The venerable Harley-Davidson celebrates its centennial this year with bikes for the inner rebel
Drew Rayman looks a bit like Pete Townsend from The Who but with more of a spare tire and less of an affinity for the guitarist's casual dress. It's a pretty sure bet that Rayman knows more about the Internet than Townsend, too, despite the latter's arrest (and subsequent acquittal) for, um, surfing in Britain. Rayman launched I33, an Internet company, and sold it at the height of the dot-com boom in 1999. With his windfall, the motorcycle enthusiast bought his first Harley, a 2002 Harley-Davidson Fatboy. Then he bought a 2003 Heritage. And what's more, like any biker worth his leather jacket, he started a motorcycle club.
The club's called Star of Davidson. Its 1,000 or so members are mostly Jewish, and work as doctors, lawyers, professors and motorcycle mechanics. "People want to get along," says Rayman. "There are social aspects of riding. That's what Star of Davidson is all about."
These motorcycle aficionados have a bit of the rebel in them, and a Harley-Davidson lets them flaunt that image.
"The appearance of the riders mimics the outlaw look -- a mean look, but really for our riders it's one way for them to express themselves," says Ryan Eichler, a Harley spokesman. "If you are a doctor, then on the weekend you can become a different person. That's what makes it so romantic. You can get on the bike and be somebody else."
Harley-Davidson began making Hogs -- as riders affectionately call them -- a century ago in a Milwaukee shed. William and Arthur Davidson teamed with pal William Harley to build bikes (Walter Harley joined the company later). The bikes soon developed a loyal following. In 1909 the company created the first V-twin engine, which ran 60 miles per hour, doubling the power of every existing Harley motorcycle. Even today the V-twin remains the main source of Hog power.
Harley did have competition, however. By 1911, around 150 motorcycle manufacturers with names such as Indian, Excelsior, Cleveland, Henderson, Super X and Crocker had set up shops in the United States. Still, the Harley-Davidson reputation grew, mostly among policemen. The cops let the military in on the secret and by the time the First World War started, the Army had equipped its troops with nearly 20,000 Harleys. With the Jazz Age came new styling: the 1926 Harley was equipped with the first teardrop gas tank and other mechanical features followed, such as a front brake in 1928.
The following year, the Great Depression sank the world into an economic morass, dragging most American motorcycle companies with it. Indian and Harley-Davidson, however, were able to survive on contracts with the police and the U.S. military. The company produced more than 90,000 motorcycles during the war years. Most of them were painted olive drab during the war years, and soldiers loved them.
"World War I and World War II were huge sale drivers," says Eichler. "[The Army] in both wars had utilized a ton of Harleys in the field. They were quick, nimble and great for reconnaissance [missions]."
Harley-Davidson expanded, and when Indian died from mismanagement in the early 1950s, Hogs became the last bikes manufactured in the United States.
Meanwhile, returning American servicemen really took to the motorcycles. Hog historians theorize that many soldiers wanted to let off steam. So they bought surplus Hogs, formed motorcycle gangs, cruised up and down the West Coast looking for trouble, and sometimes started it. In 1946, Hollister, California, was the site of the Dirt Hill Climb races that attracted hundreds of hill climbers and a few thousand spectators. After one of the town's seven police officers arrested a gang member, a riot broke out and nearly 750 bikers tore tiny Hollister to shreds. Such rampages were immortalized in movies such as The Wild One and Hell's Angels on Wheels. Vintage Hog-riding gangs adopted "colors," usually a sleeveless jean jacket or leather jacket with the club's emblem embroidered in the center of the back.
In 1965, the family-held company went public, and soon cranked out more than 14,000 Hogs on the assembly line. In 1969, Harley was bought by American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF), a corporation that makes golf carts, recreational vehicles and bowling balls. Under the new management, the bottom line was the bottom line, and if they could make the handlebars with thinner chrome and save 40 cents, then they made the handlebars with thinner chrome. AMF bought a line of motorized scooters and christened those Harley-Davidsons, which watered down the Harley name. As quality slid, so did sales, and by the 1970s, Japanese bikes outnumbered Harleys on the highways. Then, in 1981, 13 members of the Harley-Davidson management team bought the company from AMF, and slowly the quality improved. They began producing top-quality bikes such as the Electra Glide line and the Softail (which had springs under the seat to make the ride softer), and soon the company was pulling in money again. Hogs once again became a symbol of status -- just not one for the lean of wallet.
These days, the Hog rider's average age hovers around 45. His look, however, hasn't changed any. To ride a Hog, all you need is leather or a sleeveless jean jacket and a do-rag to cover that close-cropped mane.
"Getting on a motorcycle is a great release," says Eichler. "It involves all the senses -- you can't be thinking about the presentation you have to give next week. It's a nice way to vent, really."
