HARLEY-DAVIDSON: AMERICAN ICON
By Bill Dobbins
There are a few contributions to world culture that are uniquely American. Such as jazz, baseball and Harley-Davison motorcycles. I’ve been both a photographer and an avid motorcyclist most of my adult life. I’ve done my share of photos for motorcycle magazines. I’ve owned a dozen or more bikes over the years, including three Harleys and have a fondness for these wonderful beasts.
Motorcycles became popular in the early 20th century as an inexpensive alternative to automobiles. But for both cars and bikes in the United States there was a need for vehicles that could cover the vast distance that might be involved in travel. In fact, the first vehicle to go cross country in the US was a motorcycle, not a car.
In 1903, George Wyman became the first motorcyclist to make a transcontinental trip across America. In fact, he was the first ever to make the trip by means of a motorized vehicle. Wyman’s trip was made on a 1.25-horsepower, 90cc California motorcycle designed by Roy Marks. Wyman’s arduous journey, which started in San Francisco on May 16, took 50 days and ended in New York City on July 6.
Coincidentally, 1903 was the year Harley-Davison was founded. Over time the iconic V-twin Harleys began to feature engines of larger displacement and eventually big-twins like the Harley and Indian dominated the American motorcycle market for riders who wanted a powerful, comfortable machine they could ride for long periods of time and long distances.
These bikes soon became a standard choice for American law enforcement and for the military.
American motorcycles, like US made automobiles. back in the day tended to be under-engineered and over-built. So a vintage Harley like a 1957 Chevy in Cuba and be restored and rebuilt almost indefinitely. So there are a lot of vintage Harleys still on the road. My first on was a ’51 Panhead (the type of engine) with a springer front end. Very old school.
The British also produced a lot of fine motorcycles, such as Triumph, Norton, BSA, Vincent, Ariel and others but these were not generally suited for the kind of long distance trips often faced by American bikers. On one episode of the original TOP GEAR Tv program host Richard Hammond attempts a fairly long trip on a Vincent Black Shadow and ends up so tired and beat up he might as well have gone several rounds with Mike Tyson. He would not have had the same negative experience on a big Harley.
Although motorcycles had been around a long time, real modern biker culture didn’t arise until after WWII. In fact, several new sub-cultures came into being after the war: surfers, beatniks, bodybuilders and bikers, consisting largely of your veterans who got out of the service and no longer wanted to be subject to rules and regimentation. When American biker clubs or gangs started they road all sorts of motorcycles. In raw movie THE WILD ONE Marlon Brando rode a Triumph, not a Harley. But over time “outlaw” bikers like The Hells Angeles adopted the Harley as their motorcycle of choice and pretty soon that is the kind of big you saw in movies featuring these hard-core biker groups.
This movie was based loosely on a real incident in 1947 in which a motorcycle club called the Booze Fighters created a disturbance in Hollister, California that got written up in Life Magazine. The incidence was exaggerated, and several of the photos published were staged, but this gave rise to a mythology regarding biker gangs in the minds of the public and of the bikers themselves. I’ve often thought outlaw bikers watched movies like The Wild Angels or Hells Angeles on Wheels with Jack Nicholson in order to learn how they were supposed to behave.
During the 1960s, “respectable” motorcycles from companies like Honda began to be popular. “You meet all sorts of people on a Honda” was their advertising slogan and they began to promote lighter weight, less expensive machine in the US that were really designed originally for Japan. But the Honda 750, although not as big as a Harley, was extremely fast and powerful and became very popular on American roads.
But Harley-Davison went into decline in the 1970s when it was purchased by AMF, which produced motorcycles of inferior reliability. Back then, even the paint tended to be defective:
In 1969, American Machine and Foundry (AMF) bought the company, streamlined production, and slashed the workforce. This tactic resulted in a labor strike and lower-quality bikes. The bikes were expensive and inferior in performance, handling, and quality to Japanese motorcycles. Sales and quality declined, and the company almost went bankrupt. The “Harley-Davidson” name was mocked as “Hardly Ableson”, “Hardly Driveable,” and “Hogly Ferguson”, and the nickname “Hog” became pejorative.
Subsequently, the Harley-Davidson workers themselves got together and bought the company and the reputation of the Harley motorcycle was restored. The company adopted many of the manufacturing procedures of they Japanese counterparts and their bikes once again attained the stature of an American icon.
Harleys are very expensive, but in many ways they are “kit bikes.” Many spend thousands on a stock bike and then spend many more thousands customizing them. It is not unusual to see custom Harleys costing $40,000 or a lot more. ******************************************************
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