This is American power running on two wheels.
It’s not the fastest motorcycle or the fanciest, but to many Americans, a motorcycle is a Harley-Davidson. Veteran NPR producer Jay Allison, a longtime biker, heads to Laconia Bike Week to find the source of the mystique. Diehard riders (including a biker church deacon), scholars, and a Davidson family member explain how the Harley image yokes patriotism together with outlaw rebelliousness. With a look that suggests industrial might, a backstory of garage ingenuity, and a roar so distinctive the company tried to trademark it — Harley-Davidsons are the American motorcycle.
Harley-Davidson was produced by Jay Allison and edited by Emily Botein.
Bonus Track: The New Harley Enthusiast
Jay Allen, owner of the famous Broken Spoke Saloon, describes the allure of a Harley-Davidson, and the new millenium's kinder, gentler Harley rider.
Slideshow: Harleys and Their Owners
American Icons: Harley-Davidson
October 14, 2010
Kurt: Our series on American Icons continues. It's the motorcycle with all the chrome and the distinctive roar...the biker's bike...The Harley-Davidson.
Since he was 14, independent radio producer Jay Allison has owned and ridden dozens of motorcycles; he's taken a Harley-Davidson Fat Boy down the Arizona's Apache Trail, an Electra-Glide up the Pacific Coast Highway, and a V-Rod through Yellowstone National Park. He starts us off at Bike Week in Laconia New Hampshire.
JAY: There is only one minivan parked at the biker bar, and it's mine.
<LOUD BAR MUSIC>
I drove the minivan because I brought my wife and baby up to Bike Week for their good company.
But it's not really a family event.
VOICE: (over a PA System) “And these motorcycles are like you hot women, they all have their own souls, they talk to you in a different way.”
This is the legendary biker bar, the Broken Spoke Saloon.
JAY ALLEN on PA: By the way, we have PBS Radio in the house!”
I’d have fit in better here arriving on a motorcycle, but I’d be especially welcome on a Harley.
ALLEN: Harley Davidson, ! <CROWD ROAR>
This is the Broken Spoke’s "Loud Pipes" contest, where a bunch of bikes line up in the backyard of the bar, and compete for best exhaust sound:
<ROARING, w/ Heavy Metal; Collage elements woven>
Steven Alford: The central identifying element of the Harley Davidson is the sound of its exhaust
Suzanne Ferris: The Harley Davidson is a loud, raucuous, vibrating...
Charles Falco: It’s a V-Twin.
Falco: and it goes boom-boom, boom-boom, boom-boom.
Dave Akin: Two very big pistons going up and down.
Steven: Great lengths have been taken to assure that every Harley Davidson has that same signature potato-potato-potato-potato exhaust
The potato-potato thing is really important, it's a vibration tied so directly to the hearts of riders and potential buyers, that in the 1990s Harley Davidson responded to competition from Japanese manufacturers who were making Harley knock offs, by trying to trademark the sound. It didn’t work, but it gives you an idea how much it matters.
<Distant Harley getting close>
Falco: Today, and I’ve been around motorcycles my entire life, I will hear a Harley Davidson coming, and still in my brain it triggers, oh here comes a really powerful motorcycle it must be going a hundred miles an hour, and then the Harley Davidson go by at 20 miles an hour. It has done its job!
Michael Lichter: A solidness and energy and forcefulness that people could respect and that sense of American pride and might, maybe we’re nostalgic and wanting to hold on to that and Harley Davidson is a good way to do that.
So, the very sound of this motorcycle is connected to America. Power and freedom flow from loud pipes tied to a big shiny engine. These are heavyweight machines. They look solid. Some have bags and chrome, and lights galore. Others you strip down. The hallmark is the V-twin engine in a low slung frame and there's very little plastic in these bikes. They look like the industrial power of America in its prime.
Suzanne: To many people in America, a motorcycle is a Harley Davidson
Steven: Early in the 20th Century, there were over 200 motorcycle manufacturers, and Harley is the only remaining, so in terms of a specifically American Icon, well… they’re the only game in town.
Steven Alford and Suzanne Ferriss wrote the book Motorcycle and they teach at Nova Southeastern University in Florida.
