American Icons: Harley-Davidson


Friday, October 15, 2010


Harley-Davidson feature card

This is American power running on two wheels.

It’s not the fastest motorcycle or the fanciest, but to many Americans, a motorcycle is a Harley-Davidson. Veteran NPR producer Jay Allison, a longtime biker, heads to Laconia Bike Week to find the source of the mystique. Diehard riders (including a biker church deacon), scholars, and a Davidson family member explain how the Harley image yokes patriotism together with outlaw rebelliousness. With a look that suggests industrial might, a backstory of garage ingenuity, and a roar so distinctive the company tried to trademark it — Harley-Davidsons are the American motorcycle.

Harley-Davidson was produced by Jay Allison and edited by Emily Botein.


Bonus Track: The New Harley Enthusiast
Jay Allen, owner of the famous Broken Spoke Saloon, describes the allure of a Harley-Davidson, and the new millenium's kinder, gentler Harley rider.


Slideshow: Harleys and Their Owners

Courtesy of Harley-Davidson Motor Company

Riders participate in the Harley-Davidson 95th Anniversary Parade in Milwaukee in 1998. Part of the Harley-Davidson motorcycle’s appeal is its ability to tap into both the patriotic and rebellious aspects of the American identity.

Photo by Michael Lichter

The Harley-Davidson is solid, heavy, and powerful – characteristics reminiscent of the strength of America’s industrial past. This bike is a 1953 Harley-Davidson Panhead identical to the one ridden by Lee Marvin in Lásló Benedek's 1953 film The Wild One.

Courtesy of Jay Allison

Radio producer Jay Allison on a rented Harley V-Rod in Yellowstone, in 2003.  Jay has owned and ridden dozens of motorcycles – beginning when he was 14 years old.

Courtesy of Dave Akin

Dave Akin poses with his bike and his Jack Russell Terrier, Annie; together they logged about 20,000 miles. Dave is a deacon in the Catholic church on Cape Cod, where he blesses the motorcycles every spring.

Photo by Jay Allison

Kip, a New Hampshire Harley rider, with his samurai sword. The sword stays in a fork-mounted scabbard on his 1978 Sportster which he rides year-round, even through the cold New England winters.

Photo by Melissa Allison

Harleys line up on Lakeside Avenue at Weir's Beach in New Hampshire, the heart of the Laconia Bike Week Rally. In 2010 the rally celebrated its 87th anniversary.

Photo by Jay Allison

Charlie St. Clair, executive director of the Laconia Bike Week.

Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives

The famous Harley-Davidson "Bar & Shield" logo was first used in 1910, and trademarked a year later.

Photo by Michael Lichter

The Harley-Davidson brand has generated intense, aggressive loyalty, with many owners even tattooing the company’s logo on their bodies.

Photo by Michael Lichter

The 1969 film Easy Rider has inspired generations of Harley-Davidson enthusiasts. This Captain America 1953 Harley-Davidson Panhead Chopper – restored from the famous crash scene – is the only surviving bike from the film.

Photo by Michael Lichter

Customization is at the heart of the Harley image. Warren Lane built his bike, “El Rey,” in Miami, Florida.

Photo by Michael Lichter

This "9/11 Tribute" custom bike was built by Pauline and Robert Brown in Severance, Colorado.

Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives

A sense of freedom and enthusiasm has always been a part of the Harley-Davidson identity, as seen in this 1913 advertisement.

Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives

A 1990 magazine advertisement evokes the nostalgia and tradition associated with today’s Harley-Davidson.

Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives

Walter Davidson was one of the founders of Harley-Davidson. In 1908 he won the 7th Annual Federation of American Motorcyclists Endurance and Reliability Contest with a perfect score of 1000 points, earning some early name recognition for the young company.

Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives

The Harley-Davidson Motor Company formally entered motorcycle racing in 1914. Nicknamed the "Wrecking Crew" because of its dominance of the sport, the Harley-Davidson racing team enhanced the company’s growing reputation.

Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives

In 1917, roughly one-third of all Harley-Davidson motorcycles produced were sold to the U.S. military.  Wartime service helped create the bike’s unique American image.

Courtesy of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company Archives

A 1942 advertisement. Together with Harley-Davidson’s record of wartime service, their use by police officers helped link the brand with the defense of America.

Photo by Michael Lichter

Harleys have long been associated with freedom and the open road, ideas that are still a part of the bike’s iconic image.


