Saturday, March 22, 2008


Ahhhhhhh! Spring is nearing, and a (more or less) young man's fancy turns to . . . his new motorcycle!!! The time for polishing and working on Miss Velvet is coming to an end, and over the next few weeks, it'll be time to ride her again!  So, in anticipation of that, I'm offering this timely entry, filled with some Harley-Davidson lore, history, and trivia. Even if you're not personally into motorcycles, it is my hope that you'll find my efforts interesting and entertaining anyway. And, so -- away we go!!


Harley-Davidson is the oldest motorcycle manufacturer in the world.

This is true, in terms of continuous production, which has never ceased in 105 years. Although motorized bicycles had been put together in the past, it wasn't until William Harley and Arthur Davidson put their heads together in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903, that the concept became more than a novelty item. Harley was the engineer/mechanic who designed the machine and Arthur Davidson was the salesman who saw a solid marketing gold mine. It wasn't long before Walter Davidson joined them, along with another brother, and the Motor Company was born.

Design innovations followed rapidly. William Harley's designs were different from the past and then-current machines, mainly because he designed a brand-new custom frame for his early creations, instead of just bolting a small engine into a standard bicycle frame. Harley-Davidson, in fact, was the first manufacturer to begin calling their machines "motorcycles." Soon enough, the bicycle pedals had completely disappeared, replaced by the kickstarter which Harley had invented and the machines took on a true motorcycle appearance, radically different from a bicycle. Involved in racing almost from the beginning, there was a need for a more powerful engine and before 1920, the first of the now-legendary V-Twins appeared and soon were standard in all of Harley's street machines. And that unique Harley-Davidson sound was born, albeit not as thunderous as the rumble of the larger displacement engines that would appear in later years.

The company didn't produce or sell many bikes in those early days, becausethey were all laboriously hand-made and only the more affluent people could afford them, but it wasn't too many years before Henry Ford turned the industrial world on its ear and his assembly line process was adapted to other kinds of manufacturing almost overnight. Harley-Davidson, which had already established its early network of dealerships (a first for motorcycle makers), took off from there. Just as it was with Ford, now the common man could buy a Harley-Davidson motorcycle and sales began to soar. The rest, as they say, is history.


Harley-Davidson's innovation stopped around the WWII era and they haven't progressed much since then.

False. It might seem to be that way, because Harley's advancement has come slowly, a bit at a time, seemingly, but modern Harley-Davidson bikes are just as technologically up-to-date as any others. Harley-Davidson has always had a different philosophy than other motorcycle manufacturers; instead of rapid and radical advances, Harleys have steadily evolved over the years, into the modern machines of today.

The V-Twin engines of today are still based on the same tried, true, tested, and proven design of the earlier days, in that they still retain the 45-degree angle between the cylinders and the two connecting rods still share a common crankshaft pin, but indeed that is the heart and soul of a Harley engine. It's where that sound comes from, after all -- from that configuration. You don't mess with something that works and Harley hasn't. They know, as do millions of owners worldwide, that it wouldn't be a Harley if it didn't sound like a Harley!  Internally, though, the cylinder head designs, hydraulic roller tappets, modern camshafts, etc., have all evolved into the latest technology. Harley-Davidson is even one leg up on their Japanese competition, in that all modern Harleys are now fuel-injected, while the similar rice-burner cruiser-class  bikes are still carbureted.

And the rest of the machine is state-of-the-art as well. The suspension and steering, transmissions, brakes, Kevlar belt final drive (insteadof a chain that slings oil all over you), self-canceling turn signals, electronic ignition, solid-state charging systems and other components are thoroughly modern.

Don't let Harley's styling fool you into thinking that all the bikes are technological throwbacks. Thanks to Willie G. Davidson, the head styling guru at the Motor Company (and great-grandson of one of the founders), Harleys have retained the classic styling that the owners and buyers want, while utilizing the most modern and up-to-date components throughout the product. The massive front fenders and teardrop gas tanks have been retained, giving a modern bike the retro look that Harley owners crave.

Other bikes are faster and more powerful, but a Harley is a Harley is a Harley, like they say. It is what it is. You either like it, or you don't. If you're a techno-geeky speed demon (and enjoy long rides crouched in a position that resembles doing push-ups), then get a "crotch rocket." If you want a classy, 100% American-made legend, then buy a Harley. Depends on your appetite.  


