It is motorcycling season in Coastal Georgia. While there are always more motorcycles on the road in this part of the world than in rainy old England, a lot more are now coming out now to enjoy our beautiful spring weather.
People are often surprised when I talk about "riding pillion" (as the British call riding as a motorcycle passenger) on the back of my husband’s big Harley Davidson, but I confess: I love it.
I find it very liberating to climb on the back of my husband’s Electra Glide Ultra Classic wearing my pink helmet (really) and leather jacket and riding around the countryside.
My husband calls it "God’s way to travel," and he loves long trips. While I see his point, a few hours are usually enough for me. This, combined with my inability to pack light, means that our trips are usually just day trips or a single overnighter at most.
My husband bought his bike over 10 years ago, choosing the biggest motorcycle he could find, complete with six-speaker stereo and cigar lighter. However, there is now the potential for a massive earthquake in our household: he is now seriously considering abandoning his first love — Harley Davidson — and trading his bike in for an Indian Roadmaster. This is a huge deal for him, since over the years he has been a die-hard Harley fan, and has all the branded biker paraphernalia to prove it: jackets, helmets, gloves and even towels.
All this talk and extensive test riding in recent weeks has made me somewhat of an amateur historian on these two iconic brands which are both as American as apple pie.
Harley Davidson was founded in a small shed in Milwaukee, Wis., in 1903 by the Davidson brothers and William S. Harley. This was a time that saw many small motorcycle manufacturers being established. The brand got a huge boost when Uncle Sam purchased their motorcycles for use during the first and second world wars, and this was a big factor in their early success.
The Sportster model was launched in 1957, and several books and movies of the era gave it a "bad boy" image, associated with outlaws, biker gangs and rebels. This model is still produced today, and the slightly rebellious aura still surrounds the Harley Davidson brand.
I find this rather amusing, considering that the company’s key demographic today is males older than 35 who can afford a recreational product that costs $20,000-$40,000. In addition, most of my husband’s Harley buddies are retired businessmen, and the camaraderie and friendliness of the extended family of Harley riders never ceases to amaze me.
The Davidson family is still involved in the day-to-day running of the company, with direct descendent Willie G. Davidson serving as president of styling. The company has experienced lots of ups and downs in its 114-year history, but it still dominates the motorcycle market in America. What other corporate logo do you know of that people tattoo to their bodies?
Now let us turn to that other iconic American brand: The Indian Motorcycle Company. Indian motorcycles were first manufactured in Springfield, Mass., in 1901 by the Hendee Manufacturing, a bicycle company. For a few years early in the 20th century, Indian was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world and number one in the U.S., before Harley Davidson overtook them in the early 1920s.
Indian went bankrupt in 1953, and there were numerous, largely unsuccessful attempts to revive the brand over the next 60 years. Then, in 2011, Polaris Industries, makers of jet skis, snow mobiles and off road vehicles, purchased Indian Motorcycles, moved operations into their existing facilities in Minnesota and Iowa, and invested heavily in the design and brand. Since 2013, Polaris has launched several Indian motorcycles that marry Indian’s traditional styling with modern technology.
Indian is still a tiny brand compared to Harley-Davidson and the mega Japanese brands such as Honda, Yamaha and Kawasaki, but is making big inroads by converting Harley lovers like my husband.
So the war of the icons will continue in our home for a few weeks yet, but I suspect that my husband will soon need a new set of leather jackets. To explain this love of motorcycling, I will say goodbye this week with a quote by famous American comedian and actor, Dan Ackroyd, that sums it up well: "You do not need a therapist if you own a motorcycle…"
God bless America.