Jay Allison and Emily Botein

Comments [14]

Pilotyoda from Melbourne, Australia

In my late 50's I have bought a new Harley tourer. I have owned many different bikes in the past and wanted a relaxed non-racing bike.
They don't come any more relaxed than a big engined 'Glide.
I know people from all walks of life who ride, some racers, some street bikes and many with Harleys. Some are 1%ers, some are members of HOG & some in Ulysses. None of us judge others on what they ride. It is the riding that counts.
Is the bike perfect? No way, even at the price being charged. If one wants perfection, I would have bought BMW's equivalent bike. But it does generate a feeling of attachment, as well as brotherhood with other Harley riders. I even found a member of the Hells Angels was prepared to sit with me and explain what I should do if I wanted to experiment with its handling. He was very knowledgable and didn't care that I wasn't a member of a "club".
I may eventually get around to customising it but that isn't the most important thing in life.
I am well aware of the mystique and awe generated by a loud Harley, but I leave the feelings of those so affected to them. It is usually caused by insecurities. I will simply continue to enjoy riding.

Aug. 08 2013 03:13 AM
juepucta from TO-CA

the preferred transportation of lawyers and dentists going through mid-life crises all over the nation

Jul. 04 2013 10:35 PM
emanuell from wisconsin

I'm a first time viewer here. I've read some of the comments. the fact that some of you judge a bike by who you see on them tells me how small your minds are. I like all bikes as well, and Harley just happens to be one of them. I also believe that the people think that any bike makes them a bad boy is week minded as well.

Jul. 30 2012 11:38 AM
Al from USA

I'm 60 yrs this year and have rode motorcycles since I was thirteen. I've owned 18 or 19 motorcycles in that time, and some were Harley's. A few years back Harley Davidson pushed for a bill from congress asking congress to put a 100% import tax on any imported motorcycle. Said they needed it to compete or be run out of business. Congress passed the import bill for motorcycles and evened out the playing field. As soon as the law was in effect Harley Davidson doubled there prices. Now harley davidson is one of the highest priced motorcycles. It also has the highest profit per item. of any motorclycle. The only thing that bill did was to increase HD's bottom line at the expense of all other competitors. They also took money out of your pocket if you buy any brand of motorcyle.

Jun. 30 2012 01:08 AM

I just learned on Studio 360 that people actually value the sound the erupts from Harley-Davidsons and hold it up as it a symbol of American power and quality production!

I always thought the sound was a symbol of what is wrong with America: demonstrating that we are unable to make a decent motorcycle that isn't so loud.

They are disrespectful to everyone else in the vicinity. By their sound alone, without even moving from a parked position, they are aggressive and rude. They scream "LOOK AT ME!" and "I COULDN'T CARE LESS WHAT YOU ARE DOING."

I love the open road and American road trips. I love our city streets and American urban energy. But face it, if the noise from a Harley Davidson is a symbol of America, it is a symbol of the worst and ugliest qualities that Americans demonstrate on our great roads and wonderful streets.

Mar. 04 2012 12:06 PM
Tom from Long Island

As a motorcycle enthusiast, and former instructor - I will ride anything with a motor and two wheels. I'm open to all brands, and resent the closed-mindedness of so many Harley devotees. Especially those mid-life crisis males who discover that after a life of conformity they can go out and BUY a Persona of Rebelliousness. Who think that buying a $20K bike and all the off-the-rack clothing and accessories makes them a Bad Boy.

Hardly. It makes them gullible and no better than the girls who buy their LOOK off the rack to imitate their Fav pop-star.

The number of actual Bad-Boys riding Harleys is probably in the single digits, compared to the Wanna-be's who helped HD make a killing the last 2 decades. Which now they cant sustain, as its apparent that riding a Harley doesn't make anyone cool, or rebellious. And the products cost is in no way relative to the quality. Harley's are over priced, and poorly designed for the weekend warriors who ride them now.

As a former instructor, I lost count of the number of men who bought bikes too big and too powerful for their weakened 9-5 bodies, and how often the bikes got away from them in real traffic conditions where its not the OPEN road they fantasize about, but rather a bump and grind of steel and asphalt and idiot car drivers.

HD must adapt and find a new Demographic to sustain it, and their support of the Buell line was a start, but it got little respect in the dealerships, so that failed.

Moral, riding a HD doesnt make a man tough, cool or a rebel. It does point out that you think you can purchase those things at a ridiculous price - which is exactly what is wrong with the American psyche right now. Off the shelf personalities for sale.