Suzanne: It has had a long history, one hundred years of history, of service in the military for America, by police defending Americans...
Steven: A person can purchase a Harley Davidson and then participate in this grand tradition of playing the cowboy rather than riding on his steed, he can ride on his iron horse out into the open Interstates of the United States.
Jay: And that’s not the only American mythology Harley taps into. The image embraces both the patriot and the outlaw; that's an apparent contradiction, but of course our patriotism is rooted in rebelliousness. The Hells Angels are as much a part of the Harley image as the Highway Patrol. Harley-Davidson was the logical choice for returning veterans and for Easy Rider-inspired hippies.
Dave: It is an American Icon. It’s about freedom, it’s about friendship, it’s about faithfulness, and I think if Jesus came back today he’d probably ride one, but that’s a saga for another day.
Dave Akin is a rider who lives near me. He’s a deacon in the Catholic Church and officiates the motorcycle blessing here every spring. He rides a 1988 Electra Glide, with a stuffed gorilla on the back. He wears a long silver pony-tail and embodies the range of Harley’s core appeal: an older white guy, a former fire chief, now a real estate agent, and a veteran.
Dave: I mean, there’s my leather vest with the patches on it that represent rides I’ve taken, that represent people who have died. I’ve been to the Wall in Washington I think four times and that pride does kind of translate to Harley Davidson.
Jay: Would you buy another brand at this point?
Dave: Never. No, I will ride a Harley Davidson as long as I can get my leg over one. And I’ll be 68 in a week, so far so good.
<Fading in Jerry Lee Lewis “The Wild One”>
Harley riders are getting older, it’s a fact. And it makes sense, because when you're young and fast and light, there are other, less expensive motorcycles to fit you. You don't mind crouching forward to grab clip-on handlebars and lean into the corners with a high revving engine screaming between your legs. In fact, that's how you feel.
<Change music to Elvis Presley “Peace in the Valley”>
But as you get slower and stiffer and larger, there's a Harley waiting for you. You can lounge into it, happy enough to watch the world passing by, going in a straight line down those long straight American roads, not necessarily wanting to hurry so much any more.
Falco: The boomer generation, they’re turning 65 today, so if you look at the sales figure of Harley Davidson, the average age of Harley Davidson customers, it’s advanced essentially one year per year ever since the 80s.
That’s Charles Falco. He was co-curator of the renowned Motorcycle exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. His academic credentials are not exactly motorcycle-related:
Falco: I hold the University of Arizona Chair of condensed matter physics.
But, he has the world’s largest library of motorcycle books in English, and he owns 17 bikes. Falco thinks Harley’s status came not just from its own marketing and branding, but from other companies—everyone from American Express to Burberrys-- inserting Harleys in their advertising.
Falco: Their product represents freedom just as Harley Davidson represents freedom. And so iconic status comes from other people’s marketing division.
Jay: The brand itself has generated such intense loyalty, even aggressive loyalty. I can’t really think of another brand which is maybe so often tattooed on the bodies of its owners and enthusiasts, what do you think accounts for that?
Falco: It’s a valid observation, I mean McDonald’s would wish that the customers like Big Macs so much they would tattoo McDonald’s on them. Harley Davidson owners do that. Motorcycles appeal to your sense of sight, sound, touch and smell, and for that reason people who are really attracted to motorcycles, are very much attracted to them.
Kip: I don’t ride a car and I don’t ride a truck. I ride all year.
Jay: Yea, where do you live
Kip: Manchester, New Hampshire
Jay: You ride up here in the winter?
Kip: Oh, yeah, absolutely. I only do one thing.
Kip took second place in the loud pipes competition at the Broken Spoke Saloon in Laconia, and he is dedicated to his 1978 Harley Sportster, not least because of its country of origin.
Kip: It’s America, man, it’s America.
JAY: It’s that simple?
Kip: It is that simple. I mean we have a certain belief in our country and the vets started it, and I’m a vet. It’s just…we’re loyal to each other. I don’t know about the Honda or the Kawasaki guys, but we don’t leave a man behind. Ever. And that’s what Harley’s all about.
