What makes Harley-Davidson such a legendary brand? Gary Sharman, founder of Headhunters motorcycle club, talks about the culture and community that comes along with the ownership of a Harley.
From a practical perspective, riding a Harley may not make sense for some bikers. It’s heavy and expensive. But if you talk to Harley people, they don’t talk about how the motorcycle performs. They talk about what it represents.
Harleys are loud with a distinctive engine sound. Fitting an aftermarket exhaust, which is every new owner’s priority, makes it louder than any moving vehicle on the road.
And riders just love that, because it commands a heck of a presence as soon as the bike starts. Also, there’s no excuse for other vehicles up ahead not to make way, even long before they are overtaken by a horde of shiny, beastly-looking machines and the brawny, leather-clad riders wheeling it.
The image of Harley riders, also known as easy riders, has been popularized in movies from the 60s through to the 90s and revitalized in present day TV shows such as Sons of Anarchy and its spin-off Mayans M.C.
Let’s dive in a little deeper as we talk to someone who has been loyally riding Harleys for the last 30 years - Gary Sharman, who founded the motorcycle club (M.C.) known as Headhunters in the 90s, not long after he bought his first Harley.
Gary Sharman on his Harley-Davidson
Kratos Motorsports (KM): “What’s the fascination with Harley-Davidson motorcycles in Malaysia, and what got you into it?”
Gary Sharman (GS): “A Harley-Davidson motorcycle, as someone put it, is the vehicular embodiment of ‘freedom’, ‘individualism’, ‘rebellion’, the ‘non-conformist’, and also the ‘American way’.
Such ‘values’ have been dramatized in independent western movies in the 60s and 70s, such as Easy Rider.
Everyone has heard of the Hells Angels, a worldwide one-percenter (outlaw) motorcycle club whose members typically ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles. They represent some of the real-life notorious motorcycle gangs based in the US with chapters in other countries.
So some of these factors contributed to the darker, lawless image that was associated with Harley riders in the early days. As kids, we were engrossed and drawn to that badass image, of course our parents didn’t like any of it.
In the early 90s, Harley-Davidson’s image started becoming iconic and trendy globally, courtesy of big-budget movies such as Terminator with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Famous actress, Elizabeth Taylor had a Harley-Davidson Sportster 883 that she named Passion.
Prime Hollywood celebrities were riding Harley-Davidson motorcycles in movies and in real life. In the music scene, Billy Idol and every other famous rock star of that era owned Harleys.
Endorsed by such celebrities, Harley’s initial lawless, rowdy and intimidating image was somewhat transformed. It was now also associated with fame, glamour and exclusivity. The brand became more desirable around the world, and something of a luxury, as Harley prices soared along with demand.
In Malaysia, it was a rich man’s toy. Over RM80k was a lot in the 90s; it was the cost of an average house. Only highly paid professionals and expats could afford a Harley. These were CEOs, accountants, lawyers, doctors and so on (people who probably would not survive a day in a notorious motorcycle gang), who were labelled as ‘weekend warriors’.”
KM: “Today, there are more Malaysians riding Harleys; has the attraction increased even more?”
GS: “There’re more degree graduates with better salaries, so you see a lot of Malaysians owning big, imported bikes.
Folks, young and old, are still attracted to the Harley brand, for the same reasons. You have people who prefer superbikes because of the performance, but a lot of people still buy into the Harley lifestyle, the laid-back cruising, and being part of the M.C.
Like other motorcycle brands, Harley-Davidson is building newer, and better models. Overall, the company has evolved with the times, so it’s still the same Harley image, only the bikes are made for today’s people with improved performance, looks, handling, and so on.”
KM: “What about the motorcycle itself?”
GS: “Harleys are heavier than most motorcycles, but all that extra weight and longer rake angle contribute to the steadiness of a Harley-Davidson. When it comes to cruising, nothing beats a Harley, really.
Unlike other motorcycle brands, Harleys are more readily customizable. So upon buying a new or used bike, riders get to modify their bikes to reflect a unique, outward expression of themselves. Customization is at the core of the Harley-Davidson brand. As they say, you don’t just ride a Harley, you live it.”
KM: “Are Harleys harder and more expensive to maintain?”
GS: “In the 90s, like most imported motorcycle brands from Europe or USA, bikes were not built as well as they are today.
Back then, Harleys had a lot of vibration. They were heavier, and broke down often, partly because riders didn’t bother about maintenance. But in terms of cost for the basic service intervals, it was around RM350 to RM450 at most, even today.
You rarely need to change parts. Harleys are durable. Replacement parts are quite pricey but insurance takes care of that, should the bike crash.”
KM: “Can you tell us about the Harley motorcycle clubs and the camaraderie that is so prevalent?”
GS: “It’s all about the brotherhood, the friendship among Harley riders. It feels really amazing when you are riding together in a Harley convoy. Everyone is wearing the same patch (jacket or vest with the club’s logo and name), with engines and exhaust pipes thundering away, tattoos, long hair… it never gets old, really.
When you buy a bike from Harley-Davidson in Malaysia or anywhere around the world, you are invited into the HOG (Harley Owners Group). It’s a Harley lifestyle-driven community. There are gatherings and convoy rides, among other things.
But riders usually go on to form their own individual motorcycle clubs among their own circle of friends.
Harley riders are mostly laid back and easy going people. We may look intimidating as a group, but it’s just a motorcycle club. We gather for drinks and for rides now and then. It’s a way for us to unwind after a busy work week and blow off steam. Some people enjoy fishing, for us, it’s Harley motorcycles.”
KM: “How did Headhunters M.C. begin?”
GS: “Most of us were in the HOG by default, which has its own club policy and activities. There were five of us from HOG who often got together on our own.
Sitting around a table over drinks after work, we just decided it will be cool to have our own club and patch. So everyone came up with names; some sounded weird and some were too mellow.
When someone suggested Headhunters, everyone just liked it. It sounded badass - the term refers to the native tribe in East Malaysia, who hunted for the heads of their enemies.
Gary Sharman with the rest of the crew from Headhunters M.C.
From the five of us, it grew close to a hundred over the years. A lot of our members were expats, who eventually returned to their home countries.
With the founders’ blessings, Headhunters chapters were formed in Singapore, Thailand, Hong Kong, North America, and so on.
Headhunters are still active in Malaysia and these countries, with newer and younger members joining every now and then.”
Read all about how we helped a Harley rider tune his suspension for an optimal ride.