Law Ride: BMWs and Harleys

There are two major brands of motorcycles used by motor officers in the United States today: BMW and Harley-Davidson. There may be others, but in the U.S., you just don’t see any other brands but these two. Kawasaki once made police bikes, such as those used by Ponch and Jon in the TV show “CHiPs” (Kawasaki offered the best advertising support to get that product placement on the show; the real CHP back in the day used Harleys). Kawasaki got out of the U.S. police motorcycle market in 2005. You will find Police Yamaha motorcycles in Europe and Japan, but rarely in the U.S.

There are divided “camps” about Harleys and BMWs for use in police work. Harley has had a corner on the market for a long time, since they introduced motorcycles for police work to the Detroit Police Department in 1908 — more than 100 years ago! Pittsburgh also introduced Police Harleys in 1909.

In the late 80s, BMW aggressively pursued the U.S. police motorcycle market. They offered significant discounts on multi-bike contracts to local governments. Also, BMW was the first to offer ABS (anti-lock braking assist) on their bikes starting in 1988. Harley didn’t introduce ABS on touring class bikes until 2007. Many cops preferred bikes with ABS brakes due to the nature of their work requiring frequent quick stops.

When I was speaking with cops at Law Ride last Sunday about the two makes of police bikes, I learned that those who ride BMWs like them for their maneuverability, but also find the center of gravity higher and thus they take corners wider. Believe it or not, a big Harley police bike can turn more sharply than a BMW. I’ve turned my Road King (which is one of the models used for police bikes) completely around in a U-Turn within a 14′ (4.3m) box. You can’t do that on a top-heavy BMW.

The cops say that BMWs are quicker, and feel “less wide” so in heavy traffic, they are easier to get through traffic, especially if they have to unsnarl a backup due to a crash or catch a speeder.

The cops say that Harleys are much more comfortable, providing a better seat and less jolting ride. That has to do with the configuration of the shocks on a Harley vs. a BMW. If you have to ride long distances, BMW police bikes can get awfully uncomfortable on the butt.

A cop who has ridden both Harleys and BMWs told me that he likes both, for different reasons. His agency has both makes of bikes, and keeps rotating the purchases between the two. Some officers prefer one or the other, and by bidding contracts, his city has gotten a good product for a better price. BMWs come in at a lower cost some years, and Harleys on others.

What this cop said about usage and maintenance was interesting to me. He said that BMWs are the only police bikes with a dry clutch. This type of clutch system is different from the “wet clutch” found on Harleys. The problem is, according to this sergeant, is that when operating a police motorcycle, the operator often keeps the clutch in the “friction zone” — that is, slightly engaged to release variable power to the drive shaft. This is necessary when riding slowly through clogged traffic, in parades, or generally on busy city streets with many traffic signals. BMW specifically says in its owner’s manual not to ride the clutch in the friction zone, because it will burn out. This officer said that was true. He said he goes through clutches several times a year. Thus, the maintenance cost to his department is higher.

Harleys aren’t known for low-cost maintenance, either. When they work, they work great. But when they develop a small oil leak or an electrical problem, it can be very difficult and costly to diagnose and repair. Believe me, I’ve been there!

Finally, one officer who was riding a brand new Police Harley (it had only 300 miles on it) told me that his jurisdiction had a “Buy American” requirement. They can only buy American-made products. While a “Buy American” clause is controversial, it is a factor in some areas of the U.S. And that’s why you see more Police Harleys on the road than German-made BMWs.

Another reason, according to a forum that I read is that BMW is not as competitive in its pricing as it once was. While the content of that forum is a few years old, and the world economy “tanked” since then, what I observe is that often a choice between a product comes down to cost: original purchase price plus the estimated ongoing cost of maintenance. BMWs no longer have the edge in either category. Thus, another reason why you see more Police Harleys these days. Heck, even the CHP started buying Harleys again since H-D introduced ABS braking in 2007.

Some may think I am strictly a Harley guy. Sure, I really like my Road King, but I’m an equal-opportunity biker. I rented a BMW 1200RT and rode it all over California. It’s a nice bike, but I experienced the same things the cops said: it was top-heavy, the turning radius was wide, and it was uncomfortable to ride for a long day, especially two-up. Plus, it was just hard for me to get on and off due to its height (and my lack of height). I prefer a lower seat. I’ll keep my Road King, thanks.

Life is short: let’s RIDE!