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Journeys Remembered- ON ICONIC BIKE

15 July, 2010

For long, the distinctive exhaust note of the iconic bike was like a distant drum for the enthusiasts in this country. Although I am no bike enthusiast - riding the good old ‘scooter’ being the maximum I could vouchsafe for, even I had heard about the Harley-Davidson (HD), supposed to be the ultimate for the lovers of the two-wheeler. Of course, I had seen these heavy machines in the iconic non-conformist film of the 60s, Easy Rider, and sometimes on travel shows on the tele where groups of burley guys to match the machines seemed to be forever zooming across the American countryside. Not my cup of tea, really, so I didn’t bother to find out that today, most of the HD owners are regular, family men – and yes, with deep pockets.

Thus it was totally unexpected that a ride on the Harley Davidson was on the card during a tour of Australia in 2007. I was determined not to join my friends on this beast to whiz past the streets of Melbourne. However, I went along to the city’s Federation Square where the Harley Davidson ‘chauffeurs’ were waiting for us. No thanks, I muttered as I saw the huge machines. Then the guys who were to ferry us on this one-hour ride appeared. They were dressed for the occasion, or  perhaps HD aficionados dress like this anyway. After all, they belong to a ‘brand community’. Of the three from the ‘HD Chauffeur Ride’ one had long braids and wore a patch-worked jacket. Another had cropped hair but was in a very colourful gear. Their shoes were spectacular. For a better word, I settled for ‘macho.’

My assigned escort assured, “Don’t be afraid, I’ll drive slowly.” He looked a bit crestfallen as he saw the other two friends getting togged up in helmet and special jacket  while I shook my head with a ‘no.’  Something like a challenge surfaced inside me: Why not? I could always boast back home (and make some jealous) that I had ridden the Harley!

So I put on all the necessary gear and hopped on to be a pillion rider. At first, it was a bit scary, but honestly, it had more to do with the mindset. The ride was quite comfortable. Perhaps because the machine is so huge, the bumps ordinary motor bikes or scooters (at least in my experience) entail was not there at all. Or was it because of the excellent roads? Anyway, by now I was enjoying the ride hugely, roaring past the bridges, old localities, university etc. my chauffeur friend pointed out. At last when we reached the destination, the Melbourne Cricket Club ground, I asked “Is it over?” He  retorted good-naturedly, “That’s the problem with passengers. At first they don’t want to take the ride, and at the end they don’t want to get down!” Touche!

Box 1
Harley Timeline

Harley-Davidson’s history is entwined with the industrialisation and urbanisation of the United States. Some high points and perspective:
  • 1903: The first Harley, actually a modified bicycle, is produced; the Wright brothers’ Flyer I leaves the ground and Henry Ford manufactures the Model A.
  • 1910s: Harleys, now capable of more than 90 mph, are winning races around the country, the firm is selling in Europe, and its only domestic rival, Indian, concentrates on World War I military sales, leaving a strategic opening for Harley in the civilian market.

  • 1920s: Harley improves its machines and expands deeply into Japan, licensing production locally and thereby unwittingly educating future rivals whose cheaper, more efficient machines would almost kill Harley in the 1970s.
  • 1930s: Harley toughs out the Depression, Hollywood stars are photographed aboard Hogs, local owners’ groups proliferate but a rebellious, grease-stained contingent of Harley riders also emerges.
  • 1940s: Thousands of Harleys are sold to Allied forces, and returning veterans send demand soaring.

  • 1950s: The company’s only domestic rival, Indian, declares bankruptcy. In Southern California, Harleys are stripped down and customised to create “choppers” while the Hells Angels motorcycle gang organises into clubs, with Harleys as their bike of choice.
  • 1960s: Japanese motorcycles enter the US, badly damaging Harley, which limps along until being acquired by the conglomerate AMF. The Hells Angels are accused of gang rape, and movies like The Wild Angels fuel their notoriety. Social turmoil sweeps the US and as the decade ends, the classic movie Easy Rider depicts freedom-loving hippies on Harleys being shot to death by Southern rednecks.
  • 1970s: Recession, soaring patroleaum costs and ongoing competition from Japanese motorcycles hurt Harley but the company develops new models and a more efficient engine, the V2 Evolution®.
  • 1980s: The comeback. Harley-Davidson executives buy the company back from AMF and launch a revival strategy symbolised by the slogan, “The Eagle Flies Alone.”

  • 1990s: The U.S. economy is on a roll and so is Harley-Davidson, which has become mainstream. Accountants, lawyers, executives and other weekend warriors are suiting up in leathers, shades and bandanas. The average income and education level of Harley riders continues to rise.
  • 2000s: Harley perseveres during a difficult decade, maintaining production in the US while expanding overseas sales and broadening its product line. The company celebrates its 105th birthday with strong brand identification and customer loyalty.

Steve Fox in SPAN magazine
Box 2
The Outlaw Image

In 1947, as America was settling back into peacetime after World War II, an incident took place in a sleepy California town about 145 kilometers southeast of San Francisco that would forever change the image of Harley-Davidson. Although most historians now agree that what actually happened was wildly inflated by the media with the aid of a sensational photograph that was probably posed, the “outlaw” label was so firmly applied to Harley-Davidson that it has never been peeled off.

Hollister, which is now and was then primarily a garlic-growing farm community, had been chosen by a local motorcycle club for a Fourth of July [American Independence Day] get-together intended to feature camping, picnicking and racing at the town’s half-kilometer dirt track. Such rallies were common and still are. This one attracted, at its peak, perhaps 4,000 bikers, most of whom came and went peacefully. A subset, perhaps 500 in all, did not.

On Friday night, a group of bikers began drinking heavily in bars on the town’s main street and began racing their motorcycles on the sidewalks, doing various stunts, punching each other and generally misbehaving. Although Hollister’s five police officers arrested the worst offenders, local lawmen were overwhelmed and things escalated. The California Highway Patrol and Monterey County Sheriff’s Department came into town and restored order. About 50 people were treated for minor injuries; about the same number were charged with various offenses.

The brawl might have been relegated to oblivion except for a photograph taken by a San Francisco Chronicle photographer that was transmitted nationwide by The Associated Press and later run in the Life magazine. In it, a drunken-looking, beer-bellied young man with bottles in both hands sprawls unsteadily backwards on a battered motorcycle parked amid dozens of empty beer bottles and broken glass. The motorcycle is unmistakable—a big Harley “chopper.”

Although it has never been proven conclusively, other photos taken by the same photographer of the same rider led to the suspicion that all were posed. Ultimately, it didn’t matter—the photo and a hugely popular 1953 movie, The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin as bikers who terrorise a small town, established the outlaw image still associated with Harley-Davidson.  —S.F.

(TWF with SPAN)
(Some photos are courtesy

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