there’s also a segment of the population that will only buy American-made motorcycles, which leads you into an existential examination of what it means to even be American made. The nature of our crony-capitalist political/economic system is that most regulations are written by the industries they regulate, so the official definitions of what constitutes “Made in USA” can sometimes be comically blurry and vague. The definition depends on who you ask. Defense Department? The Berry Amendment (which is a 1951 amendment regulating products for military use to the 1933 Buy American Act signed into law by Herbert Hoover, just in case you thought nobody was concerned with this kind of thing until you-know-who came along) says 50% of US-made steel is good enough. Federal Trade Commission? “All or virtually all” the product has to be made in the USA, and the commissioners will sue you if you’re lying.

So, what does it mean when it comes to motorcycles? Well, if you’ve ever put a motorcycle together, you’ll know there are a lot of little parts. Where the parts are screwed together – assembled – is less important than where the parts were made for the purposes of determining country of origin. What percent of a finished Harley or Indian is made in the USA?

“Who knows?” is the best answer I could get Googling madly just hours before this column’s deadline, but I do know this: that info is muy secreto, carefully guarded corporate information. One intrepid blog, Back in the USA, dug deep into the American-cruiser Internet underworld and guessed 60-70%, which seems high to me, but which is pretty good if accurate. After all, the 2017 Jeep Wrangler, the car with the most USA-made components, is just 75% American made.

skidmarks made in the usa, If you sourced every part and ounce of raw material on an Indian looked up the address of every Polaris shareholder tracked where every dollar of investment and profit came from and went would Polaris be more American than say BMW Or Honda Does it matter
If you sourced every part and ounce of raw material on an Indian, looked up the address of every Polaris shareholder, tracked where every dollar of investment and profit came from and went, would Polaris be more American than, say, BMW? Or Honda? Does it matter?

But is Harley-Davidson an American company? Well, it isn’t not an American company, but when you get that big, your allegiances start to drift to your shareholders and away from your customers, workers and even nation. Harley makes no bones about the importance of developing overseas markets – that’s where the future of the Motor Company lies, if it has one – and has been developing product lines for those markets for decades, with varying levels of success. But American? Squint your eyes and blur all the made-in-China accessories and apparel flooding your local H-D showroom, or the news about the MoCo shuttering American plants and opening overseas ones, and keep your focus on the glittery chrome and bright US flags, and maybe you can see it that way.

When you get down to it, since the global supply chain for motorcycles is so small compared to other industries, most motorcycles are probably about the same. When I want suspension, I think Showa, Öhlins or maybe Sachs. Brakes? Nissin or Brembo. You get the picture. They might as well just build all motorcycles on an unmarked island in the South Pacific, like some ’60s Bond villain.

Still, it’s always nice to see an American flag logo on a motorcycle, but when I think of made-in-USA motorcycles, some sad failures spring to mind, like the saga of Erik Buell. Here was a guy trusting enough to devote his life to developing the ultimate made-in USA sportbike, yet when he delivered it – in the form of the very competent EBR 1190 – sportbike buyers couldn’t be bothered, even when the 180-horsepower bike was priced about the same as its European and even Japanese competition. Seriously guys, if you bought a European superbike between 2014 and 2017 without considering an EBR, that was kind of a dick move (if you bought a Japanese one, you are heartless, but sensible, and I respect that).

skidmarks made in the usa, That s an American motorcycle
That’s an American motorcycle?

But there’s hope, though it’s from an unlikely segment of the market. Zero and Alta Motors are Northern-California-based electric-motorcycle manufacturers who decided to skip the endless hype and build-up some motorcycle start-ups put us through and just started building – and selling – completed products. Zero is almost into its third decade of model years, while Alta has been quietly selling dirtbikes, dual-sports and supermotos for a few years and has the facilities to build 10 bikes a day.

If you ask most Americans, buying “Made in USA” is kind of the commercial equivalent of a (please excuse the expression) “mercy F%$k.” Why pay more for something that uses antiquated technology, costs more than the competition, offers questionable reliability when it’s so easy to buy something better and cheaper from overseas?

If you ask me – and maybe a majority of our readers – “Made in USA” should mean you’re getting a product that’s innovative, high-performing, reliable and affordable. Being American means being tough, innovative and hardworking. Companies like EBR, Alta, Zero and many others in the moto-industry show us that restoring that reputation isn’t only possible; it’s happening, and no trade policy can change it.

Gabe Ets-Hokin is assembled in the USA out of imported components assembled in various free-trade zones.

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2 of 71 comments
  • Rob Mitchell Rob Mitchell on Jul 13, 2018

    Is there even such a thing as an American motorcycle? f there was it wouldn't be the full bike. The US gallon isn't the full gallon, the US ton isn't the full ton, even the US president is a couple of kangaroos short in the top paddock.

  • Mad4TheCrest Mad4TheCrest on Jul 15, 2018

    No matter where the components are sourced, I'd really like to support an American motorcycle company if I can. Whether I can depends on the bike, it's features, and the price. So far, those criteria have not aligned for me, but I keep looking; maybe someday soon (Indian FTR, maybe?)