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European Business Holy Harley: Motorcycle maker scores marketing coup with the Pope

Pope Francis is presented with a leather Harley Davidson jacket during the weekly audience in Saint Peter's Square at the Vatican June 12, 2013.

OSSERVATORE ROMANO/REUTERS

When you think of Italy, you don't think of Harley-Davidsons. You think of little Vespas, slithering through traffic like snakes on skates, missing cars by millimetres. Can't do that on big, fat Harleys.

Yet Italians love the rumbling all-American motorcycles – you just tend to see them more on the open road than in densely packed city centres – and Italy and has always been one of the Milwaukee company's top 10 markets. The first Harley was sold in the country in 1914 and, for two decades starting in 1960, Harley-Davidson controlled the motorcycle company that had been created by Italian airplane maker Aermacchi, which supplied Harley-Davidson with small engines. The Harley brand is exceedingly powerful in Italy and if you need convincing, even Pope Francis has become an owner.

On Wednesday, as part of the company's 110th anniversary celebrations, the Pope was given two Harleys, one of which had been signed by his predecessor, the former Pope Benedict XVI. The first is to go to auction; the other is going into the Vatican Museums. His Holiness was also given a black leather Harley jacket, though you won't see him celebrate mass in it. He is partial to simple white robes.

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Harley-Davidson's audience with the Pope was nothing short of a marketing triumph. And there's more. On Sunday, a few hundred Harleys will be given special permission to enter St. Peter's Square, where, at 11 a.m., they and their owners will be blessed by the Pope as part of his regular Angelus appearance. It is impossible to imagine rival motorcycle makers getting such attention and privileges.The blessing of the Hondas or the Suzukis? Forget it.

Harley-Davidson chose Rome and the nearby Mediterranean port city of Ostia for its biggest-ever celebration outside of the United States. The four-day event will attract an estimated 100,000 Harley owners and their friends and families. There will be a monster beach party at Ostia, concerts by Adam Ant, Bonnie Tyler and Mike & The Mechanics – remember them? – Oscar-Mayer hot dogs galore, a custom bike show and a 40-km parade of 3,000 Harleys from Ostia into central Rome. Harley CEO Keith Wandell and several relatives of the company's co-founder, William A. Davidson, will be among the revellers and riders.

Will photos of the pope next to a Harley translate into better Italian sales? The company doesn't break down sales by country, but admits the deep Italian recession has not been good to the company, whose products cost as much as a medium-size car.

In traffic as dense as Rome's, a scooter with one-10th the power of a Harley will always be faster than a Harley. Mark-Hans Richer, Harley-Davidson's chief marketing officer, admitted driving a Harley in Rome is a bit different than rolling one through the Arizona desert. "It's crazy driving here, but we love the adventure," he said.

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