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Harley-Davidson vs Honda – The Ultimate Comparison

There are a lot of different motorcycle companies out there. When you’re looking at bikes as a new rider, it can be difficult to know which brands are better than others. Each brand offers different styles and riding experiences, and two of the most popular are Harley-Davidson and Honda.

Harley-Davidson and Honda both offer motorcycles people like, but they build different bikes for different purposes and different people. If you’re looking for a cruiser bike with lots of torque, Harley-Davidson is a good choice, but if you’re looking for any other type of bike, Honda is better.

Of course, this is a simplification, as there are a lot of factors that go into choosing a motorcycle and understanding what these companies do and don’t do well. Below, I’ll go through what both of these companies offer, as well as some of their history, in more detail.

History Of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles

In 1901, a young man named William S. Harley drew up plans for a small engine that could be used in a bike frame. With help from his friend Arthur Davidson, William worked on his motorized bicycle for several years at a local machine shop owned by a friend of theirs. William and Arthur had grown up only a few blocks apart from each other in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

The boys had been fueled by a love of bicycles in their early age. William even had a job at a bicycle factory at age 15, working as a cycle fitter and a drafter. It was while working as a drafter at the Barth Manufacturing Company that he designed his first internal combustion engine.

The First Prototype

With the help of Arthur’s brother, Walter Davidson, this prototype motorcycle was finished in 1903. It was very underpowered, completely unable to get up hills around Milwaukee without assistance from the pedals of the bicycle. The three were undeterred though, and started work on a new design.

Soon they were joined by William Davidson, Arthur’s eldest brother. The three Davidson brothers and William Harley had finished their second prototype by 1904. It placed fourth in a local motorcycle race. The team was off and running!

Now that they had a successful prototype, they started building a company. In 1905 they had made 5 motorcycles, 3 of which were sold by Carl H. Lang of Chicago, making him the world’s first Harley-Davidson dealer. By 1906, the four were moving out of the wooden shed in the Davidsons’ back yard, and into their first factory.

The Factory

During their first year in the factory, they produced 50 motorcycles. After that year, they expanded the factory and officially incorporated. In 1907 they made 150 motorcycles, and started selling them to police departments, as well as the general public.

Harley-Davidson continued to grow, marketing their bikes anywhere they saw opportunity. Soon, not only were police departments using them, but the United States Postal Service was also using them to deliver mail. During World War One, Harley-Davidson produced over 20,000 motorcycles for the US military.

They were one of only two American motorcycle companies to survive the great depression (the other being Indian Motorcycle). They also played a major role in the second World War, producing a staggering number of motorcycles for the military, making more than 90,000 bikes. For their efforts, they were awarded several awards for excellence in production.

Harley’s New Image

Veteran riders could buy their battered army bikes from the military for cheap to continue using in civilian life. Many of these bikes got modified, and the chopper was born. The image of the Harley rider became no longer that of a clean-cut USPS delivery man, but of a wild societal outcast, a cool, roaming outlaw who did wheelies and got in bar fights.

As this vision of the violent, individualistic biker was strengthened, the other side of the market was left more and more open. This is when Honda came into the picture.

While Harley riders were viewed as aggressive and sometimes anti-society, Honda marketed their bikes as being for everyone. While I’ll discuss this more in the next section, it’s important to mention it here, as the histories of Harley-Davidson and Honda in the US are very much intertwined.

On The Brink Of Failure

Honda did an incredible job of selling motorcycles to people who weren’t particularly interested in motorcycles. So, now faced with a few years of declining profits and a strong competitor with a completely different approach, what did Harley-Davidson do?

They went to Ronald Reagan and asked for help to deal with the fact that they were being beaten. And in 1983, Reagan did it, placing a 45% tariff on imported bikes over 700cc.

This pretty much excluded foreign companies from having any chance of succeeding in Harley-Davidson’s core market space, at least for a few years. Reagan’s protection seemed to work on the outside, sparking an upward trend for the company. By 2006, Harley-Davidson netted over 1 billion dollars in profit.

But it wasn’t specifically Reagan’s help that did it.Foreign manufacturers just started selling 699cc motorcycles in the US, so the tariffs didn’t appear to affect them as much as it could have. It seems to be that Harley cleaning up their production and quality control is what really saved them. But regardless of this, in the eyes of many, Reagan had bailed them out.

