Is US President Donald Trump, the unlikely destroyer of Harley Davidson, the ‘muscle’ motorcycle which exemplified an alluringly visceral, rather than cerebral, Americana for so
A news report in the Guardian UK that the European Union would consider tit-for-tat high tariffs on Harley imports, adding to the woes of a company, whose fortunes have declined alarmingly in recent years, makes one wonder if Trump would finally manage what the entire Japanese motorcycle industry could not – to knock Harley Davidson out of the motorcycle big boys market.
The Japanese nearly succeeded in the 1970s when their sleek cruisers, free of vibration and oil stains began winning over beefy American buyers. But Ronald Reagan checked the Japanese invasion with high tariffs, thus saving Harley Davidson.
The company has undergone many crises in its 113-year long life and may survive this one too. The Guardian story was accompanied with two photographs – one from the movie Easy Rider, showing Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper riding two customized Harleys, and the other showing Elvis Presley sitting on a Harley in the 1967 movie Clambake.
I haven’t seen Clambake, but I have seen Easy Rider. Before that, however, a few words about the bikes.
"The crown princes of our previous regime chose more revvy European and Japanese superbikes for night racing along the streets of Colombo, not the Harley Davidson, a machine that can break the ankle of an 80 or 90 kg rider if he puts it down carelessly"
Harley Davidson is a name that millions of motorcyclists all over the world aspire to. Most of them will never ride one. It is the same thing as fans hankering after their movie or pop idols – Harley has star status in the world of motorcycles, and most of the faithful are males since it is the manliest motorcycle you can think of.
Nowadays, more and more women ride Harley Davidsons, but that is mostly in the West. It still remains very much a man’s bike; not because women can’t manage to ride them safely or do the frequent tappet adjustments or even get into trouble with the Police, if the occasion arises.
It is because of that enduring image of Harley Davidson with a certain type of male rider – beefy, tattooed and grim with a beard, a colourful outlaw, whose only saving grace is that romantic association with a lot of gleaming chrome and grease stains.
Harley had a life in Sri Lanka in colonial times, along with Indian, the vanished giant. There were HD legends, not all of them pleasant ones, such as the story that a tea planter went off the road at Kadugannawa because he could not safely negotiate the (then) notorious elbow bend. But the Harley was always a rich man’s bike and got rarer after the Independence.
In any case, as imports of all motorcycles over 350cc was banned in the 1980s (Only the Government being in that privileged position) Harley Davidson became the stuff of dreams.
The crown princes of our previous regime chose more revvy European and Japanese superbikes for night racing along the streets of Colombo, not the Harley Davidson, a machine that can break the ankle of an 80 or 90 kg rider if he puts it down carelessly.
In the country of their birth, Harleys had a certain image problem till the 1980s at least. There were Harley motorcycle gangs and they would descend on a town somewhere in their hundreds, sometimes leading to confrontations with the local sheriffs and the Police. A British motorcycle writer said in the 70s that the US had the least regard for motorcyclists (regardless of what they rode) compared to Western Europe.
This may have changed since then, as more and more professionals such as doctors and the American corporate class found it fashionable to ride flashy big motorcycles from the 1990s on. But the association of the Harley Davidson with the bearded, tattooed motorcycle rider is an indelible one, and lingers on, despite the fact that Harleys are standard issue to American Police forces, too.
There is the mistaken impression that the 1969 movie Easy Rider was about Harley Davidsons. It is not. Witten by Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Terry Southern, produced by Peter Fonda and directed by Dennis Hopper, the film became a cult classic and much more than just another motorcycle movie. Nothing like it has been produced anywhere since then.
The soundtrack included songs such as ‘The Pusher’ and ‘Born to be Wild’ by Steppenwolf, and the song ‘Don’t Bogart Me’ by the Fraternity of Man has been described as a marijuana-smoking behaviour guide’.
The 1960s was the decade of drug experimenting, free love and hippie lifestyle in the West (when the Beatles’ song Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds came out in 1967, people speculated that the initials stood for LSD).
As the film starts, Peter Fonda and Denis Hopper (Wyatt and Billy) are seen arriving at a ramshackle inn (ironically named La Contenta Bar) near the Mexican border in two cheap Japanese dirt bikes. They have come to buy heroin, which they sell to a sleek type, who comes in a Rolls Royce back in the US.
"It is because of that enduring image of Harley Davidson with a certain type of male rider – beefy, tattooed and grim with a beard, a colourful outlaw, whose only saving grace is that romantic association with a lot of gleaming chrome and grease stains"
That is how they find the money to get their dream bikes – two customized Harley cruisers, on which they intend to travel to the Mardi Gras festival in New Orleans.
Actually, you don’t see a Harley badge on either; it is the customary engine rumble that gives them away. And these two don’t fit that stereotype image of muscle-bound Harley riders.
Neither are they regular drug pushers. Tall and lean, they are a different kind of dropout – non-violent, soft-spoken and with wistful eyes full of self-irony, longing and a yearning for life which stretches beyond their taut frames.
As the two hit the open road in their shiny new bikes, tanks festooned with painted US flags (with marijuana hidden inside), there is the song ‘The Pusher’ by Steppenwolf:
“You know I smoke a lot of grass/oh lord, I pop a lot of pills.” Soon, the wailing electric guitar, measured beat and lugubrious tone give way to the funky rhythms of ‘Born To Be Wild,” also by Steppenwolf.
Not being able to afford a new musical soundtrack, the director and producer opted to use already known pop hits by a bewildering number of artists -– Steppenwolf, the Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Byrds and the Fraternity of Man.
There is even a credit to Bob Dylan. It’s doubtful if Harley executives would want anything to do with a film which had songs such as these, and it’s unlikely that they offered any sponsorship to the filmmakers.
"Harley Davidson is a name that millions of motorcyclists all over the world aspire to. Most of them will never ride one. It is the same thing as fans hankering after their movie or pop idols – Harley has star status in the world of motorcycles, and most of the faithful are males since it is the manliest motorcycle you can think of"
On the way, the duo meet a nameless hitchhiker, who takes them to a Hippie Commune. Back on the road afterwards, they are joined by Jack Nicholson, an alcoholic small-town lawyer who relishes the freedom of the open road.
The film was low-budget and became a box office hit in 1969. It shows a United States of contrasts. While apolitical, it speaks for the marginal, from Wyatt and Billy and the Hippies to the black cotton pickers who stare in glum wonder at the two riders as they ride through the deep south, little realizing that they themselves are as hated as the blacks, if not more, by the ultra-conservative rednecks there. The conflicting worlds finally lead to tragedy.
Ironically, when Easy Rider became a box office hit, many Americans would have reacted in disbelief if someone predicted the Presidency of Donald Trump.
And yet, the essence of what made Trump got elected is in the film. Now, the final irony would be if Trump, the redneck president would go down in history as the man who dug the grave of Harley Davidson, the red neck All-American motorcycle.