Many riders say that if you have to ask why they ride, you'll never understand. Today, Harley produces 28 innovative models. The largest is the 100th Anniversary Electra Glide Standard, a 758-pound bike equipped with a 1450-cc twin-cam trademark V-engine. This machine comes in black, with the cloisonné Harley-Davidson nameplate on both sides of its 5-gallon fuel tank.
The most expensive is the $27,995, limited-edition 2003 CVO Screamin' Eagle Road King. It's factory modified, with a huge 1690-cc powerplant. Its two-toned 5-gallon fuel tank is painted black and burgundy with a hand-painted gold finish, plus the Harley emblem in gold leaf. Its wheels are polished aluminum, solid and spun.
The VRSCA V-Rod, introduced in late 2001, is the sleekest Harley yet. Its futuristic bodywork is made from aluminum; its engine is a fuel-injected, water-cooled 1130-cc mill inspired by Harley's Revolution racing engine. The wheels are both aluminum discs -- real attention-getters on the street -- with the front 19 inches and the rear 18 inches. Otherwise it's all engine and teardrop fuel tank, and it looks like a low hot rod. "It has that low-slung dragster-inspired look," says Eichler. "And lots of power, too, boy."
Harley has put out a whole line of slightly more compact Sportsters. The Sportsters aren't as sleek as the V-Rod, but then few bikes are. The top of the line is the XL 1200C Sportster Custom ($9,425). With its raised forks, the 1200C Sportster resembles a chopper. The bike's paint job is two-toned, plus it carries anniversary engine covers. And there's plenty of room for two. On the other end of the Sportster spectrum is the least expensive Hog, the $5,995 XLH, which looks stripped down, like a late-'70s Norton without the Norton's lengthy saddle. The fuel tank carries 3.3 gallons, and the bike weighs in at a hefty 489 pounds.
If that's not your style, try the Heritage Springer ($17,795), which has whitewall tires, classic spoke wheels and leather bags strapped aft. She's powered by a twin-cam 1450 cc engine, with carburetor or fuel injection optional. And, naturally, there's the Softail Standard, which sports spoked wheels, seating for two, hidden rear suspension and a 1450-cc engine for get-up-and-go.
Except for the CVOs, these are stock motorcycles. Despite buying some of the most beautiful bikes on the planet, most Harley owners feel the need to customize their machines. Sometimes they like to modify the pipes just so they set off all the car alarms on a city block. "Loud pipes save lives," Rayman likes to say. But some modifications go farther than pipe-deep.
"A customer will take a brand-new Harley Fatboy, bring it in our shop, and spend $10,000 or more customizing it," says Jeff Zielinski, who along with Duncan McDonald co-owns Lucky Charm Choppers in Norristown, Pennsylvania.
One of the more popular modifications is to change the width of the rear tire. The Hog-off-the-line comes with a 150 series rear tire, for instance, which is 6.25 inches wide. Typically, Zielinski and McDonald replace that with a 250 series that's 9.5 inches wide. It sounds simple, but it means changing the whole rear end of the bike. "Wider is better," Zielinski says. "Get it chromed and make it look like a million bucks." He says his shop can take a stock Harley and rebuild it completely, turning it into a Jesse James Chopper (referring to a Californian bike builder, not the outlaw) if that's your dream. Or you could chrome a bike from wheel to wheel, or have the frame painted any color through a process called powder coating, in which paint is baked on using an electrical current.
Of course there's strange lingo, mostly pertaining to engines, that Hog lovers speak, and Zielinski's glad to define it. For instance, the first Harley motor, built in the 1920s, had a flat cylinder head cover. That bike's now called a Flathead. Then came the Knucklehead, which looks like a knuckle. The Panhead resembles a pan. And the Shovelhead looks like a shovel. And in 1999, after a different cylinder head was developed, the Shovelhead became known as the Fathead. That's evolution. The latest, greatest Fathead is the 1450 cc mill.
Now, with its 100th birthday this year, Harley-Davidson continues its yearlong celebration. Last July, Harley sponsored an open-road tour, with stops in five major U.S. cities. This year, the tour went international, with visits already to such cities as Sydney, Tokyo and Barcelona, and a stop in Hamburg planned for July. In each city the company sponsored three exhibitions: the Journey (that is, the Hogs' 100-year history), the Culture and the Machine. The celebration will end at the Hogs' hometown of Milwaukee for a few days of factory tours and street partying.
In addition, Harley has already observed Daytona Bike Week in Florida and the Laughlin (Nevada) and Laconia (New Hampshire) events this year. And in early August, the annual Sturgis rally will take place in North Dakota.
The Star of Davidson club traveled to Daytona for Bike Week in February. Rayman, an avid cigar smoker, had just bought a box of Montecristos and a new cigar cutter. On his way back to where the Star of Davidson riders were assembled, he noticed a vendor selling neo-Nazi patches. Rayman bought a patch from the neo-Nazi and rolled it into a tight spiral -- similar to a cigar's diameter. Then he stood there defiantly and clipped it into pieces.
Phil Scott wrote about Indian motorcycles in the March/April 2003 issue.