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Harley-Davidson To Celebrate 105th Anniversary

Celebration, which starts Thursday and is expected to draw over 100,000 people, also coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Harley Owners Group, or HOG.

MILWAUKEE (AP) -- Few companies have customers as dedicated as those of Harley-Davidson.

That's why the motorcycle maker can put on a four-day 105th anniversary celebration, and expect more than 100,000 people to show up and rumble the city where the storied company is based.

The celebration, which starts Thursday, also coincides with the 25th anniversary of the Harley Owners Group, or HOG. Last year it surpassed the 1 million member mark and has 1,400 chapters in 135 countries.

"Just riding on two wheels is really not the point, it's really more about an emotional experience and an experience of self-definition as well," said Mark-Hans Richer, the company's chief marketing officer.

"Harley has been around for 105 years and we have a unique credibility and authenticity that none of our competitors can match even though they desperately try to copy us."

The idea of the group came about in a brainstorming session after Harley executives bought back the company from American Machine and Foundry Co. in 1981. They started it in 1983 as a way for the company to stay close to loyal customers, said Mike Keefe, vice president and general manager of HOG.

Despite the lagging economy, renewal rates have held steady at around 70 percent, Keefe said.

The company embarked on a "We don't do fear" ad campaign in newspapers a few months ago that addressed anxiety about the economy. Richer said customers told them at events that they weren't worried about the economy and that inspired them to do the campaign.

"Because chrome and asphalt put distance between you and whatever the world can throw at you," the ad reads. "Freedom and wind outlast hard times. And the rumble of an engine drowns out all of the spin on the evening news."

They also distributed more than 260,000 bandanas to dealerships with "We don't do fear" on them.

Member perks include holding exclusive rides or events, the "fly and ride" program that lets members rent motorcycles at dealers while on vacation, roadside assistance, pins, patches and mileage contests. Chapters also promote charitable giving and public service.

California and Texas have the largest number of Harley owners; both exceed 60,000 each, while Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois and Wisconsin each have numbers in the 40,000s.

Last year, Frank Boorn of Hiawassee, Ga., became one of the few Harley owners to reach the 750,000 mile mark. He has since put on 30,000 more miles.

The 59-year-old retired lawyer started riding in 1993 and has ridden in all 50 states, Mexico, Canada, Holland and Australia.

He also has homes in Daytona Beach, Fla., where Bike Week is held, and in Sturgis, S.D., home of the Sturgis Motorcycle Rally.

He thought his then-16-year-old son was crazy in 1993 when he urged him to take an education safety course with him. But he ended up falling in love with motorcycles and sold his car a few years later. He said he uses his bike 99.9 percent of the time and rides all day.

"It brings a tremendous sense of peace to my life," he said.

He said he can't make it to Milwaukee because of his wedding anniversary.

But Harley expects more than 100,000 people to participate in the celebration, which includes a parade though the city, partying along the lake, activities at the new Harley-Davidson Museum, a special exhibit at Discovery World, and entertainment from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, Kid Rock, the Foo Fighters, The Billy Bob Thornton Band and others.

Harley says it has organized 105 starting points around the nation, which feed into 25 major routes bound for Milwaukee. Thousands are expected to arrive Wednesday, a day before the celebration starts.

"Now that's a ride home," said Bill Davidson, director of motorcycle product development, on a video posted on the company's Web site.

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