An hour before midnight on New Year’s Eve in 1985, a bunch of Harley executives sat in a room at a bank with two stacks of papers, one for bankruptcy and another for recapitalization, if their last gasp ask for fresh investment came in. They had given themselves until midnight to get new money or go bankrupt, and time was running out.
Many of the executives had, four years earlier, personally invested $1 million or more—while borrowing tens of millions more on top of that—to buy the company from the conglomerate AMF for $80 million and take it private. AMF itself had acquired the motorcycle manufacturer for $14 million in 1969 (about $100 million today) with a plan to expand production and squeeze out maximum profits. But a decade of labor trouble, declining build quality, and the dominance of Japanese motorcycles—Honda, in particular—had, by 1981, left Harley in dire straits.
It was kind of a miracle that Harley had lasted that long to begin with and, indeed, had almost done so by default. Such was the impact of 1969’s Easy Rider that, without it, the company might not have existed much longer after, since, historically, motorcycle companies in the United States came and went at the ferocious whims of the marketplace. Consider that, after Indian closed its doors in 1958, Harley was the only American motorcycle manufacturer left, having succeeded where hundreds of competitors had tried and failed.