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Our man in Varese

By Terry Roorda

Saluti, amici e colleghi appassionati di moto. That’s Italian for, “Howdy, amigos and fellow scooter tramps,” and as you can see I’ve gotten really good at di lingua italiana since relocating to Italia last week to establish the THUNDER PRESS European Bureau here in the city of Varese. And what a whirlwind it’s been. Two weeks ago I didn’t even know we’d be opening a European Bureau, but then the rumors that had been circulating about Harley-Davidson buying out MV Augusta/ Cagiva turned to fact and I immediately got the assignment to get over here and set up shop and start digging into the story. It’s all happened so fast. So fast, in fact, that my boss doesn’t even know he’s assigned me yet. That’s a mere formality, I’m sure, as is signing off on my expense report for this caper, though he’ll probably do a spit-take when he sees the numbers. Couldn’t be helped. I’ve discovered that dollars aren’t worth as much as Euros over here, and everybody wants to get paid in Euros. They won’t bend over to pick up a dollar. No matter, though. A newsman has to go with his gut, cost be damned, and my gut told me to get over here where the real Harley action is these days.

There’s a lot of speculation about the buyout going on right now centered on the questions of why MV Augusta and why now, and you hear talk about European dealership networks and increased presence on a continent posting double-digit sales growth of Harley-Davidsons, but I find the likeliest explanation to be that Milwaukee fell into a mean funk. Their domestic sales have fallen off, company stock price is languishing below the $40 level, and the Wall Street wonks who once gushed over “The Milwaukee Miracle” have taken to trash-talking them like a crazy ex. Who wouldn’t get depressed? So Harley did what any of us would do under the circumstances: They went shopping.

They figured to blow some dough on something kicky and spendy like a pair of Italian pumps, but since a corporation has no actual feet, they had to settle for the next best thing: a legendary Italian motorcycle marque.

Sure, it was impulsive behavior, but it sure felt good and, besides, when the bill comes at the end of the month they can always dispute the charges and just tool around on MV Augusta 1078 F4s until the repo man shows up. For now, though, Varese is the happening place to be both for Harley-Davidson and for a motojournalist burned out on the doom and gloom of the industry stateside, and in my preliminary investigating around town I’ve found that Varese is the ideal Euro-Milwaukee. It has a lot in common with the Wisconsin-Milwaukee, like lots of lakes and a long history of breweries. There’s also a 60-year-old motorcycle industry here that started with an outfit called Aeronautica Macchi.

That company was in the airplane business before World War II and branched off in the postwar years into manufacturing motorcycles, and they were so good at it that they attracted the interest of a bigger motorcycle company looking to add a line of smaller-displacement machines to their catalogue. That was in 1961. That company was Harley-Davidson.

Aeronautica Macchi became Aermacchi that year, and by the late ’60s Harley owned the company outright, and nearly half of all Harley-Davidsons being sold were produced by the factory in Varese. The rising tide of superior and more economical Japanese machines during the early ’70s led Harley-Davidson—then owned by AMF—to divest of Aermacchi, selling it to another Varese firm intent on getting into the motorcycle business. That was in 1978. That company was Cagiva.

Cagiva went on to acquire and shuffle and peddle motorcycle marques like trading cards, owning at one time or another Ducati, Moto Morini, Husqvarna, and finally the moribund MV Augusta. With the redoubtable MV Augusta marque in their possession, the Cagiva tank badge—which had originally been, believe it or not, “H-D Cagiva” when first they assumed control of Aermacchi—assumed a low profile, appearing only on models displacing 125cc.

Those small machines are technically Harleys now, but to what extent Milwaukee publicizes that fact remains to be seen. A lot of other things remain to be seen, as well. Things like how hard do they push MV Augusta in competition with Buell, and to what extent can the two coexist and complement one another on the showroom floor. And to what extent will Milwaukee’s enhanced stature in Europe resulting from the MV Augusta cachet spur acceptance and sales of their products generally. These are important questions. Obviously important enough to warrant a THUNDER PRESS European desk in Varese. And I know just the desk I want, too. There’s this bitchin’ Florentine credenza dating to the Renaisssance that I spotted at the mercado della pulci (“flea market”) while I was out on an esguirre birra (“beer run”) and it only costs £23,000 (“buttload”).

It’s all right here in the diaries.

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