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GOING THE DISTANCE
Photo by Genghis
MABEL'S CHASSIS: The venerable four speed swingarm frame, that reigned from 1958-1986.
BROOKLYN JIM AT THE SEEDY X-BAR:
"I was reading your 'obituary' to the 4-speed frame last night in issue 110. I think what you said back then resonates just as loudly today -- maybe even more so. In the same way that we say, 'it's not the ride, it's the rider' we could also say, 'it's not the motor, it's the frame.' Despite your writing that article more than twenty years ago, it's absolutely current for me today -- like right this minute -- as I pour over CL ads looking for my '70s FX.
And speaking of riders, what's also current for me today is something you said about the (my) Softail: not a bad looking motorcycle ... several ways to make the stock product look good ... but can't overlook the types of people that buy them. That was the gist, anyway. Listen, I fully understand the inability to separate 'that rider' from 'that frame' in November 1992; but, I wonder how/if the association (Softail 'consumer' = yuppie asshole snob) has changed more than twenty years on. I know that first impressions are hard to erase ... but, at the same time, after thirty years of Softail production, not every Softail rider is going to fit the yuppie stereotype that might well have been the rule at first. In a word or two, these bikes have 'trickled down' (I'm such a Reagan-era kid) to those of us who can now afford them. Specifically, we're buying them at 10 or 20 years old, liberating them of their dozen or so 'Live to Ride' emblems, and riding them more miles per year than they were ridden by their first owners per decade.
Is it worth reassessing the typical Softail rider? And how these bikes have proliferated down the food chain and into the hands of the unwashed masses (guilty)? Yuppies don't wear hand-me-downs, so who is it that's riding around on the hundreds of thousands of Softails made in the last three decades? Has the connection between the excesses of '80s and early-'90s yuppie-style consumerism and Softails-as-trophy-toys been pretty thoroughly cut by now?
Maybe we need an update to mark the 30th anniversary of the Softail? I, for one, would be interested in your thoughts on how time, the economy, and the whims of the wealthy have changed the Softail scene -- or whether the song remains the same."
Reading Brooklyn Jim's post at the Seedy X Bar & Grill brought a rush of pleasant memories back to me. That was a time when I wrote the article that Jim referred to---what he called my "obituary" piece on the righteous four-speed, swingarm frame, what I think of fondly as my "R.I.P." piece on this chassis---just
when I was submitting articles on spec to David Snow, for possible publication in Iron Horse magazine. Snow had yet to offer me my own column in IH. I was simply another guy who was sending him articles. hoping to get 'em in print.
The fact was though, that I could feel the momentum of my involvement with, and contribution to Iron Horse magazine incrementally building, like a minor wave that had the potential of becoming a tsunami. "Publish or perish," man! I needed to get into Iron Horse's hallowed pages. I was hooked! What an addictive drug it was, to appear in my favorite biker magazine! Iron Horse was like a beautiful siren, singing her irresistible song of truth, righteousness and the American way to my responsive ears. I couldn't get enough of gettin' into Iron Horse's pages! Reading Iron Horse, was like looking into a mirror.
She spoke what I believed, she whispered what I thought.
It was symbiotic, man. Although at the time, I was a columnist for martial arts magazines, and had at that point, recently had my mug on a martial arts magazine cover---writing about Harleys and the biker subculture was an endeavor that I truly loved. Loved perhaps, far more than I loved writing about the martial arts. The intensity level of writing about the biker subculture in IH, was so high. After all, I'd been a biker for all my adult life, longer than I'd been a martial artist. I began the martial arts relatively late in life, at the age of 29, while I'd been riding Harleys since I was 21.
The period when I wrote my R.I.P. piece, was a heady time, when Snow's trust in me as a steady contributor to Iron Horse grew, and eventually led him to offer me my own monthly column, a column that I would title "Going the Distance." The column was named after my very first piece for Iron Horse, which appeared in issue 107, whose title was, "The Long Run---Who Can Go the Distance?" (Click here if you'd like to read it). If this sounds like I'm getting lost in an "all about me revelry moment," it's not. I'm merely setting the scene for you, so that you understand the dynamics of how my relationship with Snow affected what I was writing at that time, and particularly what I wrote about Softails.