Post-Tariff Years

So, they were back, for now, but time always catches up. If the average Harley rider was 43 in 1999, 46 in 2004, and 48 in 2008, how old are they now? Harley-Davidson stopped releasing these numbers, so we don’t know for sure, but assumptions can be made.

Harley knew their market was aging, so in the late 2000s they started trying to appeal to younger generations, with bikes like the XR1200 sportster. But their previous focus on the hardcore image of the biker meant that, to most younger folks, Harley-Davidson still appeared exactly how it had branded itself a few years earlier. For that reason, among others, these bikes didn’t sell that well.

Overall, recent sales figures indicate a strong and consistent decline in profits. The company has been buying back shares at an alarming rate, so the share price looks pretty good, but the sales paint a much different picture.

By seeking the help of Reagan, Harley solidified its image as a pure-blooded American company. This choice may have helped them at the time, but Harley is now trying to sell their bikes to markets outside the United States. When tariffs in the US were instituted on imported steel and aluminum, the EU responded by forcing tariffs on American products, such as Harley-Davidson Motorcycles.

Modern Problems

The result was that Harley-Davidson was now paying way more for materials to make bikes that are selling internationally for way less than they were before. They ramped up overseas production in order to try and dodge these tariffs that were eating into their profit margins.

As you can imagine, this is in direct contrast to the hardcore American image Harley-Davidson had been ascribing to themselves for years, and their hardcore American fans were not happy about it.

Harley, relatively undeterred, is now attempting to do what Honda did all those years ago, and trying to bring motorcycles into a non-rider space. Electric motorcycles, small e-bikes, all done in the name of trying to reverse their unsustainable image.

If it were Honda or Yamaha trying to expand into this market, it wouldn’t seem odd, or even notable. But it’s Harley-Davidson, and this choice appears to be in direct contrast to their past 50 years of history.

The future is very uncertain for Harley-Davidson, spending years heading blindly in one specific direction and now taking a sharp turn and heading back the other way. This is a very difficult rebranding effort, if they go through with it, and only time will tell if it will work or not. One thing is certain, though, they are absolutely not giving up!

History Of Honda Motorcycles

Soichiro Honda was born in 1906, in a small town near Hamamatsu, in Japan. He wasn’t very interested in traditional education, spending his early childhood helping his father with his bicycle repair business. Even as a young child, he was enamored with vehicles, recalling in his later life a vivid memory of the first car to be seen in his small village.

At age 15, with no formal education, he moved to Tokyo to look for work. He managed to find a job as a car mechanic, where he stayed for six years, before returning home to start his own auto repair business.

After some time fixing and racing cars, Honda founded a machining factory to make piston rings. The Honda factory won a contract to supply Toyota with piston rings. However, Honda ended up losing the contract due to poor quality control.

By visiting factories around Japan to really gain an understanding of Toyota’s quality control, and attending engineering school (although not graduating), Soichiro Honda was able to build an automated process to mass-produce Toyota-grade piston rings. During World War 2, Honda’s factory was more or less taken over by the Japanese government, and they produced machine parts for the war effort.

Honda’s factory was destroyed by a US B-29 Bomber attack. So, he sold the remains to Toyota, and used the money from the sale to found the Honda Technical Research Institute, in 1946.

The First Factory

The initial production started with 12 men working in a tiny shack, building improvised motorized bikes from surplus generator engines from the war. When they ran out of the 500 surplus engines they had stockpiled, they just started making them.

The first all-Honda motorcycle was made in 1949, with the frame and engine all purpose-built by Honda. They were off and running, literally, and production only increased from there. The Honda Motor Company built engines for farming machines. They built bikes to enter into motorcycle races. And in 1958, the first Honda Super Cub was made.

The Super Cub

The Super Cub was the dawn of a new era for motorcycles. It was cheap to manufacture, cheap to buy, cheap to run, and cheap to fix. It was marketed for the people and designed specifically and intelligently to work for everyone. It could be ridden one-handed, so delivery drivers could ride it as easily as a bicycle. It was cute and small, and very easy to ride.

