Washington — For years, Harley-Davidson Motor Company has specialized in personal transportation for he-men - big, snarling motorcycles that symbolize the freedom of the open road.
But the Milwaukee-based firm, the last US motorbike manufacturer, has momentarily abandoned its macho image. Last week, Harley ran to the US government, crying for protection from tough Japanese competitors.
Specifically, the firm filed a Section 201 petition, a request that does not overtly accuse the Japanese of illegal practices, but claims competition from low-priced imports is the largest cause of Harley's current financial problems. Harley is asking the International Trade Commission (ITC) to put tariffs on all heavyweight (over 700-cubic-centimeter) motorcycles and motorcycle power trains imported into the United States.
''What we are seeking is time, not a permanent subsidy or bail-out,'' says Tim Hoelter, Harley-Davidson general counsel and vice-president.
''This petition is an attempt to protect Harley-Davidson from the effects of fair competion, to the detriment of the American consumer,'' responds a spokesman for Yamaha Motor.
Harley's ''hogs'' are legendary pieces of machinery. Countless movie characters, from Marlon Brando to Peter Fonda, have ridden them off into the cinema sunset.
Dedicated Harley riders take great pride in ''dressing'' their 1000-cc-plus machines with options until the bikes resemble ''two-wheeled resort complexes,'' in the words of one rider. ''There's a mystique about them that's just unreal,'' says Del Austin, co-founder of the International Harley-Davidson Dresser and Touring Association.
But Harley, along with US makers of 4-wheeled motor vehicles, has been battered by inexpensive, high-quality Japanese imports.
In 1978, Harley filed a suit with the US government accusing Honda, Yamaha, Suzuki, and other Japanese manufacturers of ''dumping'' their products in the US - selling them below cost. The Commerce Department ruled the dumping margins, for the most part, were very thin, and didn't warrant retaliation.
But since 1978, the Japanese have redoubled their efforts to market Harley-style bikes. And they are fine pieces of machinery.
The Suzuki GS 1100, for instance, is ''an epiphany,'' according to an article in Car and Driver magazine, ''arguably the most sophisticated retail cycle in the world.''
Japanese imports now account for 85 percent of all heavyweight bikes sold in the US, up from 72 percent in 1978. Harley's market share, 13.3 percent, has shrunk by a third over the same period. Harley has laid off 1,600 employees over the last year.
''Harley-Davidson's loss in (market) share is directly attributable to the tremendous increase in Japanese imports,'' says the petition submitted to the ITC.
Spokesmen for Japanese motorcycle manufacturers declined to respond to the specifics of Harley's petition, saying only that the move would receive careful study.
Harley, owned by its top executives, no longer can draw on the larger resources of AMF Corporation, which owned the motorcycle manufacturer until 1981 .
But, if tariffs are imposed, - a decision that will take up to six months - the firm will have the time and cash flow to gear up for production of new, more attractive models, says Mr. Hoelter, the Harley executive.