Wings of desire

Harley-Davidson, the world's best-known two-wheeled brand, is 100 years old, and celebrating noisily. But is it still the epitome of youthful rebellion - or just a midlife-crisis plaything for the wealthy? Andrew Gumbel investigates
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The Independent US

Some people go to church on Sundays, but if you ride a Harley-Davidson and live in southern California, you are more likely to head to the Santa Monica mountains and a roadside café called the Rock Store, the best known and perhaps the biggest biker shrine left in the United States.

Every Sunday, hundreds of proud owners make the winding trip up Malibu Canyon, past the roadside crucifixes and flower-strewn memorials haunted by the ghosts of bikers past who careened out of control and plunged down a scrabbly precipice into the brush and boulders of Malibu Creek State Park. The riders do their best to slow for a bend on Mulholland Highway, notoriously much used as a police speed-trap. Then, at last, they ease into the motorbike jam that inevitably builds up over the last mile or so before their destination.

Ed and Vern Savko have owned the Rock Store since 1961, and the place looks as though they still haven't redecorated. Two ancient, rusting disused filling pumps are adorned with the corny jokes of another era ("Need gas? Eat beans!"). The food is self-consciously sloppy, and the furnishings consist of little more than long picnic tables laid out on a couple of outdoor terraces.

The shabbiness is entirely without importance, however, compared with the prospect of fraternising with fellow bikers, admiring each other's polished chrome and burnished leather, and discussing the minutiae of horsepower, V-cylinders, calipers, swing arms and degrees of rake. In this 100th anniversary year of the Harley, there is much to absorb and talk over - custom-made anniversary models, celebratory runs to Harley's corporate headquarters in Milwaukee, and more besides.

The Harley riders take a good-humoured dig at the BMWs ("I never knew BMW made cars until I passed one," reads one T-shirt), and the BMW riders respond in kind with a dig at some of the Harley's perceived technical shortcomings ("BMW wanted to congratulate Harley on its 100th anniversary but they couldn't hear us"). Harley riders are equally dismissive of the Japanese bikes that almost put their favoured company out of business in the Sixties and Seventies. Rice-burners, they call them. Sometimes a Harley rider will throw a bag of rice on the ground and shout to a Kawasaki or Honda owner: "Hey, your bike is leaking!"

The Rock Store oozes testosterone and an old-fashioned notion of manhood forever growling with anticipation, like a Harley being revved up in the parking lot. This is a world of guys who fancy themselves living close to the edge, accompanied by hot, passively adoring babes in tight leather outfits; a throwback to the rebellious past of the heyday of biking, and some kernel of promise that the spirit lives on. It's a place, in short, that looks as though it came right out of The Wild One, the seminal Marlon Brando biker movie in which youthful passions were forever on the brink of bursting into violence and everyone lived on the very margins of legality.

But appearances can be deceptive. It's been half a century since that movie came out, and the biker culture has undergone its own unmistakable ageing process - something the Harley centenary and surrounding brouhaha only serve to highlight.

Ed Savko says he hasn't had any trouble at his place for 25 years. "These days, everyone manages to police themselves. I'd say 20 per cent of my customers have a [law enforcement] badge in their pocket anyway. People know this isn't a place to start any baloney." He can still remember the days when he was afraid to bring his children to work for fear that they would be strung up from the oak tree growing outside the Rock Store's front door. But that was then. Now the bikers bring their own children, along with fold-away pushchairs and backpacks full of spare toys and juice boxes.

Instead of the teenage greasers and the rootless rebels of old, the Rock Store attracts people such as Gib Poiry, an ex-Marine and former telecommunications executive from an affluent LA suburb, who recently dropped $25,000 (£16,000) on a centenary Road King Classic. He can remember the discomfort he stirred up in his parents when he bought his first Harley at 16. His father hated the way it leaked oil all over the garage, for starters. But now, at the age of 65, he admits that owning a motorbike is a less than radical gesture.

"Harley-Davidson owners are out for the ride, not the race. It's all about show," Poiry says. "We are the Cadillacs of the bike world." Most of his Harley-riding friends are doctors and lawyers, professional people, usually men of a certain age who think that by buying up their dream machine they can recapture a little of their lost youth. "I saw my heart surgeon the other day, and he was talking about buying a Harley," Poiry says. "But his mother won't let him."

The Rock Store is also famous for attracting Hollywood celebrities. In the old days, Ed Savko made friends with Steve McQueen, and McQueen brought his macho movie-world friends up to the mountains with him - Lee Marvin, Jason Robards and a certain politically ambitious former B-movie actor called Ronald Reagan. (Reagan, never quite the biker type, would ride up on his horse instead.) In their wake came a barrelful of would-be bad guys from the entertainment world (Eddie Van Halen, Billy Idol and Hulk Hogan) and the occasional bona fide outlaw (Robert Downey Jr, whose drug habit has landed him behind bars more than once, and Robert Blake, the one-time TV star now on trial for his wife's murder).

Current regulars include another politically ambitious actor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and his friend, the late-night chat-show host and comedian Jay Leno. These are hardly the icons of a new counterculture; they are rich, well-connected and, for all their pretence to a distinctly narcissistic hipness, as square as Schwarzenegger's buffed-up shoulders.

