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Author Topic: 90 years and counting for Harley dealer  (Read 2197 times)

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90 years and counting for Harley dealer
« on: October 19, 2004, 01:18:26 PM »

 90 years and counting for Harley dealer
- Julian Guthrie, Chronicle Staff Writer
Saturday, October 9, 2004

It is one of the oldest businesses in San Francisco, opened when Sunny Jim Rolph was mayor and the Model T was hitting the city's hilly streets.

The company has persevered through world wars, the Great Depression, various recessions and the dot-com boom and bust.

This weekend, the Dudley Perkins Co., one of the oldest Harley-Davidson dealerships in the country, will celebrate its 90th anniversary with a street party, antique bike show and ride from San Francisco to Treasure Island.

The party will commemorate a family that has defied the odds and kept a business running through three generations and pay tribute to an American legend: the Harley Davidson motorcycle.

The company was founded in 1914 by namesake Dudley Perkins, a legendary hill racer. It's now run by Tom Perkins, the founder's 47-year-old grandson, who took time from party planning late this week to talk about the challenges of operating a business in San Francisco, to remember his colorful grandpa and to marvel over the evolution of the beloved bike.

Tom Perkins owns two Harleys, a 2003 Fat Boy and a 1982 Shovel Head that he calls "my baby."

"In the end, your best asset is your reputation," Perkins said, sitting in his office filled with Harley memorabilia and family photos. His golden retriever Winston napped nearby.

His wife, Janet Perkins, the company's general manager, said marrying into the Perkins family was stepping into the city's rich history.

"I started dating Tom when I was 15," Janet Perkins said. "My dad was thrilled because he was a motorcycle rider. He said, do you know who Tom's grandfather is?"

Tom Perkins smiles as he recalls his grandfather.

"He lived for motorcycling," Perkins said.

"My grandmother tolerated him," Perkins said chuckling. "I remember as a kid we'd go to the racetrack with him, and he'd hand out stopwatches to us. I remember feeling I'd better get my time right."

The market for motorcycles was thriving when Dudley Perkins opened his shop at 1926 Market St. It was a time when an estimated 100 companies nationwide were manufacturing motorcycles. Although the assembly of the first Ford Model T in 1908 eventually cut into motorcycle sales, the Harley Davidson would grow in popularity after the company was founded in 1903.

"At the turn of the century, motorcycles were the affordable mode of transportation," Perkins said. His grandfather ran the business during the week and competed in rides on the weekends. He held the West Coast hill climbing competition title for 10 years.

The company hit hard times in 1930, selling only 15 bikes in the first year of the Great Depression. But in the mid 1930s, the California Highway Patrol purchased 225 Harleys from Dudley Perkins, starting a tradition that would last for nearly 50 years. World War II posed different challenges, as production shifted gears to meet the demands of war.

At the end of the war, the Perkins firm purchased surplus Army motorcycles and parts in Texas and Louisiana. The goods filled five train cars and marked the beginning of a record year for sales at Dudley Perkins. He bought the surplus bikes for $125 and sold them for $325 each.

Tom Perkins' father, Dudley Perkins Jr., took over day-to-day operations of the dealership in 1968. Tom Perkins took the helm in 1990. Dudley Sr. died in 1976 at age 83 and Dudley Jr. died in 1997 at age 73.

Today, the company sells around 450 bikes a year, ranging in price from $9,000 for the Sportster to $21,000 for a touring bike. Custom designs can add tens of thousands of dollars to the price tag.

The bike itself has changed, but not radically. The original single- cylinder engine was replaced by a V-twin engine in 1909. Other engines that followed include the Shovel Head and the acclaimed Evolution Engine, known as the first Harley engine to be truly dependable and free of the leaking problems that plagued earlier ones.

Perkins, as clean cut as a soccer dad and without a single tattoo, says that about 60 percent of his clients are white-collar workers, while 40 percent are blue-collar. The outlaw element popularized by movies such as "The Wild One" and perpetuated by groups including the Hells Angels exists but represents a small proportion of motorcycle enthusiasts, Perkins said. More than 90 percent of Harley owners are men.

"That's starting to change," Perkins noted. "Women are saying, 'Hey, I don't want to be a passenger.' "

Janet Perkins says being a woman in a male-dominated business has its advantages and challenges.

"The hardest challenge for me is not knowing the mechanics of the bike itself," she said. "The most beneficial thing is that I'm a mom. My parenting skills are very similar to employer-employee skills."

"Some of the very old-time mechanics or customers don't have a lot of patience for what Harley has evolved into," she continued. "Some are not happy with women having a place in their world. But they're very few and far between. "

Dudley Perkins now includes the Page Street service center, the South Van Ness Avenue showroom and a gift shop at Fisherman's Wharf. The couple's son Christopher, 24, works in the service center. Daughter Nicole, 21, is wavering on the idea of working for the family company.

As Tom Perkins talks, the phone rings constantly.

Getting the necessary permits for the 90th anniversary party took several months and required visits to the city's entertainment commission, the departments of Public Health and Transportation, the Fire Department and two different police stations. In addition, Perkins had to hire a private firm to clean the nearby streets and parking lots, favored by the homeless and overlooked, he says, by the city.

"It's gotten more complicated and more expensive to do business in this city," Perkins said. "But this is where we are. This is our history."

He adds, "For me, the challenge of running this company is all about growth and instilling family values and family ethics. It's a continuum. It's a continual fine-tuning process."
Still roaring

« Last Edit: October 19, 2004, 01:19:43 PM by mfgreen »

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