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Photo by Genghis

LOYALTY TO HARLEYS: The biker subculture is historically predicated on it


"Where does it end? Should the people who were fiercely loyal to Indian in the 50's have loyally accepted the Arrow and the Warrior and replaced their righteous Chiefs with them? If Harley Davidson took a turn for the worse and began churning out small capacity scooters, what then? I suppose you could put a date on your brand loyalty, such as Indian: 1953. I use Canon exclusively for shooting these days, not because of any real brand loyalty, but because it was at first a supplied tool at work, and now we have a lot of lenses and stuff to go with them, and to switch brands would be an unjustifiable expense. I used Nikons back in the 'film days' but other than differences in the operations, I don't see a great deal of difference in them these days. Although the famed Easyriders photographer, Michael Lichter uses Nikon exclusively, so maybe there is something to it. Oh, I do like the Smith and Wesson revolver. I currently have a nice model 627 8-shot .357 that is pretty damn nice. Although my regular everyday 'carry' is a Glock 26, it's mainly for size and weight. I still cannot get passionate about cars, they tend to leave me cold. Although I do have fun driving my little 1964 Triumph Spitfire around, it's so much more an 'involved' ride than anything modern."


Summer 1967:

My friend Dennis Fanning, to the best of my memory, was about to become a New York City firefighter. He'd just bought a new Triumph Spitfire, but there was a minor problem: He was a novice driver and he didn't know how to drive a stick shift. Being his good bud, I volunteered to teach him. This ushered in one of the most harrowing experiences I've ever had on a highway. I took Dennis for a sufficient number of lessons on the streets of Queens, but the big test would be his handling this neat little car on the highway. The Triumph Spitfire is an underpowered, but peppy little sports car that was originally designed for Triumph by an Italian designer named Giovanni Michelotti, in 1957. It is nimble and fun to drive, but does not have an abundance of power to extract a driver out of trouble, if circumstances calls for it. Certainly compared to my 365 horsepower Vette that I owned at that time, the Spitfire is anemic at best.

Dennis and I lived a block away from each other in Jackson Heights, in Queens, New York. On the day that Dennis scared the bejesus out of me, I drove the Spitfire out of Queens to Nassau County, which borders Queens and is the start of Long Island proper, although in my youth, the U.S. Postal Service recognized the territory east of the East River (including Queens) as "Long Island." In fact, addresses in Queens would be in those days, written as, for example, "87-09 Northern Blvd, Jackson Heights, Long Island, NY, Zone 72." Now however, "the Island" is recognized as Nassau County and then Suffolk County east of Nassau County. Keep in mind also, that NYC bus fares were 11 cents in the '50s, and now it's $2.25. White Castle hamburgers were 12 cents. Time marches unrelentingly on, careless of consequences, both intended and unintended.

Once out on the Island, I let Dennis take control of his car. Without incident, Dennis drove onto the Grand Central Parkway toward the City ("the City" is NYC vernacular for Manhattan, even though New York City is comprised of four other boroughs besides Manhattan: Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, and Staten island). The Grand Central Parkway is a wide, eight-lane highway where high speeds are common, despite the speed limit signs. After a ground-level stretch of highway on Long Island, there comes a point after entering Queens, where the Grand Central burrows below ground level. In this section, the highway is an excavated road, a man-made asphalt canyon, with the ground-level service roads running parallel to the highway, many yards below. The service roads have intermittent streets connecting them, that hang over the highway as overpasses.

Naturally, these overpasses have traffic lights which are visible to traffic humming along on the highway below. There we were, with Dennis behind the wheel of his spanking new Spitfire, buzzing along at 70 miles an hour, the Spitfire's 1296 cc, 75 horse four-banger straining like crazy to keep up with the traffic around us. The Spitfire's absolute top speed is only 95mph. All of a sudden, Dennis brought the Spitfire to a screeching halt! On the highway! The cars behind us accordioned as we checked up, with the Caddy behind coming within inches of rear-ending us! The "SCREEEEEeeech..." continued, as the cars behind the Caddy reacted in a chain reaction. It reminded me of the "big one" at Talladega. I could picture us and the others, bouncing off the walls of the Grand Central, like Earnhardt and Waltrip, spinning and crashing, crashing and crunching. Bad news, baby!

After I pulled my heart out of my throat, I said to Dennis in a voice several octaves higher than normal, "What the hell are ya doing?" To that, Dennis calmly pointed to a red light at a traffic light on the overpass above us , and said, "I was stopping for the red light. Wasn't I supposed to?" In a near-panic, I yelled at Dennis to get into first gear and get going, before we had any more trouble. Like the cops, investigating this fifteen car pile-up. To this day, I don't know if any of the cars behind us collided. I'm just grateful that we weren't steamrolled by the pack. After we got out of Dennis' Spitfire back in Jackson Heights, I edified Dennis regarding the logistical facts of life about not heeding traffic signals not located on the road on which he was driving.