In 1959, Honda opened a storefront in Los Angeles and started importing bikes into the US. The little Super Cub was the first bike sold. This is where the fates of Harley-Davidson and Honda start to become intertwined. While Harley-Davidson is busy building its reputation as a motorcycle company for outlaws and modern cowboys, Honda’s marketing approach is the polar opposite.

The Super Cub wasn’t even intended to be the main attraction. Honda sent over bigger bikes that they thought might appeal more to American consumers. These other bikes unfortunately developed engine issues due to being ridden at higher speeds for longer stretches. The US is much larger than Japan, and traversing it on a bike meant it had to be reliable enough to go all out for long stretches.

Honda recalled many shipments of these bigger bikes back to Japan to improve engine reliability. In the meantime, only the Super Cub was left on the showroom floor. Honda even used them to ferry around replacement parts for the larger bikes that had already been sold.

American consumers loved the little Super Cubs whizzing around and were less interested in the bigger, less reliable bikes, so Honda went with it.

You Meet The Nicest People On A Honda

“You meet the nicest people on a Honda” was the key phrase used by Honda in all of their US marketing campaigns. Honda motorcycles were branded as easy and cheap bikes, built for everyone. Their mascots weren’t gruff bikers but nicely dressed businessmen in suits, with their equally well dressed wives.

This marketing campaign was incredibly successful. The little Hondas appealed to all sorts of new customers who hadn’t necessarily even considered motorcycles before.

The Super Cub’s marketing reflected its design perfectly. The semi-automatic 3-speed transmission could be operated by anyone. The leg shield kept road debris away from the rider and hid the engine. The enclosed chain guard prevented the chain from slinging dirt and grease on the rider’s pants or legs.

A Major Success

The result of Honda’s brilliance was astounding. To this day, more than 100 million Super Cubs have been sold, making it the best-selling motor vehicle in history. Honda holds this title by a significant margin. If you combined the sales of every Toyota Corolla, Volkswagen Beetle, and Ford Model T ever sold, you still wouldn’t have as many vehicles sold as the Super Cub line.

Honda dovetailed this incredible success into a range of larger bikes that were popular in the 60s and 70s. They had a whole selection of available bikes for every sort of rider, from small 50cc bikes like the Super Cub, to bigger bikes like their CB750.

You could have a bike almost anywhere in between these sizes. These bikes often came in a variety of trims, some geared for street use while others were designed for more off-road and trail use.

Fun, Reliable & Easy To Maintain

Honda gained a reputation as a maker of fun, reliable, and relatively easy to maintain motorcycles, and they’ve continued to evolve their offerings in order to try and fit what the motorcycle market seems most hungry for. While there are lots of large and powerful bikes they offer now, they still haven’t strayed from their roots.

Honda still offers small motorcycles with little one cylinder engines, such as the Ruckus, a very popular little off-road style scooter. Like the old Super Cubs, they’re cheap to run and easy to ride. The Honda Grom is another example of their view that bigger and more powerful doesn’t always equal better.

Honda revolutionized motorcycling by offering simple, fun bikes that would appeal to everyone, and that deserves recognition. To this day, they continue to offer quality motorcycles in a range of styles, for any sort of rider.

Honda is more popular than Harley-Davidson. As far as total cumulative sales, the numbers are not even close. In 2019, Harley-Davidson sold around 220,000 motorcycles, and Honda sold just over 20 million. This is because Hondas are globally popular, while Harley-Davidsons are US-focused.

However, Honda still outsells Harley-Davidson in the USA. In 2019, around 130,000 Harley-Davidsons were sold to North American customers. In the same year, Honda sold more than 300,000 bikes to North Americans.

So, why even compare them if they’re so different in popularity? Perhaps it’s because the history of these two motorcycle companies is so intertwined, but I think it’s more than that. In their golden age, Harley-Davidson and Honda represented opposite ends of the motorcycling spectrum, two extremes that appeared to share nothing except two wheels.

In a way, Honda and Harley, at one time, both sold lifestyles more than they sold bikes. In Honda’s case it was a friendly neighborhood scootering experience, in Harley’s, it was a bad to the bone outlaw experience. But they were both selling experiences, even if those experiences were totally different.

