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Willie G. Davidson Retiring

It’s the end of an era: after 49 years, Willie G. Davidson, Harley-Davidson’s styling chief, is retiring. The 78-year-old grandson of company co-founder William A Davidson will continue to represent the Motor Company as Brand Ambassador and “Chief Styling Officer Emeritus.” Whether you are a fan of the classic styling of HD products, or not, there is no denying the affable, beret-wearing Davidson had a huge impact on the USA’s biggest motorcycle company—and on the motorcycle industry worldwide.

Willie G. has seen Harley-Davidson evolve from a conservative, relatively small manufacturer (this source puts the company’s 1963 total production at just 10,407 units) through the dark years of AMF ownership, to the renaissance of the 1980s and ’90s. His sleek Superglide of 1971 “established the ‘factory custom’ category,” and the cafe-racer XLCR showed Harley-Davidson wasn’t just about cruising. The Fat Boy became a Hollywood superstar when it appeared in the 1991 blockbuster movie Terminator II.

The question we have is this: how much will Willie G’s departure change things at H-D? Not much, we’d wager. Ray Drea, director of styling, has established a new direction for the company already with the Dark Custom lineup and other models designed to bring in younger buyers.

Still, Willie G’s departure does take a bit of the family feel out of H-D’s cachet (although his son Bill still works for the company), making it seem more like the large corporation it is. How much impact will that have on the Harley-Davidson faithful and potential new customers? Time will tell.

38 Comments

  1. Mark says:

    Now maybe I can get a bike that looks like it was made this year.

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  2. Reinhart says:

    Why not offer a V10 Harley like the Viper bike??? It would be a long time before they’d have to increase the displacement of that sucker to satisfy the “bigger is better” crowd.

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  3. Tommy See says:

    Enjoy your time Willie G. You are a Great Person and PR. for the Big Twin company, owners and Fans. Love the sound of a Harley.

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  4. Barry says:

    Having worked with Willie G. and his lovely wife Nancy at many AMA Pro Racing events, I am wishing Willie G. well in his retirement. He is a fine man and a true gentleman who loves motorcycles and the people who enjoy them.
    Barry

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  5. takehikes says:

    About time. His designs did nothing for the brand. And indeed it’s a brand. Before the real haters whip on me I own an HD and have owned them off and on for 40 years. However, while they occasionally show some brilliance its mostly been about the brand and not the motorcycle.

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    • Tom says:

      As a Harley owner I agree with you as well. His greatest influence was to visit shows, check out the trends from custom builders and take design ideas back to the factory. His own designs had meager sales.

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  6. T. Rollie says:

    Smart enough not to mess up the good thing they have going. I’ve worked for countless bad managers who ignore the best part of the business and pursue some stupid ideas that don’t pan out. He held onto the best of Harley, and tried a few new things, too! Good balance.

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  7. john says:

    He is head of the styling department of the most copied motorcycle in history. Love em or not. that cant be denied.

    Happy Retirement Willie!

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  8. BillyGoat says:

    Boy, I hope when I retire, the folks that are left don’t spew venom like they do on this bulletin board. There’s certainly no need to be such haters. Especially since, from the comments, most commenters never had one. I had a 2000 sportster custom which I rode from Baltimore to Milwaukee and back for the 100 th anniversary of HD (among other rides). And I can say from experience, that HD is a great machine for the average joe. It will hold it’s value in a way that most of the commenters bikes on this forum, won’t.

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    • Chris says:

      Yeah it will hold its value like my 08 Nightster did. My friend had 15 into it with all the goodies, and I bought it for 9 and had to sell it for 6 because the market was flooded with them because the slammed suspension was a joke North of the Mason Dixon line where the roads freeze in the winter. “Oh but people buy it for the style.” Rubbish. Boat anchor! I can ride to the local bar on a Nighthawk 250 and actually BE a cool human being when I get there instead of just posing as one. – The tourers are nice. But for the money you pay for the Dyna’s, Softails and Sportys, you could at least be paying for a good ride instead of for “Cool”. That being said, throw a nice set of shocks on the new Sporty ’72 and it is a nice machine. And down South on flat roads they are fine. – Gee, no young people in the dealership. Hmmm. My brother has 26k on his Ducati Multistrada and counting. He test rode a Dyna Switchback and said no way. Too crude by comparison. His Multi did everything MUCH better for less money.

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      • BillyGoat says:

        What’s your point? I bought that sportster for $6k, put 10,000 miles on it, and sold it for $6500. If you buy something new from a dealer, anything, including cars, trucks,and motorcycles, you’re going to take a hit. I don’t see “you bought it for 9 and sold for 6 has anything to do with the roads up North or the suspension. As for your Nighthawk 250, I hope you enjoy it. ‘

        IMO, It’s just silly to compare a Ducati Multistrada with a Dyna switchback. Why don’t you compare the the Ducati to a Honda XR650L then tell all the Honda owners that they’ve made an equally big mistake?

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  9. Dave says:

    Just putsome flames on the gas tank and presto you have a new model

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  10. DaytonaJames says:

    Having never owned a Harley, nor having any inclination to do so, I’m more like an opposition back-bencher I suppose but my hat is absolutely off to Willie for his contributions to motorcycling. There can be no shame in providing the impetus for so many other manufacturers to emulate and draw from. They have not been the lightest, best-functioning bikes out there but they have accomplished something other manufacturers only dream of… namely, marketing their offerings and a lifestyle better than anyone else.
    Enjoy your retirement Willie G. – you’ve earned it.