Dave poses a thought-provoking question, although you would think that the answer would be obvious from the history of the culture, known to all bikers since the inception of the Big Three with the 1936 introduction of the knucklehead. To answer Englishman's question of where brand loyalty ends in the biker subculture, the correct answer would be that it begins and ends with loyalty to one's Harley-Davidson. Believe you, me, loyalty to the Yamaha XS 650 and brands like it, will be as empty and meaningless in the course of the history of the biker subculture, as the significance of the Puch scooter. Or Ural motorcycle. Here are the facts as they stand, and no amount of revisionist history in the principle-poor biker rags of today, will mitigate these facts:

The Harley-Davidson motorcycle has always been and will always be the backbone of the biker subculture.

Bikers come and go, "master builders" come and go, biker magazines will come and go, but the Harley motorcycle will always remain in the biker subculture, as the iconic brand that is the engine that powers the culture. There would've been no impetus in the budding subculture, without the drive from the Orange & Black. When one mentions "bikers" to straights, and then the straights are asked what brand of motorcycle is most closely associated with "bikers," the reply will invariably be "Harley-Davidson."

There is no doubting that the movie "The Wild One" was inspirational to early bikers of the 1950s and beyond. But let's not forget, it was only a movie, and if anyone is going to make the point that other brands are as significant in the culture as Harleys by pointing to Marlon Brando's Triumph in the flick, that pointing finger would be be misdirected. First of all, that was Brando's personal bike and he insisted as the spoiled star he was, that the bike be featured as a condition of his employment. Secondly, it is common knowledge that Britbikes were seen as a steppingstone to a Harley. "As soon as I can afford to get one..." was a familiar refrain. The Harley-Davidson motorcycle was always seen as the ultimate Outlaw Machine, the holy grail in the biker subculture. Anyone who'd deny this reality, is wading in a self-created pool of fantasy. The Yamaha? Man, it's not even a steppingstone to a Harley-Davidson. It's a black lagoon into which time and money are wastefully thrown, egged on by the self-important "chopper media." Riders who insist that their Yams are noteworthy in the subculture, are in danger of drowning in their own self-denial.

Today's culture as represented in the chopper media, is riddled with political correctness, and revisionist history. One can't state the obvious about Japanese bikes in the subculture today, without hordes of Miss Grundys coming out of the magazine woodwork, to lawyer up on the part of Japanese chop builders, and correct your mean-spirited error! "How dare you attack these conscientious bikers and their rides?" we're demanded of in indignant tones. Hey man, we're just tellin' it like it is (and was), nothing more, nothing less.To quote another flick: "You can't handle the truth!"

Here is the real deal: Hacked up Yamahas didn't enjoy any semblance of credibility, until magazines began promoting 'em. This is a relatively recent effort by the chopper media to create cred for Japanese bikes, since there wasn't a scent of this, in the biker rags of a few years ago. That's a fact. Look back as recently as 1997, which was the last year of the David Snow's Iron Horse magazine, when there was nary a single XS 650 featured in those hallowed pages. That is a fact. Just dig out your old IHs and take a gander. No chopped Yamahas. No chopped Hondas. No chopped Suzukis. There was only "Japjunk Of The Month." What Snow's Iron Horse did, was simply honestly mirror the biker subculture as it was, nothing more and nothing less.

The promotion of bikes like chopped Yamaha XS 650s in the time since Iron Horse left the scene, created an artificial significance for these bikes. Then came the magazine rallies. Since magazines were actively promoting Japanese bikes as legitimate motorcycles for bikers, then natch, plenty of magazine followers showed up at these rallies on---you guessed it, chopped Yamahas. This isn't a case of "which came first, the chicken or the egg?" The "chicken" of magazines promoting Japanese chops, definitely laid the "egg" of readers following suit. This attempt to sway the natural course of the biker subculture, is meaningless in the context of subculture history.

So, yes, brand loyalty in the biker subculture does begin and end with loyalty to the Harley-Davidson motorcycle. Anyone who disputes this, is just kidding 'emselves. Can such an ironclad subculture principle have become null and void in 14 short years, since Snow's Iron Horse graced the newsstands? I don't think so, and the attempt to divert history is futile. Harleys rule, baby! 70 years of biker subculture history, didn't take a sudden left turn, to knock Harley-Davidsons off of the culture's pedestals 14 years ago. No, brand loyalty to the Orange & Black remains the stalwart mainstay of the biker subculture, as it ever was. Later.