Screamin’ Eagle Motorcycles
Each year, the shop-shirted covert agents at Harley-Davidson’s exclusive Custom Vehicle Operations (CVO) pluck four models from the Harley-Davidson lineup and, utilizing an arsenal of Screamin’ Eagle performance parts, exclusive paint schemes, and enough chrome to induce pangs of inadequacy in a ’57 Bel Air, recasts them into rarified road-ravaging, lust-inducing examples of what a customer might create with a little imagination and a sizable slush fund. As further entrapment, CVO supplies design, engineering, parts and labor for well below what the customer would spend using strictly legal means.
The stark realization that CVO is entering its second decade provides one of those disturbing indicators that, while we may occasionally ease off the throttle, time does not. What began in 1999 with a gang of four Harley-Davidson employees conscripted to create a showcase for the growing Parts & Accessories catalog, while utilizing some empty space in the York, Pa. plant, has evolved into the Motor Company’s Skull and Bones Society, an elite organization that staffs over 40 employees and functions independently from the Motor Company mothership. CVO is responsible for its own market research, design, source selection and production. More than simply an organizational structure, that autonomy is crucial to CVO’s culture. Team manager Jeff Smith explains, “Part of our history and some of the pride and passion we have today comes from being a separate, stand-alone organization from the Original Equipment group.”
CVO’s first 10 years have been transformative. Rolling just 1,800 1340cc Evo-powered FXRs with stodgy paint schemes off the line in its inaugural year, CVO has expanded to a scheduled production capacity of 10,750 crisply tailored fire breathers that comprise the 2010 squad. While that is a prodigious growth spurt, a large measure of CVO machines’ appeal derives from their exclusivity and scarcity; they account for just four-percent of Harley-Davidson’s overall sales. CVO Staff Engineer Eric Buckhouse says, “The group has changed a lot since its inception, both in size and complexity. We try to raise the bar every year. Our customers expect it and we expect it.”
The people who make up the CVO program are, like the bikes they build, a small, select breed, plucked from the cream of Harley-Davidson’s OE ranks. Smith, who has been with the program nearly since its inception, recalls being on the other side of the fence, “drooling over the chance” to work for the custom group. Likewise, Buckhouse remembers being initially offered a six-month stint on a CVO project. “That was 10 years ago,” he recalls with a laugh.
Not surprisingly, the few job openings within the program provoke a flood of applicants. CVO candidates are among the most talented and driven in the Harley-Davidson family. Smith stresses that “being a passionate rider and demonstrating the ability to go the extra mile and make things happen” are crucial requirements for dealing with the heightened expectations of the custom division. Rather than focusing on the development of a single component, CVO team members are responsible for guiding the entire bike through its gestation period, from inception to delivery. CVO Senior Director Jeff Romenesko says of the added responsibility, “You have to wear a bigger hat. You have to be an entrepreneur.”
The Custom group’s development cycle is similar to that of the OE group-bikes emerge from a styling concept and evolve through several iterations. “We test it, we break it, we fix it, then we tool it up,” Smith says. Because so much emphasis is placed on the aesthetic qualities of CVO machines, the Custom group takes pride in its ability to realize the vision of Harley-Davidson’s styling group, an often-daunting task considering the sometimes challenging input they receive from design gurus Willie G. Davidson and Louie Netz, frequently late in a project. Romenesko says, “These [bikes] are their ultimate vision and we try to deliver that vision.” That often includes executing concepts that would be implausible on an OE machine. Smith adds, “When styling has a vision that’s way out there or a bit risky, we like to find a way to make it happen.”
Customer input is another critical component of the development process. Staff members routinely attend rallies and customer events to gauge interest and determine which models make it into the lineup. CVO owners are an ardent breed. Harley-Davidson research shows that they have typically owned and customized more Hogs than other customers, and those bespoke leather chaps have some deep pockets. Despite the fact that CVO machines squeak off the showroom floor dripping with custom paint jobs and rivers of chrome, the average CVO buyer routinely spends far more on parts and accessories than do buyers of standard Harleys.
Being a small, agile fighting force has its practical benefits in turbulent times. With a development cycle of 10-to-13 months (roughly half that of Harley’s OE group), CVO can react quickly to market conditions and customer demand. With that kind of flexibility, it is no surprise that the CVO Class of 2010 is geared to the resilient touring segment. As Romenesko points out, “Touring bikes are selling well- more importantly, touring bikes that are low to the ground.”
While Harley-Davidson’s Custom Vehicle Operations has grown exponentially since its modest beginnings in 1999, so has the passion and dedication of the staff. It is that devotion that manifests itself year-after-year in these rarified exemplars of V-Twin culture. Eric Buckhouse says, “It’s never easier the next year, its always harder. With the passion in the group, we keep getting it done.” Jeff Smith adds, “When you see the first customer on the street, rolling down the road on the bike that you’ve poured your lifeblood into, it’s a really rewarding experience.”
Photography by Riles & Nelson