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Enjoy & Learn

Chasing the Wind

It’s over a hundred years old now. When it was born in a wooden shed in Milwaukee, it was quite ugly. Its engine was designed to fit onto a bicycle. It didn’t have a gearbox or clutch. The carburetor was squeezed in an old tomato can and its transmission was powered by a leather belt. To start it, the pedals had to be used. But back then, it already boasted the well-known inscription scribbled across its tank: Harley-Davidson.

When 21-year-old William S. Harley and 20-year-old Arthur Davidson were designing their first motorcycle, their dream was to produce a vehicle that would be modern, reliable and popular. Only the third feature was to come true. There were many changes to the original construction over the century to come, but Harleys have never become particularly modern or reliable. Modern and reliable motorcycles are made elsewhere. In Japan. Harley- Davidson fans know better, though. They say they’d rather have a sister in a brothel than a brother on a Honda . . .

The world really learned about Harley-Davidson motorcycles a good four decades after the first model was built and sold. When America was plunged into World War II, the manufacturing of civilian motorcycles was suspended in favor of military production. The war ended but the overseas servicemen were still under the spell of the H-D make. By the time the production of civilian models resumed in November 1945, the world had fallen in love with Harleys. In America, its fame and cult-symbol status was supported by the image of a motorbike for outcasts and gangsters, symbolic of freedom and youthful rebellion.

The legend of the Hell’s Angels, born in the 1950s, was later strengthened by rock and roll stars and pop idols enhancing their own image by riding a Harley on and off screen. The new singer Elvis Presley posed for a magazine cover sitting on a 1956 model KH. Later, this motorcycle featured in countless movies, ridden by idols of their generation like James Dean, Marlon Brando, Henry Fonda, and later Sylvester Stallone and Bruce Willis. Additionally, the difficult post-hippie era brought two important innovations that allowed the cult image of Harley-Davidson to survive. In 1971, with its FX 1200 Super Glide model, the company introduces a new class of motorcycle, the cruiser. And in 1977, the famous Low Rider is born with its characteristic drag-style handlebars and the rider’s low seat position.

Called “the motorcycle that won the war,” or simply The Liberator, Harley-Davidson also found its way to Poland. However, its conquest of post-war Poland finished rather quickly when “the choppers” couldn’t be repaired and ended up in barns and sheds. Their revival came in the 1960s when the Harley myth created by American movies of the time caused an unprecedented rush to look for the hidden gems. As a result, Polish Harleymaniacs were divided into those who bought their dream bikes from dumb farmers for the price of scrap metal, and those who came across them “by accident.”

Owning a Harley in Poland was also a political statement. For the authorities, this American product was a clear symbol of freedom, thus highly undesirable and a danger to the socialist society. Attempts to found the first Polish Harley Club in the 1960s were duly thwarted and so enthusiasts were forced to function underground until as late as 1985! Across the world, the Harley Owners Group (known affectionately as HOG) is currently the largest vehicle owners’ organization on the planet with well over half a million members.

The small town of Sturgis, South Dakota, turns into a world assembly of Harley lovers in mid-August each year. Hundreds of thousands of devotees meet there regularly to pay collective tribute to their gods on wheels. The Harley factory in Milwaukee still manufactures new models and also offers factory tours to the most avid fans of the make. The family business is still very much on, complete with a granddaughter of one of the Davidsons in charge of motorbike fashion, and even a Harley descendant designing the latest models.

For Harleymaniacs, what exactly is “the chopper”? A fetish, a whim, a status symbol, a cult object, a reminder of lost freedom or an expensive toy? Possibly all of the above. In his Official Eighty Year History of the Harley-Davidson M. C., author David K. Wright claims: “For the average man, it’s just a motorcycle. For its owner, it’s something more. More than a machine. In a sense, you don’t own it–a Harley owns you. It takes your time, your thoughts, your feelings, your life.”

Ryszard Wolański


translation by Jerzy Chyb

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