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50 YEARS OF SELLING 'HOGS'

For a sure-fire pulse-quickener, few sights can beat the line-up of gleaming motorcycles at the Gowanda Harley-Davidson showroom on Zoar Valley Road. They look like toy soldiers at rest before a parade starts.

In fact, all the motorcycles -- from the $5,500 entry level model to the $18,500 corporate classic -- are used machines waiting for new open-road riders.

A motorcycle with a radio, tape player and all the computerized add-ons could cost $25,000. At that price, the 50 miles per gallon of gasoline doesn't look like a great savings.

But relying on the used trade doesn't trouble John M. Reid, the 49-year-old Vietnam War veteran who is president of the company that his late father, John S. Reid, founded 50 years ago.

Even though oncoming rain, snow and cold will cut back on motorcycling, Reid is confident that his showroom models will sell fairly quickly.

Gowanda Harley-Davidson these days must content itself with buying, selling, servicing and refitting used motorcycles because new ones are hard to come by. "Our quota is 100 a year," Reid said. "We cannot get enough new ones."

The wait for a new model could be as long as two years, trade sources say.

That's because the Harley-Davidson plants in Milwaukee and in York, Pa., in 1996 could only manufacture 135,000 new motorcycles a year. "They are spread among its 600 American dealerships," Reid said. Quotas should improve next year when a new assembly plant opens in Kansas City, Mo.

The limited new production makes for a strong used motorcycle trade. "With reasonable maintenance, they are durable," Reid said. "We have one customer who drove his bike 300,000 miles. And plenty of Harley-Davidsons made for the Army during World War II are still in use in Europe."

Harley-Davidson now has about 46 percent of the American market, a share it has built up since 1987 when competition compelled it, like the auto industry, to upgrade the quality of its product. It also was helped by the imposition of higher tariffs on imports.

"My father, John S. Reid, started the Gowanda Harley-Davidson business in 1947 when he saw that he could earn more money by servicing motorcycles on a part-time basis than he could working full-time at service stations," Reid said. "Before he died in 1991, he saw the business' quarters expand four times with a fifth occurring in 1995."

The Gowanda franchise covers southern Erie and northern Cattaraugus counties. There are other Harley-Davidson franchises in Western New York. John's brother, David, has one based in Jamestown.

"He started with an inventory of five motorcycles in a Zoar Road barn for cows and chickens," Reid said. Through its expansions the business has gone from 450 square feet of space up to the present 12,000 square feet.

The old barn is still used but now it is part of the motorcycle clothing showroom, fitted out with a handsome wood decor. Black leather jackets that sell for as much $460 and have long been motorcyclists' "uniform." The business also sells new brown jackets with the well-worn look and heavyweight jeans for long wear in the saddle.

Indeed, a big part of Gowanda Harley-Davidson's $2 million-plus annual sales is clothing, jewelry, watches, helmets and boots.

Harley-Davidson itself expects to record $2 billion in sales this year. After nearly going bankrupt in 1985, Harley-Davidson has seen its stock rise steadily this year to close Friday at $30.25 on the New York Stock Exchange, just under its 52-week high of $31.25. The stock has been split three times in the last decade, something that frequently is a sign of strong performance.

The Gowanda Harley-Davidson service and repair shop is another sight to see. In a sense it resembles a hospital operating room. Motorcycles have their parts repaired on lift platforms that resemble surgical tables. And the wooden floor area is stainless.

In a lower floor is a motorcycle "museum," which includes the 1940 Harley-Davidson on which John S. Reid zoomed across the country with his bride, Madeleine, riding behind him. She remains part of the family corporation.

In fact, 10 of the Gowanda Harley-Davidson employee team are family members.

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