Harley-Davidson 120th festival - Bikes, beers, bands and Budapest

For Harley-Davidson’s 120th Anniversary Budapest played host to an army of fans and Visordown was right in the thick of it

Harley bikes riding through Budapest

I’M riding a brand new Harley-Davidson Sport Glide through central Budapest. Tens of thousands of people are lining the streets, and I’m riding directly behind Bill Davidson and his daughter Cara.

I’ve got Karen Davidson riding to my left on a Black Demin Breakout 117 and at these speeds, the Milwaukee Eight 107 beneath me is doing its best to turn my inside leg into a medium-rare Flat Iron steak.

The police outriders that are clearing the streets, closing junctions and generally ensuring the bikes have a clear run through the city are whizzing around like a US president is on an official visit, and every single spectator that’s standing on the pavement, hanging from a road sign, or sitting on the parapet of a bridge has their camera phone out capturing the occasion.

As ride-outs go, the Harley-Davidson 120th parade through Budapest really was something else!

It struck me at about halfway through the 5-mile ride; there isn’t really another motorcycle brand on the planet that could get away with this. To walk into a capital city, drag along more than 7,000 motorcycles, and then effectively shut down the city centre for a few hours while they all ride through…  Can you imagine Sadiq Khan agreeing to that? Nope, me neither.

And while the opening to this blog/report/brain dump is all about the bikes, really they are just the tip of the iceberg. And it’s an iceberg that covers bikes, culture, fashion, food, music and family, and I’m going to try my best to give you an idea of what it was like to attend it.

Harley-Davidson European 120th Anniversary Festival

I’ve been to these kinds of brand appreciation events before, World Ducati Week in 2018 and more recently Aprilia All-Stars last summer. Arriving at the Puskás Aréna on Thursday evening, it was immediately evident that this event was a very different kettle of bikers. Where at WDW and the Aprilia event it was all about the stars attending the event, be they from the world of MotoGP or World Superbike. It was these people and the things they were set to do on the track that people were there for. The Harley event was different, and refreshingly so. The Puskás Aréna felt so much more social than any other motorcycle event I’ve attended, and instead of the stars on the track being the focus, it was the other people there, and the bikes they had crossed Europe on that were the talking points; it was this that was bringing people together.

The new 2023 CVO Road Glide VVT

Checking out the 2023 CVO Road Glide and Street Glide in the flesh

After soaking up the show on Thursday evening (and acclimatising to the 35-degree heat), Friday felt a bit more like a work day, with Harley wheeling out the brand new 2023 Harley-Davidson CVO Road Glide and Street Glide for us. First impressions of the two new bikes are great: they look awesome, and the VVT system Harley has used is a logical step and should mean the classic-looking V-twin era can continue on for a few years to come. It’s the chassis, though, that struck me most, with Harley opting (for the first time that I can recall) to uncover the forks and show off the front brake callipers. It’s a point I picked up on with Gavin Cupit, H-D’s Technical Support Manager. “Well we’ve always used Brembo brakes, they just used to have the Bar & Shield logos on them, not Brembo ones.” With some riders bemoaning the braking system on some of the big H-D touring machines, you get the feeling that the move to show off the bike’s hardware is a psychological change to help improve the perception of the bikes and the way they ride. 

Personally, I think the new naked-look front end looks great and, along with the new more taut and muscular bodywork, it all creates a more modern-looking bike, yet still instantly recognisable as a CVO.

The line of bikes parked out side the Puskás Aréna

After a bit of a wander around the Expo and taking in the new CVOs, the floodgates opened and, within minutes, our chilled-out VIP experience with the arena mostly to ourselves was over, as tens of thousands of eager bikers poured into the site. With three more days planned at the festival, we decided to take some of the loan fleet bikes Harley had on hand for a ride down the Danube.

Yep, that's a bear asleep in it's dug-out bed!

I’m going to be honest here, the ride wasn’t the comfiest ever, although that was through no fault of the Street Glide Special I was riding. I’d packed for the trip badly and, instead of grabbing my vented mesh vest, opted instead for a more on-trend black leather jacket, with all the ventilation of a triple-lined bin bag. Thankfully we managed to escape the humidity of the city fairly quickly, and after an hour or so rolled into our refreshment stop. I’ve never really seen a bear up close, so when we rolled into Veresegyházi Medveotthon bear sanctuary, my squeal of “holy shit, there’s a bear” was justified! It’s funny because that part of southeast Europe is covered in bears, but until you leave the PR-friendly confines of the show and the city, it never even dawned on me they were there.

