The annual Iron Run is more than a gathering of the Harley-Davidson faithful for a love-my-motorcycle festival. It’s also a huge flexing of marketing muscle.
Pamplona is famous for the often-gory running of the bulls through the narrow streets of the Spanish town. The Iron Run is New Zealand’s version, only it’s a much more sedate, more family-friendly event. But there’s just as much passion. Thousands of Harley-Davidson riders congregate at one of New Zealand’s most scenic locations for two days of displays, shows and general revelry. The climax is a massed ride somewhere, like the one from Queenstown to Arrowtown this year.
The run creates one of the biggest two-wheeled spectacles you’ll witness in the Southern Hemisphere. For it’s easy to imagine that this event is no longer taking place in Central Otago, but in Sturgis, South Dakota, where the H-D faithful gather annually in their hundreds-of-thousands for the world’s largest motorcycle rally. Riding near the front of the run, I’m enjoying the view in my mirrors even more than what’s taking place up front.
A great snaking line of bikes negotiating the Shotover River gorge fills the black-chrome mirrors of the new Road King Special I’m riding, framed by the rugged mountainscape that is Queenstown’s main reason for being now that the gold has been won. The view forward is almost as compelling. I’m following Iron Run A-listers comprising the brand ambassadors, musicians from the appropriately named Screaming Eagles, and H-D TV channel executives.
The whole thunderous caravan is being led by a Freightliner prime mover with a custom Harley Breakout mounted on the back. Every time the truck toots, the many families lining the route of the run wave back. For the kids, grinning, waving, and cheering at the running of the Hogs, formative seeds are probably being planted inside their heads. This event could well be programming a new generation of bike riders to become the future supporters of the brand. Seems that’s the whole point.
Prior to the massed ride, the marketing manager of Harley-Davidson Australia and New Zealand, Adam Wright, confirmed that the Iron Run is intended as much to draw in people new to the brand as it is to provide entertainment for the dyed-in-the-leather enthusiasts that belong to the Harley Owners Group. “The run celebrates motorcycling as a whole, and to do it properly we really need to be in places like this. It’s really important to us as it gives us the opportunity to show what the whole Harley-Davidson lifestyle is about – even to non-motorcyclists.
“We’ve got a little saying in our office (about the brand) – we’re not exclusive, we’re inclusive.” I would witness plenty of that inclusiveness during the event, with onlooking tourists coming up to the New Zealand Harley dealers in attendance and requesting a ride on one of the many new bikes available for testing. Despite the unlikelihood of a sale, none was turned away. If they couldn’t ride, some time on one of the pillion seats was arranged.
As for the massed ride itself, the 1000+ motorcycle convoy didn’t just contain Harley-Davidsons, but a fair sprinkling of Victorys, Ducatis, and Hondas as well. Did widening the scope of the event risk the alienation of the core customer base for the brand – the Harley Owners Group (HOG) – I ask Wright?
“We’ve incorporated an element into the event (a huge party on the Queenstown waterfront) that is exclusively for HOG members. It’s a way of showing our appreciation of their annual pilgrimage to the run.” “But we have to keep reinventing ourselves, and reach out to a larger audience. The Livewire (concept electric motorcycle) and the (entry-level) Street models are new directions for the brand.”
“We’ve got 50 new models coming over the next five years.” Already two of those models have been revealed, and both appear to exude more youthful appeal.
The Road King Special looks like a King that’s been reimagined by some California custom shop, while the new Street Rod adds a 750cc V-twin engine to the local range that has only offered 500cc before, and has a more well-specified chassis to match. Both bikes display a potential to pull in new customers to the brand.
You won’t need to wear black leather to meet any expected dress code while riding either. The Harley-Davidson Street 500 arrived in New Zealand two years ago, and represented a huge gamble by the motor company. A learner-approved bike with an $11K pricetag, made not in America but in India, the Street, had it bombed, could have done considerable damage to the brand.
Young riders instantly welcomed the opportunity to make their first bike a new Harley on both sides of the Tasman, especially as they could afford the entry ticket. Encouraging them to do so is the association of elite Australian athlete, Caroline Buchanan, riding the model. The three-time World Womens BMX champion has fashion runway looks, and a smile that melts ice from 10 metres away. She also has hordes of followers on social media, and is a great communicator for personal sponsors like Subaru and Bell helmets. Caroline became a perfect ambassador for the Street 500 18 months ago.
“A photographer friend of Marcus (Wilson, H-D A&NZ’s chief tech guy) recommended me for the role. They were looking for a sports person, small and female (Wright calls her ‘the pocket rocket’), to help break in that part of the range.”
I got to witness Caroline’s transition to larger capacity Harleys on a two-day ride from Dunedin to Queenstown, via the amazing new Classic Motorcycle Mecca museum in Invercargill. Such was her competence, I had no idea that she had so little motorcycle riding experience until after the ride. “It was my first long ride, first time on a big bike (a Dyna Street Bob), first time riding in a big group. I soon learned to trust the bike and to loosen my grip on the handlebars. My riding really stepped up on the tour to Queenstown, and I now feel confident decking out the pegs and chucking the bike around.”
Former All Black Josh Kronfeld’s association with Harley-Davidson goes back to 2004, when he took a long tour of the USA aboard a Heritage Softail. “There were three sportsbikes in my garage when I retired from rugby and decided to do a motorcycle tour of the USA. I decided it had to be on a Harley, as the bike would be a perfect fit for the country.”
“The Softail rode like this (he bounces up and down in the chair he’s sitting in), but it proved to be a great choice of bike. I met a lot of people through their interest in the Harley, and they’d say stuff like ‘why don’t you come home and stay the night with us, you crazy Kiwi guy?’”
Indeed, this is a ‘club’ that anyone can join. It’s not like you have to spend big dollars on a supercar to gain entry. And even the ambassadors – Caroline, Josh, actor Danielle Cormack and broadcaster Jay Reeve – don’t promote the brand for money. They all do it for their love of riding a Harley.
|Model||Harley-Davidson Road King Special||Price||$37,995|
|Engine||1745cc, air/oil-cooled, fuel injected, V2, na kW/150Nm||Drivetrain||6-speed, belt final drive|