When people think of Harley-Davidson motorcycles they tend to think of the counter-culture rebels of the Hell's Angels gang. That image is probably more than passé, but impressions die-hard. Actually, Harley riders are a subculture within the U.S. consumer society that express their individualism through customization, modification, and, with all that leather, accessorization.
Recently, former Wisconsin Senator Dave Zien made headlines after leading dozens of Harley riders through a cemetery on Memorial Day to support veterans and being denied a warranty claim by the motorcycle manufacture for hauling around over-sized flags on the back of his bike. The company said they denied Zein's repair claim because the flags created too much drag.
Dave Zein/photo credit: motorcycyleUSA
These stories contain universal motifs are worthwhile exploring. For example, consider perception of how the motorcycle has become a metaphor for a particular American lifestyle -- one suggesting the importance of personal liberty and freedom. Other motifs in these stories may include symbolic notions Memorial Day, Cemeteries, patriotism, and flags.
One way to get down to the meaning and interpretation of symbol is to examine the elements of expression, particularly the brand identity. The Harley logo is iconic and there are few derivatives worth exploring.
The symbolism of the Harley brand logo evokes a distinct and bold identity, but its motifs can be traced back thousands of years. Wings, shields, and eagles have played a role in the symbolic representation of power and authority for centuries and Harley-Davidson exemplifies how the meanings of symbols are forever changing and are never fixed. From a semiotic perspective we can see how the wings (an ancient symbol connected to gods (Egyptian, Greek and Roman) is indexical in that they figuratively suggest freedom. In other words, the suggestion here points toward the notion that if you ride a Harley you can "fly."
For comparison, look at the similarities between the Harley-Davison logo and the Egyptian winged orb representing the sun god Ra.
The Harley logo, however, incorporates the heraldic shield motif of medieval times, sans the orb or sun shape. The shield connotes a sense of strength, stability, and authority. In the logo below, the wings have been replaced by the eagle, which clearly makes the connection between the motorcycle and American patriotism and liberty.