So, for the grand majority of the population, Hondas outsell Harleys almost 100 to 1. However, for those few die-hard supporters, Harley-Davidson doesn’t always just represent a motorcycle, but an attitude, a creed of brand loyalty. People buy Hondas because they want a motorcycle. People buy Harleys because they want a Harley.

Harley-Davidson vs Honda – Range Of Bikes

Both Harley-Davidson and Honda have offered a variety of different motorcycles over the years, many of which are still available on the used market, but I’ll just discuss the current range of new offerings below to avoid turning this into a bike catalog.

Harley-Davidson

Harley-Davidson offers a few different types of motorcycles, at a range of different prices. Their biggest category is cruiser/touring bikes. They have a variety of different offerings, all coming with a range of different, although pretty comparable engines, and different features and trims.

In general, it seems like Harley is overall still selling the majority of their bikes in this type. Though there are other bikes, like an electric motorcycle that doesn’t seem to be available everywhere, and a bike or two in the sport or adventure category, clearly the bulk of their energy is devoted to touring bikes and trikes.

These bikes are designed to cruise on long, open, fairly straight roads. They come with a variety of comfort features like cruise control and speaker systems. As Harley’s market has aged, they’ve geared their bikes more and more to cater to the aging fans, and the majority of their bikes indicate this change.

Honda

Honda, however, is a different story. The range of bikes Honda offers is immediately clear when looking at any of their current lineup. The first bike featured on their website is their adorable Grom, a hardcore street bike at 60% scale. The Grom comes with a whopping 9.7 horsepower. With that said, it also weighs around 230 lbs, so it’s not like it really needs that much power!

Honda’s range only continues to grow when you look further. Here’s a list of motorcycle categories they have bikes for:

  • Touring
  • Adventure
  • Cruiser
  • Standard
  • Scooter
  • Sport
  • Super Sport
  • Neo-Sports Cafe
  • Mini-Moto
  • Dual Sport
  • Trail (off-road)
  • Competition (off-road)

This list gives you an idea of how much Honda really offers. No matter what kind of riding you want to do, you can do it on a Honda. You can get anything from a small scooter for running around town to a big tourer for eating up the miles.

The prices are just as diverse. While some of the bigger and more powerful bikes are closer to Harley’s relatively high price range, the smaller ones aren’t even close. This ensures that any sort of rider with any sort of budget will have an easy time finding a Honda they can afford and enjoy.

Harley Road Glide vs Honda Goldwing

If you’re looking for a touring motorcycle, you’ve probably heard of both of these bikes. Both the Road Glide and the Goldwing have been well known as good touring bikes for quite some time, and that perception is well-founded. Both bikes offer a range of luxury and comfort features, and are around the same price, so let’s talk about what sets them apart.

Weight

Both of them are pretty heavy, as expected from a touring motorcycle. The Road Glide is a little heavier, weighing in at around 850 lbs, while the Honda is around 790 lbs. This isn’t a huge difference, but it certainly is something to consider.

Power

Both bikes have engines producing roughly the same amount of torque, around 110 ft/lbs, and around the same amount of power, at roughly 95 horsepower. Given these numbers, performance can be expected to be slightly better on the Honda given its lighter weight, but you likely wouldn’t notice a huge difference.

Both bikes have engines around 1800cc, but the Honda has a horizontally opposed six cylinder and the Harley has a V-twin. This means that the Harley’s engine is going to have more low end torque, but not be as smooth higher in the rpm range, while the Honda engine will probably feel less torque-y but will have some more power higher in the rpm range, and probably be a lot smoother overall.

Other Features

As far as luxury features, both the Road Glide and the Goldwing have a bunch. Regarding stereo systems, the Honda comes equipped with Apple CarPlay, if that’s your sort of thing, while it appears the Harley doesn’t. With that said, both appear to have nice stereos and other such features.

It will mostly come down to your riding style and desires when comparing the extra features of these two bikes. If you want a bike with some grunt and bad to the bone style, the Road Glide is probably a better fit. Harley may not be as popular as Honda overall, but cruisers are their specialty.

If you want a bike with slightly fancier tech and a smoother engine and riding experience, perhaps the Honda is for you. The biggest recommendation I can make is just to go test ride both of them if you can, as that’s easily the best way to determine which bike you’d prefer.