I enjoyed my time writing for Iron Horse, and that particular time that Brooklyn Jim referred to, was a time when yuppie stockbrokers were snapping up Harley Softails, in an attempt to buy their way into the biker subculture. Snow and I were ticked off by this phenomenon. So much so, that we fed into each other's anger over it, to stoke our anger's fire even higher and hotter. It seemed that when we expressed our views to each other, we turned up the furnace several notches.
It was a very much "us against the world" feel, where Snow provided this great platform---Iron Horse---for the dissemination of this anger, this feeling that the Softail was becoming tainted by who was buying the Softail. Implicitly guilty we felt, was the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. The feeling around the Iron Horse offices, was that The Firm was selling out for the big bucks. The Firm apparently targeted yups who eventually became RUBs (Rich Urban Bikers), as the demographic group they wanted to sell the Softail model to. There was gold in them thar hills, and the gold rested in the wallets of the yuppies.
Being in Iron Horse with David Snow at that time, a time when we helped to stoke the negativity regarding the Softail model, with the hammer of Iron Horse---was a self-fulfilling time. The vitriol regarding yuppies buying Softails, flew out at readers from the pages of Iron Horse, with relentless bullet-like speed. In turn, readers wrote to express their dismay about the Yuppie-Softail Nexus It was a vicious cycle, with every month's "FTF" tirades by Snow and me, making things worse. Iron Horse had a receptive, custom-made audience for this kind of stuff, because this audience inherently believed it, themselves. Iron Horse was written by bikers, for bikers. At times it seemed, the lines between the writers and the readers blurred, so that we were indistinguishable from one another. We were them and they were us.
Do I believe that hardcore bikers would have had disdain for the Softail, without Iron Horse magazine's input? Sure, but I don't think that disdain would have been as intense, without Iron Horse's constant drumbeat of anti-yuppie-Softail articles . Simply put, hardcore bikers loved and respected Iron Horse magazine, and I do believe that what appeared in the magazine, had considerable influence on the biker subculture. That brings me to Brooklyn Jim's question: Is it time to reassess whether the Softail is any longer tainted by the types of people---people who were not bikers---who bought Softails over two decades ago? The answer is a resounding "yes." It is time. Twenty-plus years is a long time. It is a lifetime.
HARDCORE CYCLE: An NYC Angel on his badass Softail.
To hammer home the point, look at the above picture. What do you see? What type of motorcycle is the Angel on the left, straddling? Yup. A Softail. Any questions? In any case, that photo alone, should dispel any vestigial illusions, that the demographic group who rode Softails in the 1980s and 1990s, are the ones twisting the Softails' throttles now. Hardcore hands now twist those throttles. There's no doubt about that.
Those yups who bought Softails in the late '80s and early '90s, have long ago sold their bikes and hung up their leather vests festooned with twenty pounds of tin badges. They've reverted to their country clubs, for nice, sedate games of golf. They've traded in their chaps and engineer boots for plaid pants and white loafers. Water always seeks its own level. Where have the Softails gone? They've gone to hardcore bikers like the one pictured. Now, does that mean that I've changed my mind about the righteousness of the four-speed frame, like the one that houses my ever-lovin' Shovel, Mabel? Not on your life.
Photo by Genghis
RIGHTEOUS: The venerable four-speed swingarm frame, embracing Mabel's Shovel motor.
This frame, the four-speed swingarm frame, was a direct descendant of the Harley rigid frame that hugged Panhead motors in 1957. In true Harley fashion, The Firm used evolutionary methodology to advance to a new frame era. If you examine the necks of the four-speed swingarm frames, you will see that they are virtually identical to those of their rigid sisters, that preceded 'em. This frame, the four-speed chassis, had the honor and privilege of lovingly holding three Big Twin motors, the Panhead, Shovelhead and Blockhead power plants. It is beautiful and low-slung, while ushering bikers into the era of Big Twin rear suspension. To me, it offers the best of two worlds, the beauty of the rigid era, and the functionality of the suspended era. To my eye, it is the most beautiful of Harley chassis.
My devotion to this ideal, the frame that reigned supreme from 1958 until 1986, is undaunted. I applaud Brooklyn Jim for looking for a righteous Shovel to join his Softail. I'll always be biased in favor of a four-speed swingarm framed Shovel. To me, this will always represent the ideal combination. Later.