The venerable Harley-Davidson celebrates its centennial this year with bikes for the inner rebel
From the Print Edition:
Arnold Schwarzenegger, July/Aug 03
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.
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