Harley-Davidson vs Honda – Riding Experience

This one can be a little hard to be specific on, as both companies offer different types of motorcycles with different riding experiences. I’ll try to generalize as much as possible, but each bike model will differ from the next, and Honda especially makes quite a diverse range of motorcycle styles.

Harley-Davidson

In general, Harley-Davidsons will probably feel a bit more raw. While the newer models may be a bit cushier, especially if you’re looking at older models, Harleys tend to be somewhat loud and vibrate a lot. A lot of the motors are solid-mounted, and even the ones that aren’t tend to vibrate somewhat anyway.

The simple fact is that many of Harley’s trademark V-twin engines just aren’t very balanced motors, so vibration is just part of their character. This may be bothersome to some people, but some do like it.

Harley-Davidson builds the equivalent of muscle cars but with two wheels. Big, slow revving motors churning out an incredible amount of low-end torque, with not as much high-end power. Though there are a few models that don’t follow this recipe, most of them are built this way, so that’s what I’d expect if you’re looking at them.

Harleys also come with some cultural associations, especially if you live in the US. Harley riders often appear separate from other motorcyclists, and they tend to mostly hang out with other Harley riders. Because Harley stuck with their hardcore lifestyle branding, many of the people who own them still buy into that lifestyle. This is clearly a generalization though, so bear that in mind.

Honda

Hondas offer a very different riding experience. They’re definitely different from Harleys, but in some ways they’re different from themselves. Because Honda’s business model was to make motorcycling accessible to everyone, it didn’t seem hard for them to expand their offerings into pretty much every known style of motorcycle.

The result of this is that there are a lot of very different motorcyclists who ride very different Hondas. While you’ll still get a wave and sometimes a conversation from other Honda riders, it isn’t as much of a club as Harley-Davidson can be. Most Honda riders do not have an excess of brand loyalty, and so are less specifically devoted to Honda itself.

As far as physical riding experience, Hondas differ a lot between styles and models, but there are some trends. Honda bikes tend to be pretty smooth to ride, usually with engines that rev up high and can happily do so all day. Most Hondas are pretty easy to use, and their controls are often the same.

In the end I think the thing most Hondas have in common is the simple ethos of the company. Fun, reliable bikes that make sense to operate and aren’t so expensive that they’re impossible to own.

Harley-Davidson vs Honda – Reliability

Like the last category, this one will also change from bike to bike. But in general, Honda wins here as well. Honda builds reliable bikes. While there are some exceptions throughout the years, in general, Honda’s focus has always been on building bikes that will last a long time with minimal maintenance requirements.

There may be some Harley fans who disagree with this, and that’s fine. Everyone has a different opinion on the reliability of different things. However, having worked on both, I would expect far more reliability from a Honda than from a Harley.

Honda builds bulletproof bikes, and they often last for quite a while with incredibly minimal maintenance. If you look at used motorcycle markets, you’ll often see Hondas with many more miles on the motors than a lot of other brands, not just Harley-Davidson. That’s not to say Harleys aren’t reliable, but Hondas just tend to be more reliable.

Harley-Davidson vs Honda – Which Is Best For Beginners?

Hondas are usually best for beginners, although not every Honda is suited to a first time rider. The best beginner bike is a bike that’s easy for someone new to motorcycling to pick up and ride. Harley has no motorcycles that meet this criteria, while Honda has plenty.

Honda, however, has quite an array of motorcycles I’d recommend to beginners. The Ruckus, Metropolitan, Grom, Monkey, ADV150, Super Cub C125, Trail 125, and Navi are all great motorcycles for a beginner to learn to ride on. They all have an engine size under 150cc, and all weigh less than 300 lbs.

It’s certainly possible to learn to ride on a Harley, but they don’t offer any good beginner bikes, as they’re all pretty heavy and powerful. If I was recommending a starter bike, I’d recommend any one of these smaller Hondas over anything from Harley’s lineup.

Final Thoughts

Harley-Davidson and Honda both have interesting histories. They offer very different riding experiences, and depending on what your riding goals are, either could be a good choice for you. Both Harley-Davidson and Honda are very popular, and both companies produce high quality motorcycles.