Harley-Davidsons have a bad reputation because they're the motorcycle of choice for biker gangs and hoodlums.Most of the people who ride them are loud, uncivilized outlaw types who cause trouble everywhere they go.

True and False. Some outlaw types have ridden Harleys in the past and a few still do today. It's true that gangs like the infamous Hell's Angels almost all rode wildly customized Harley-Davidsons, most with loud straight pipes (which all too many -- even the certified non-hoodlums -- still favor today, unfortunately). But in reality, historically, it was lousy, tabloid-type journalism, combined with too many people jumping to unfair conclusions that drove those types to become outlaws in the first place. They were made into what they became.

It all started in Holllister, California, in 1947, when a motorcycle club, made up of World War Two veterans, rode into the little town and decided to spend the night there. They had bought their predominately Harley-Davidson motorcycles after they returned home and had stripped them down to bare-bones machines, tossing things like saddlebags, extra lighting, sheet metal parts they could do without, and so forth. They partied and most got drunk and loud, but aside from a few minor disturbances and some of them who ended up in the local drunk tank and jail cells, due to blasting around on their bikes and making a lot of noise. not much really happened. Nuisance level at best and the local bar and tavern owners were happy because the bikers spent quite a bit of money while they were there. They really didn't cause a lot of trouble. Local townspeople who still live there today will tell you as much.

The hoodlum image got started when a reporter from the newspaper in a nearby larger town, went over there to see what all the hubbub was about. Evidently, this reporter was a prudish type and what he saw must have shocked him out of his gourd, for according to the way he described things in his story, one would think that all the demons from hell had descended on Hollister and were looting, raping and pillaging at will, like the Viking raiders of bygone days. He sensationalized it, whether deliberately, or out of pure shock, and the story was picked up by many larger newspapers.

The gross over-hyping had its effect on millions of readers and before very long, those early biker clubs found that they were unwelcome almost everywhere they tried to go on their two wheels. Police lined up at the town limts, to make sure that they just rode on through, not welcome to stop and quench their thirst anywhere. They could have just hung it up and broke up their clubs, but they were incensed by the unfair image that the reporter had given them. These were former combat soldiers and pilots, who had risked their lives fighting for their country and now that country was treating them like dirt, over a few beer brawls and impromptu drag races. They were fighters and they grew determined to fight back, so they began to live up to the image they had been stuck with.

If you've never seen the old movie, The Wild One, which starred Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin, rent it and give it a look. It's based on the Hollister incident, although the film's director  was not allowed to portray the incident accurately, as he wanted to do. He was forced to portray the biker characters as outlaws and hoodlums by the Film Decency Board of that day, which had drank the Kool-Aid put out by the press. That film made it even more uncomfortable for the bikers, as a result. By the 50's and 60's, the biker clubs had indeed become outlaws, in reaction to the way they had been treated in the aftermath of Hollister.

Nowadays, of course, times have changed and most of the biker clubs around, like H.O.G., or Harley Owners Group, are just honest, hard-working people who travel around on their machines in their leisure time and cause few, if any, problems at all. The Hells Angels still exist, but, except for a few isolated incidents, are no longer seen as a threat to society at all. They have, in fact, volunteered, as part of the Rolling Thunder Brigade, to provide security for the families of slain soldiers, when groups of nutball anti-war protestors try to interrupt the funeral ceremonies. I, for one, say more power to them, in that endeavour!

Society has changed, Sonny Barger (Hell's Angels leader in the 60's) died, and the younger generation has taken over the clubs. Few of them are into violence and mayhem anymore. They're just looking to ride, enjoy the scenery, and stop in for a cold one at the end of a long riding day. Lots of them are tattooed and look weird sometimes, but they are good people, for the most part.

There's no point in being afraid of bikers anymore.



merry1621 said...

It's always interesting to read your journals & email.  You are always so well informed that I feel I am getting an education from you.  (And I don't say that just to anyone!)  Merry

jeanniebuggz said...

Very interesting!  I'm learning.  Are you a member of H.O.G. yet?  Hope you have fun riding.

ladydriversammie said...

I second everything Merry said.  Great stuff Larry!


angelsfaceme1 said...

      This was a really good entry. I enjoyed reading it even if I am familar with most of it. I bet you are just itching to get out and ride. LOL, as a former rider I know just how you feel. Come on winter, get over already!
      Take care and keep your Angel in the jump seat and along for the ride on Miss Velvet.