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How The CHP Is Cooler Than You: They’re Riding Harleys

By Aaron Crowe
The throaty rumble of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is a sound that’s hard to miss and easy to distinguish.
For Californians, it’s a sound becoming more familiar on the state’s highway as the California Highway Patrol is replacing its fleet of BMW motorcycles with Harley-Davidsons.
As a brand that has grown on its outlaw image while becoming popular among lawyers, doctors and other mainstream professionals, the Harley can be seen as one of the coolest bikes on the road.
“More people come up to you. They want to have their picture taken with it,” says Mike Genthner, co-owner and general manager at Oakland Harley-Davidson, the Bay Area dealership that won the CHP contract.
“A lot of people have a story of a Harley-Davidson in their lives,” Genthner says.
The CHP has approximately 415 enforcement motorcycles working the roads throughout California, and 121 Harley-Davidsons were purchased to replace BMW motorcycles that have high mileage or have been damaged in traffic collisions, according to the CHP. A second order for 47 more is being fulfilled.
About 20 percent of the CHP’s motorcycle fleet has logged 100,000 miles or more, which exceeds the manufacturer’s warranty, the CHP says. That high mileage was reached, in part, because in January 2011 the department deferred the purchase of replacement motorcycles as a way to save money, and it hasn’t bought new motorcycle’s since January this year under the new contract for Harley-Davidson motorcycles.
Modifications needed
The contract allows up to 400 Harley Electra Glides to be ordered, Genthner says. With all the modifications needed to make them police worthy, his dealership can deliver four per week to the CHP, he says.
Without the modifications, the motorcycles cost $22,000, he says. The added options and warranty service plan for three years or 60,000 miles brings the cost up to $28,000.
The motor isn’t modified, but the front and rear suspensions are upgraded to “performance suspensions” for heavy use, and wiring is added for lighting and sirens.
The CHP has used Harleys before, with the last Harley from a 1989 deal retired in 1997. Along with the BMW motorcycles it’s replacing, the CHP has used Kawasaki bikes.
Used by police worldwide
Harley-Davidson motorcycles have been used by police around the country since 1908 when the Detroit Police Department used them, according to the motorcycle company. They were also used by the Army in the pursuit of Pancho Villa after he attacked Columbus, New Mexico, in 1916, and were sued in World War I.
Today, more than 3,400 police departments ride the motorcycles in the U.S., as do police in 45 countries.
Police sales are good advertising for the company as a way to publicize that anyone, including police officers, like the bikes.
“There doesn’t appear to be a negative opinion of the Harley-Davidson,” Genthner says.
Because the bike is so distinguishable, Harley-Davidson doesn’t put its name on the bike, Genthner says. The CHP will install its decals so the public can clearly see it’s a police motorcycle, but otherwise, California drivers may have to wait to hear the Harley’s distinctive rumble before they realize they’re driving next to a CHP officer.
Unless they’re about to get a ticket for speeding or some other infraction. In that case, they’ll probably hear the siren first.
Aaron Crowe is a journalist who covers the auto industry for