Fifty years ago, when Marlon Brando's screen character Johnny was asked what he was rebelling against, he answered disconsolately: "Whaddya got?" Now, when you ask Schwarzenegger - a Republican! - how he plans to overturn the status quo if elected as California's next governor, he responds with carefully massaged, content-free slogans dreamed up by slick, overpaid PR consultants. Some rebels.

The same contradiction between image and reality dogs the Harley-Davidson company as it seeks to trade in the wild-boy image of its past while making sure that it does nothing to rock the boat for its core demographic - middle-class men in full-blown midlife crisis mode, who don't want any real-world unpleasantness to interfere with their fantasies of nonconformism and the open road.

The company's website finds it necessary to point out that "the vast majority of riders throughout the history of Harley-Davidson were law-abiding citizens", and to go into heavy denial about the existence of genuinely tough biker gangs, from the Hells Angels to the Heathens, the Mongrels and Satan's Slaves. A company archivist called Maria Schoeberl writes: "Even those who felt a certain alienation from society were not lawless anarchists, but people who saw the motorcycle as a way to express both their freedom and their identity." That's probably what The Rolling Stones thought when they hired Hells Angels bikers to do the security at their fateful concert at Altamont in 1969, the single most violent event in the history of rock.

The image of Brando in The Wild One may well have been the founding myth on which Harley-Davidson built all its subsequent sales, but it is also one the company is now keen to disavow. As the advertising copy of a few years ago had it: "We've survived four wars, a depression, a few recessions, 16 US Presidents, foreign and domestic competition, racetrack competition and one Marlon Brando movie."

The disavowal seems less surprising when you consider the realities of the marketplace. Anyone interested in buying a straight-up-and-down motorbike - a Honda, say - is probably looking at an outlay of $6,000 to $8,000. Harleys, by contrast, start at about $18,000 and go up to $70,000 or more once you add in various accessories and custom-made idiosyncrasies. In the biker world, the joke is that HD stands for Hundreds of Dollars. Harley riders are derided as Rubbers, or Rich Urban Bikers, more interested in polishing their machines than riding them.

Maria Schoeberl may well be right to bristle at the image of a Harley rider in a ripped leather jacket with a switchblade in his pocket; a more accurate picture would be a 50-year-old tax accountant who never takes his bike out of the garage. She is also right to point out that Brando didn't even ride a Harley in The Wild One. He was on a Triumph - a telling detail that suggests that what Harley-Davidson has historically excelled at is not creating genuine icons for American youth, but rather cultivating nostalgia for a rebel-tinged past that was never quite as the marketing managers would have you believe it was.

The company goes back to 1903, when two lads called William Harley and Arthur Davidson cranked out their first machines in a Milwaukee shed. It owes its prosperity in the first instance to the US Army, which adopted the machines and made them standard issue for its troops in both world wars. In terms of entering the lexicon of popular culture, though, the company did not truly get going until about 1947, when veterans used to riding the bikes in the Second World War started snapping up civilian models in significant quantities.

That was also the year in which groups of disaffected ex-soldiers founded the Hells Angels in the far eastern suburbs of Los Angeles. To mark Independence Day, a group of bikers descended on the sleepy central Californian town of Hollister and ran riot - drag-racing down the main street, tossing beer bottles in all directions, and alarming the local populace by riding their bikes straight through the front doors of the town's saloon bar. The moment was captured by a photographer from Life magazine (whose iconic photograph of a slovenly biker later turned out to be staged). This, and a similar incident in Riverside, east of Los Angeles, the following year, inspired the screenwriters of The Wild One. Biker culture was born, and Harley-Davidson, as the leading American manufacturer, was inseparably a part of it.

The Harley myth became even more potent with the advent of the Beat movement, rock'n'roll and the convulsions of 1968. The company happily latched on to the hippies who rode choppers to go in search of themselves and America in Easy Rider (1969). Serge Gainsbourg, then at the height of his song-writing powers, penned a tongue-in-cheek love letter to the Harley-Davidson, in which he and Brigitte Bardot marvelled at its evocation of sex and death.

By this stage, however, Harley-Davidson was already more of a brand than a vehicle of rebellion. Real biker gangs were much more likely to build their own machines - junkers - out of parts found lying around on the highway. At the same time, cheaper Japanese imports were threatening Harley sales, and in reaction it shifted its strategy up-market, with prices to match. Gainsbourg may have picked the wrong motorbike - something he realised when, years later, he wrote the much darker and altogether less charming "Harley David Son of a Bitch".

The Harley still had its occasional moments of danger, like the time when Gary Busey, once an up-and-coming Hollywood actor, drove straight out of the Harley dealership in Marina del Rey on a brand-new machine and almost killed himself in a horrifying smash. Mostly, though, the wild-child factor was just sales shtick - no more so than when the company built a custom bike for the Mickey Rourke fiasco Harley Davidson and the Marlboro Man (1991). "Better to be dead and cool, than alive and uncool," went the film's signature line, a sentiment that took on unintended new meanings as the previously ultra-cool Rourke saw his career go straight to hell.

Now, the Harley has become pure Hollywood - all image and celebrity endorsements. At the Rock Store, there are plenty who will tell you that the company makes lousy motorbikes; noisy, inefficient and unreliable. Plenty more, though, dismiss such remarks as sour grapes, coming from people who wish they could afford a Harley.

Perhaps it is the biker culture itself that has changed more than any individual make. As Ed Savko remarked, looking out from his café on to the orderly rows of polished bikes glinting in the sun: "There used to be some mean bastards on the bikes. I guess the world has changed around."