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  11. Tower says:

    I think a 60 hp 1200cc sport bike is a long way from getting it exactly right. Now a XR 1200 with the Buell/Rotax 1125R motor is getting it right!

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  12. Kjazz says:

    ….is he still alive….!?

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  13. Bob says:

    Glad to see him go. He’s been holding back the company for far too long. Maybe now, the designs can evolve into something that will hopefully prolong the company’s lifespan by bringing in a younger crowd through something more custom looking and even better performing and handling. Good to keep some bikes that look traditional, like Triumph has. That’s necessary for HD. But the newest generation of buyers has been buying elsewhere because they want something that performs better in all areas and has more modern styling. HD didn’t go through their recent hard times because of the economy so much as they are simply losing their appeal. If they did a better job of evolving the line up, people would have bought anyways. Willie stepping down is a step in the right direction.

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  14. RC says:

    Thank you Willie G. for designing and bringing to life my awesome 2003 V-rod. I love the style, handling and power of it and I think everyone else is trying to copy it (same as with the other HD products). Enjoy!!

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  15. mpolans says:

    I wonder if Harley will now broaden their base to younger folks who don’t want to dress like a pirate.

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  16. Joe says:

    Harley missed a trick by not doing a counterbalanced SPortster engine which would have allowed them to get the mass down below 400lbs rather than the fat-cat it has become – should have got Buell to sort it for them.

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  17. mickey says:

    Congrats to Willie G. I am looking forward to retiring soon, and I wish him nothing but the best.

    Ok, so what does a “Brand Ambassador” and “Chief Styling Officer” entail…and pay?

    I hope he at least gets a new bike every year, a comany gas card, and a little pocket jingle.

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  18. harry says:

    I would like to see an inline 4 standard come out of the Harley Factory.

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    • clasqm says:

      I would like to see them make a parallel twin tourer, or an opposed-twin cafe racer. I would also like a tame unicorn for Christmas.

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      • Gabe says:

        I want a H-D with a Wankel rotary, hard bags and a 1950s cigarette machine that only dispenses Pall-Mall slim 110s. It has to make 600 hp, weigh 145 pounds, be comfortable enough for me, my wife, my son and our cats, plus have a fully-enclosed cabin, be able to lap Laguna Seca in the low 1:30s, have a shaft drive and talk to me in a British accent like KITT. And the MSRP must be lower than a 1975 Honda CB450T.

        If H-D can do that, I’ll be sure to buy one–after it’s been sitting on the showroom floor for 18 months so I can get it at 40% off.

        If only H-D would listen to buyers like me, they’d make billions of dollars and stay in business for 110 years.

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        • harry says:

          I think Orange County Choppers or Paulie builds one like that. Seriouly Gabe where would foot pegs belong so as not to drag in corners and not be at all foot forward. What bike made today contains this compromise and is not loaded with plastic like a tourer?

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        • Kjazz says:

          ….do I detect a smidge of sarcasm? I thought Pall Mall slim 110s were girlie cigs….?

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      • Montana says:

        I’d like to see Harley come out with a series of singles, a vertical and horizontal twin, an inline 3, an inline 4 and an inline 6. Maybe then, they’d approach BMW’s American market share.

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  19. Dean says:

    If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it… H-D could cruise along “unchanged” for another 10-20 years and still make huge cash..

    I wouldn’t hold your breath for any big changes. What would they do, anyway? Buy MV Agusta to widen their customer base ?!?! Oh wait, they tried that..

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  20. Reinhart says:

    Good luck in your retirement years. Maybe now we can get a real XR style bike for the street. The current XR1200 is a JOKE!

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    • craigj says:

      I quite like the XR1200. I wouldn’t buy one as it’s too little for me, but for what it is, I think Harley got it exactly right. Given the recent trend away from custom choppers 10 feet long and bling’d out to the extreme, and towards cafe racers and rat bikes, I think now would be the time for HD to resurect the XLCR. I lust for an XLCR.

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      • Chris says:

        HEAVY!!! And what’s with the ballon for a gas tank that swells and pops the cover off so it won’t go back on again. Moto Guzzi just went back to steel tanks on the V7 series. Hey Harley stockholders, are you listening? Oh no, that’s right, it’s not affecting the tanks in Europe where they have no ethanol. Please. It’s a good bike but it is not great and for the same money, let’s face it, you can buy great elsewhere.

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        • Reinhart says:

          I rode the XR1200 and found it to be a heap of junk. I test rode it at the motorcycle show in Long Beach and rode it for about a half hour. It was very top heavy and slower than my 883/1200 conversion. The seat was very uncomfortable and hid none of the over harsh jolting from the rear suspension. Also, the engine would not come down from the high idle speed and this was on a bike with less than a thousand miles. Not to well engineered IMHO. Harley should take a good look at what is happening at MULE motorcycles and hire him to design their next XR street bike. Perhaps Willie G. had too much of a influence on the XR and now that he’s gone the genuine gearheads at Harley will be given more freedom to design an XR that is truer to the series.

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