<music/bar ambience continues>
Kip travels with all the tools he needs to rebuild his bike. He’s customized it in all kinds of ways, including a scabbard for a samurai sword down the fork tubes. It’s guys like Kip, the hard-core bikers with mechanical skills, who remake their bikes to suit their identities--these are the riders at the magnetic center of the Harley image
Lichter: The newer bikers that go to a shop and buy a bike, their buying a bike is based on Harley’s success in making people identify with the old school biker.
Michael Lichter is a motorcycle photographer from Boulder, Colorado:
Lichter: And there was a tradition of working on these things to keep them on the road but in the process of doing that you made it more who you were. I think Harley has done a great job marketing that to doctors and dentists. Isn’t there a side of you that wants to feel that sense of freedom and get out on the open road and let go of all those obligations and commitments, and just enjoy what’s out there with the wind in your face?
Charlie: I know it’s a corporation but for a lot of us the brand is, it’s inbred, it’s part of our bodies.
Charlie St. Clair is the Executive Director of the Laconia Bike Rally in New Hampshire. He’s sitting on his 2000 Harley Heritage Softtail, just off the main road at Weirs Beach. When he says his bike is part of his body, he’s not kidding.
Charlie: You'd scratch your motorcycle it might as well be scratching my arm, it brings a little bit of pain. You can get emotional if you really think about it. Now I did go to a wedding once, a marriage, where a guy married his motorcycle. And this was dead serious marriage. The guy had a minister there, he was legally bound to his motorcycle. He was going to buried with that thing.
Jay: Was it a Harley?
Charlie. Oh yeah, absolutely. So...
Not all motorcycle lovers love Harleys, of course. They may inspire national pride, but they also embody some undesirable American qualities: overweight, aggressively loud, unsophisticated, consumptive. And the downside of their macho branding is that many riders want no part of it. I have to confess. I don’t want to be part of an image or a brand or a club. I ride mostly to be alone and not for fellowship or identity. Still the myth of this American machine can hook me especially talking to Bill Davidson. He used to be a Harley’s marketing VP, and now he now runs the museum in Milwaukee, where the company was founded and he's the son of legendary bike designer Willie G. Davidson and the great grandson of one of the founders, William A. Davidson.
Davidson: I started riding with my Dad, Willie G., when I was three years old, and I tell you when I’m here at the museum, just about every day I walk by that first serial Number One motorcycle in 1903 and say hello to my great granddad and thank him.
If you're a red-blooded American boy, or girl, this creation story has to resonate somewhere. Founded in a shed by a few friends, built from the ground up, and then handed down through the generations. It’s the real stuff. These days, I own a Ducati and an old Triumph; I like them for their nimbleness and grace. It's true I don't want to sign up for the whole Harley image but I’m not immune to the big thumping allure. I love the torquey engine. I like cruising down the highway going boom-boom-boom-boom-boom-boom and I still think of owing one someday.
Davidson: Well, I hope that some of those thoughts get you to a dealership. You need to have a bike, Jay… LAUGH
<Big Thumping overlaps with laughing>
This is the winning motorcycle at the Broken Spoke Saloon’s Loud Pipes Contest. A straight kick, built-from-scratch by the owner, 74 cubic inch Harley engine in a shovel frame.
As much as I love my wife and baby, I shouldn’t have driven the minivan to Laconia. I should have taken one of my bikes. Some of the riders I talked to, up in New Hampshire, couldn’t really find words to express their relationship to their Harleys. In their reticence, I think the message was: "“If you want to understand any of this, just shut the <beep> up and ride.” …And they’re right.
<revving and riding away>
For Studio 360, I am Jay Allison.
KURT ANDERSEN: The Harley Davidson is one of nine new icons we're airing this fall. What's number ten? We want you to tell us. Just go to Studio 360 dot org slash American icons and tell us what you think the next American Icon ought to be.
Next week for American Icons we head down to Charlottesville, Virginia and find out there's a lot more to Thomas Jefferson's famous house then meets the eye.
STEPHEN COLBERT: He designed it so you have to imagine this is an expression of his own personality.
SC: Your home is you.
SC: And so he was domed and colonnaded.
KA: I'll talk with Stephen Colbert about Thomas Jefferson's Monticello.