by Victor Wanchena
Harley-Davidson, much to the chagrin of its rivals, has always remained true to its roots. They started as a motorcycle company and have remained one. There were the H-D branded golf carts during the mid 60’s and 70’s, but they were an attempt to diversify and not part of their heritage. So with the exception of the crazy period when they were owned by AMF, H-D hasn’t produced anything really weird like washing machines or missile components. Despite always being a motorcycle company, some people equate H-D’s engineering to that of farm implements. H-D has a proud century of motorcycling heritage, while the same can not be said for many of their competitors.
Ironically, some of the most iconic brands in motorcycling have the oddest backgrounds. Ducati, for example, produced vacuum tubes and other electrical components for radios before building motorcycles. That’s a rather geeky heritage for what is a very chic brand. The now defunct Spanish brand, OSSA was originally a movie projector company. I’m not sure how they made the jump to motorcycles, but they did it.
Then there is the Japanese big-four: Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki, and Yamaha. Of them, only Honda started as a motorcycle company; the rest fell into motorcycle production one way or another. Suzuki started producing silk looms around the turn of the century. In fact, for the first 30 years of their existence, that’s all they focused on. Yamaha’s origins lie in their logo, three tuning forks. They began, continuing to this day, as a maker of organs and pianos. Yamaha was 70 years old before they began building motorcycles. Kawasaki, or as they are better known, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, produces motorcycles on almost a whimsy. The power-sports division of Kawasaki is a small branch of a huge company, better known outside of motorcycling for big equipment, like ships and aircraft.
The British companies were a little closer to a logical starting point. Many of the major British motorcycle brands like: Triumph, Norton, and Royal Enfield, started making bicycles before moving into motorcycles. The leap was pretty logical; when the public started clipping cheap motors onto their bicycles, they decided let’s do the whole thing ourselves. BSA, the initials standing for Birmingham Small Arms, began by making guns for the military. After the decline of the British motorcycle industry, BSA went back to their roots; today the brand is found on airguns and rifle scopes.
My personal favorite is the now defunct Laverda. This Italian brand was best remembered for their powerful sport bikes of the sixties and seventies. The Jota model is highly coveted by collectors. They were described as a triumph of brute force over mechanical finesse. But Laverda’s origins are a little surprising. They made, you guessed it, farm implements! They were, and still are to some extent, known for their harvesting combines and other farm machinery. Strange, but true.