7/11/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper



Harley-Davidson and the Search for the American Soul

By Brock Yeats

Reviewed by BILL MAXWELL

Doctors do it. So do English professors, university presidents, chemists, preachers, cops, wealthy business owners, governors and senators, foreign diplomats and, of course, those funky One Percenters and their grungy, tatooed mamas.

All of them ride Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

In his book, Outlaw Machine: Harley-Davidson and the Search for the American Soul, Brock Yates weaves a 249-page narrative about America’s near-century-old obsession with the “Hog,” one of the nation’s only bona fide icons. “Its owners truly cherish the thing, preening it like a pet horse and espousing mystical theories about it and its quasi-human traits,” Yates writes.

While taking the reader on a zigzagging voyage to diverse biker locales and hangouts that have become legend _ South Dakota’s Sturgis, Florida’s Daytona Beach, New Hampshire’s Laconia, California’s Rock Store restaurant _ Yates dissects the Harley mystique. He explains why the Harley has out-muscled the faster, sleeker, high-tech motorcycles from Japan and Germany.

The Harley-Davidson manifests the nation’s self-perception. It reflects our Zeitgeist and acts as a barometer of our economic health.

Yates writes, for example, that “as the depressing and unfocused seventies opened into the bright and brash eighties, Harley-Davidsons came into prominence. Men who ten years earlier would have resorted to public transportation before buying one of the Milwaukee-built nightmares began lining up like fevered new converts to buy Harleys. . . . Somehow the Harley-Davidson seemed connected to the angst that permeated the nation, the pathological fears that consumed the citizenry even as they lived through the most peaceful and prosperous period in recorded history. Was it a subliminal sense that men and women were losing control?”

Since July 21, 1947, when Life magazine published the story about the 4,000 members of motorcycle club that terrorized Hollister, Calif., the lifestyle surrounding the Harley became, as Yates writes, an intense aphrodisiac, a condition difficult to describe to the outsider. The jackbooted, black-leather-clad bikers, portrayed as modern-day Quantrill’s Raiders, captured the nation’s imagination.

Movies, such as Hell’s Angels, The Wild One, Rebel Without a Cause, Easy Rider, Then Came Bronson and Electra Glide in Blue, and songs, such as Bruce Springsteen’s Born to Run and Steppenwolf’s Born to Be Wild, did as much as anything to help create the Harley’s outlaw image. And when the benign Henry Winkler _ playing the leather-jacketed, tough-talking Fonz in the television sitcom Happy Days _ rode on a Harley into prime time, mainstream media absorbed the imagery of the outlaw biker and, of course, the larger-than-life symbolism of the machine and the tell-tale rumble of its big V-twin engine.

How popular is the Harley-Davidson? Part of the answer can be found in the number of shops that sell Harley collectibles and by the sheer number of collectibles themselves. While many other products and traditions are fading, Harley collectibles proliferate on store shelves beyond imagination. And selected parts of the human body have become marquees for the Harley. Indeed, the number of Harley-related tatoos is rivalled only by those celebrating “Mom” and sweethearts.

How does one explain Harley-Davidson’s unique place in the American psyche? As a Harley rider, I have tried to answer this question many times. I have even written about it with varying degrees of success. Yates, a veteran journalist and Harley owner, offers one of the best explanations I have heard or read:

“There is something so elemental, so lusty, so purely and classically American about the machine that it is hard to resist. Its very flaws, its very unfashionableness, its creaky technology, mark it as uncompromising and unfailingly honest and real.”

Now you know.

Outlaw Machine is an exhilarating reading experience for the Harley lover. For those who have never been on the open road and felt the vibration _ the naked eroticism _ of a Panhead, a Knucklehead or a Shovelhead between their legs, Outlaw Machine provides a vicarious experience, a hint of what Harley people mean by the slogan “Live to ride. Ride to live.”

Bill Maxwell is a Times columnist.