After an hour of chilling with the furry locals, we were back on the road and threading our way through the traffic for a mooch around the custom bike show.

The line of bikes in the custom competition must have been a hundred strong, and it had everything, from pro-street drag replicas, jewel-like cruisers, and even a home-built rat bike that was like a mechanical representation of the soul of its creator. And it was clear that these bikes weren’t pro-built and shipped in specifically for the event. These were bug-splattered and weather-beaten. Most of these machines were ridden to the show and, in most cases, ridden there by the people that had built them.

I spoke to one guy who’d brought his fully custom-built Road Glide along, complete with 27” front wheel and air-ride suspension. “I’ve travelled from the Netherlands just to experience this,” he beamed, his smirk hinting that there was more to this story than simply riding to Budapest. “Well, I started in the Netherlands, headed west and then south, picked up the Route Napoleon and then began heading east to get here - over 2,000 miles in all!” I get the commitment to ride enormous distances when attending things like this, but to do it on a bike that, in any other scenario, would be plonked on a plinth and admired really is another level!

With the main stage now bouncing and the beers in full flow, we head out to get a feel for the event. It’s strange to think that 10,000s of people were in that arena, fueled with drinks and pumped up by bands like The Darkness and Wolf Mother, yet not once did I see any form of trouble. In fact, come to think of it, I’m not sure I even saw much of a police presence inside the event. Coventry has an annual festival, it’s called The Godiva Festival, which is probably about the size of the party going on in Budapest. The police presence at the Godiva is so vast, you could probably heist every bank in the city centre, stop for a Greggs on the way home, and walk out of the town centre with your spoils totally unhindered. Harley’s 120th bash didn’t need any of that, and I think the reason comes down to the family that is present. And I’m not talking about the Davidsons, although three were present, I’m talking about the riders. Motorcycling is a broad church, and the world of Harley-Davidson is no different. From fully-patched-up Hells Angels to Hog Chapter members and well-heeled CVO owners making their big annual trip, they all had one thing in common; the brand they loved and the bikes they rode. There’s no division between Harley fans - you get the impression that, as the rest of the biking world already has opinions on the bikes and the people that ride them, Harley riders have a duty to stick together, and they really do look out for one another.

Fans watch as 7,000 Harley-Davidsons ride through Budapest

Saturday marked the final full day we had in Budapest, and Harley had undoubtedly saved the best till last. We joined 7,000 other like-minded motorcycle fans for the crowning moment of the entire event: a police-escorted ride through the beautiful streets of Budapest. It’s rare in this line of work to get to ride solely in a capital city, we’re normally whisked away to the mountains or a track and sent off to scrape footpegs and carve through corners. The slower pace of the parade, though, was refreshing, and it also gave me a chance to take in the stunning location Harley had chosen for the event. 

Bill and Cara Davidson riding a Harley-Davidson motorcycle in front of the Hungarian parliament building

Budapest is beautiful and eclectic. From Soviet-era tower blocks to Parisian palaces and citadels, it’s really got it all. And with scenic roads just a few miles from the city centre, it’s definitely a place to put on your to-ride list.

Flying home from the event I reflected on what it meant for me and the people that were there. It’s almost like none of them were there to celebrate a brand’s anniversary, it’s like they were there to raise a glass to an old friend or family member. That’s what the Bar and Shield brand means to these fans. I was lucky enough to meet Bill, Karen, and Cara Davidson as Wolf Mother blasted out their set. Bill is obviously Harley through and through, but speaking to them it’s clearly a family affair, passed down through the generations just like blue eyes and bald spots. And that hereditary love for the brand isn’t reserved just for the Davidsons, like many other iconic brands, the younger generation will always lean to the bikes they saw their family riding while they were growing up. The big deal with Harley, though, is that it has been passing down this love for the last one-hundred-and-twenty years. And not many other motorcycle brands can attest to that.

A big thank you to Harley-Davidson UK for inviting us along for the festival.