Ray Drea: Running in the Harley Family?

Bikes People

a custom soul at the heart of the machine

That distinctive Harley styling had long remained a family affair.

For fifty years Willie G Gibson (below) – a direct descendent of the Davidson founding partners – had his hand and eye on pretty much everything that came out of those famous Milwaukee gates.

All that ended in 2012 when the legendary figure stepped down from his drawing board and gave control to a man from outside the bloodline. For the hardcore knucklehead this was clearly a time of nervous anticipation. What would this outsider do with their beloved brand?

Willie Gibson

In actual fact Ray Drea (top), the incoming Chief of Styling and Willie’s successor, could hardly be classed as an outsider. Being at school with all Willie B’s kids and working in the company for twenty years Drea would have to be considered pretty close to family, certainly he must at least count as an adopted son of the Davidson dynasty.

He may have started on the payroll proper in 1993 – after being seconded in to lead the design and styling on The Bad Boy (below, which hit the streets in 1995) – but he’d been doing ‘one offs’ for the company since he left school and started his own business doing paint and graphic work. By the time of his permanent move to Harley he’d been working at Calibre Inc. who were doing the paintwork for the Harley CVO range.

A 1995 Bad Boy

So knuckleheads could relax, a safe pair of hands was now holding the black and orange brushes. In fact Ray Drea has a backstory of schoolboy scribbling turned custom art success that rivals industry legends such as Dean Moon and Von Dutch (see Influx Issues 010 and 008 respectively).

Whilst still at school he’d been successfully selling his artistic skills and in a High School art project eschewed the canvas in favour of motorcycle metal painting a Frank Franetta mural onto a Sportster tank. Stopping by the show to view his own boy’s work Willie B took notice right there and then.

The rest as they say is… But while history is important to historic brands so is the now, and so is the future. So how is Ray Drea dealing with what is a difficult and complex present as well as an uncertain future in the motorcycle business?

The complex present is made more so by the upsurge in popularity of the custom scene in general, and more specifically for Harley, the rise of the Custom Bagger. Coming squarely from the individualistic custom paint scene Drea is well placed to address this issue and to help lend the big brand a custom feel.

Ray Drea

So how does he achieve this balancing act? Firstly Drea stays close to his roots, to that custom pinstripe and paint scene from which he hails and so understands. He observes what’s appearing at shows like Mooneyes and tracks the results

“From a motorcycle perspective, I saw this kind of steam – pipey, nostalgic thing coming out of Japan 15-20 years ago…So I’ve been tracking these types of trends for years, watching these trends and foreseeing when they go commercial.”

One of the ways he stays close to these trends is through the promotion of his own pinstriping event at the Milwaukee Custom Car and Bike show which he has run for the last 12 years and which attracts a worldwide and world-class participation.

If keeping close to the scene is important so is knowing when to reign in its excesses when thinking about mass producing bikes that are safe to ride and that handle well.

2013 Harley Davidson FXSB

A good example from Ray’s early days as boss can be seen in the launch of the 2013 Breakout (above) which, although it has many nods to a custom machine, rejects the temptation of embracing the Bagger trend for larger and larger front wheels (some creeping up to 30inches). As Drea explains:

“When something comes out, it can be a bit extreme and takes a bit of time for people to settle down.”

He goes on to talk about how that settling usually manifests itself in a younger demographic by the time it reaches the mainstream end of the buying chain. Here is an artist who can walk like a marketer. A man who has turned his skill for pleasing the individual pinstripe client to pleasing thousands of his company’s customers in one machine.

In short Ray Drea is a timely addition to the Harley-Davidson dynasty, a man who can mediate the custom cool with the mass produced reality.