|Marlon Brando in The Wild One.|
It was after the Second World War that Harley-Davidson motorcycles began to acquire a reputation that went far beyond simple engineering reliability. They went on to become an American legend and associated with adventurous travel. The initial impetus was provided by the many servicemen returning from WWII who were unable to readapt to civilian life. They took to wearing ragged jeans and leather jackets and drifted around the country in motorcycle gangs, with the motorcycle of choice being the Harley-Davidson that many of them had seen while on active service. This proved to be something of a mixed blessing for the company, as some gangs became involved in organised crime. On the other hand, the lifestyle was glamorised in Hollywood. In 1953, The Wild One became a landmark movie of rebellion against conformity through its depiction of the Black Rebels Motorcycle Club led by a character named Johnny, played by a smouldering Marlon Brando.
|Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper in Easy Rider.|
Later, 1969’s Easy Rider became the quintessential ‘road movie’ in which two anti-hero bikers travel through America’s southwest in a search for freedom (or the illusion of it). As a counter-culture movie that achieved cult status, Easy Rider caught the mood of America’s youth and equated motorbikes with freedom on the road. The most famous scene of the movie comes when Wyatt (Peter Fonda) rides off on a silver-chromed, low-slung Harley-Davidson decorated with the Stars and Stripes, to the blasts of the rock anthem ‘Born to be Wild’. Black jackets, blue jeans and Harley-Davidsons became ultra cool, associated with the image of the social rebel and outsider. ‘Not so much a means of transport,’ went one of Harley-Davidson’s advertising slogans; ‘More a way of life.’
|Movie poster for Electra Glide in Blue|
By the end of the 1960s, however, Harley-Davidson was selling just 15,000 motorcycles a year thanks to stiff new competition. Despite that, its mystique continued to grow, with Harley-Davidsons becoming ever more famous through their depiction in television series such as Then Came Bronson (1969-70) and movies such as Electra Glide in Blue (1973). The latter, about a Vietnam veteran turned motorcycle patrolman (played by Robert Blake) on the highways of the Arizona desert, continued the theme of the social misfit, caught between his job and the hippie culture he identifies with. Much later Tom Cruise’s character Maverick in Top Gun (1986) – though far less socially unacceptable – also rides a Harley-Davidson.
Harley-Davidsons have never shaken off the image they developed in the 1960s, although these days most Harley riders are middle-aged men with cash to spend, fancying they’ve acquired something of a rebellious spirit along with their motorcycles. It’s ageing movie stars like Cher, Bruce Willis and Michael Douglas who are Harley owners, as well as ageing royals such as King Juan Carlos of Spain.
|A Harley-Davidson Ultra Classic Electra Glide|
In the early 1980s the company started to revitalise its fortunes. The technology of the engines was further developed, while the ‘American’ look and character of the machines was maintained. The company also founded the Harley Owners Group (HOG), now the largest factory-sponsored motorcycle club in the world. Clever marketing strategies, including clothing and other merchandising, attracted a whole new generation of Harley owners. Most, according to the company’s own research, are males in their forties with an annual household income of over US$70,000; far from social rebels, Harley riders these days are far more likely to be company executives.
Harley-Davidson has never shaken off its distinctive American flavour; indeed, it actively promotes it as part of its appeal. To many, Harleys remain a Vietnam-era motorcycle with all the associated trappings of patriotism and ‘being American’, and nostalgia for the ‘good old days’ has seen the bikes acquired a renewed cult status in the United States.
Synonymous with an in-your-face lifestyle and rebellious attitude, there are few marques in the history of transport that have quite the same appeal as a Harley-Davidson.