Jan. 28 2011 03:35 PM
Mike from Alameda, CA

I was looking to see what comments there are on this episode and found there is a completely different set of comments on this same site here:

Harley Davidson is truly something I hate, that the mere mention of bothers me. I dislike the wannabe rebel fashions and all that sort of thing, but I don't think aside from sneering, that's any of my business.

The part of Harley Davidson that is EVERYBODY's business is the noise. If you go to almost any downtrodden city in the US, you will find along with blight, a noise problem made up of Harley's and/or boom cars. Effectively it is like gang graffiti, telling law abiding good people, this territory is marked. The law and civil society don't reign here. The productive and civil people who could afford to leave have gone, and the criminal element has taken over. If you want to put your children to sleep, read, watch TV, study, relax, good luck. Because some hairy pot bellied guy paid $20,000 to destroy your neighborhood.

Nov. 01 2010 03:41 PM
Charles Falco from Tucson

One characteristic distinguishes the Harley-Davidson from all other American Icons previously covered in this series. The sound. If someone doesn't like one of the songs, movies, books, or other Icons, they are free to simply ignore it. However, there is nothing they can do to keep the sound of a modified Harley exhaust system from entering their life whenever someone else chooses to make this happen. This explains why, although Jay Allison covered a number of points in his story, most comments mention the sound they make.

Some motorcyclists commented on the attitude of Harley riders. I have been riding for over 40 years and I, too, remember some bad behavior. However, evolution has wired us to be especially conscious of bad experiences -- I fly many times every year, with a large number of mostly neutral interactions with people each time while in transit, but the few bad ones are what I remember.

Whether or not you are upset by the sound of the machines, or the attitude of the riders, a segment on Harley- Davidson was very appropriate. More so than most of the other Icons, Harleys are used in advertisements worldwide to evoke a positive attribute of American culture. What I find interesting is how this came about. Although today Harleys represent "freedom," fifty years ago they were used to represent something dysfunctional about our society.

Oct. 24 2010 02:32 PM
Jay Allison from Cape Cod

It would have been disappointing if this piece had not raised some ire on both sides. I am always impressed by the power of Harley Davidson to inspire both love and hatred. Maybe that complexity and contradiction helps creates a myth.

Take a look at the slideshow above these comments, or look at the "guest" links. There are all sorts of people represented in those images; Harley's reach is wide.

By the way, I've gotten email about things I left out of this short portrait, and it's true that we had to make hard editorial choices in the very short time we had. I didn't deal with women riders, Harley's racing legacy, choppers, Evel Knievel, Malcom Forbes, international bikers, Sturgis, the company's ups and downs, and a lot more! Those would be important in any story about Harley's history, but our intention was not to be comprehensive--and certainly not to proclaim Harley Davidson as something good or bad--but to explore its iconography, and its American-ness.

It's great to read these comments in that regard. Thanks for posting.

Oct. 20 2010 12:29 PM
Mike Pagan from NJ, USA

I want to leave a counterpoint to the inevitable "Harley Davidsons are for knuckle-dragging misanthropes" comments that this piece will draw.

First, my bona-fides: I ride a Ducati 996, the third Ducati that I've owned. I've had a Yamaha FZ1 and several Honda Hawk GT's. For the non-bikers. Finally, I also have a Buell Ulysses, so I guess you could say that I have some Harley DNA in my riding, but for the most part these bikes are the opposite of the Harley style.

However, it irks me that most of my non-Harley riding compatriots have as much of a knee-jerk anti-Harley sentiment as the newbie Harley riders have against non-Harleys. I have met many Harley riders on the road, and I'd say that they have been enthusiastic riders who have been open and friendly, at least as much as any other brand-loyal motorcyclist you would meet on the road. Harley riders don't have a monopoly on the occasional obnoxious rider; I've met as many mileage-snobbish BMW riders as RUB Harley riders, and I chalk it all up to the fact that humanity is diverse and there are those who always take their stereotype seriously.

Also, I have rode rented Harleys many many miles. This is due to the fact that in the past few years about the only type of bike you can rent when on a far off business trip is a Harley. This has taught me that they actually are very fun to ride. No, I don't ride it like a hypersport bike, but they are very high quality and you can push them way harder than my sportbike friends would believe. Plus, if you stay within normal street safety limits they do really have a certain feel all their own which is extremely satisfying. That's sacrilege for a sportbike rider, but it's the truth.

Oct. 17 2010 02:33 PM

I thoroughly enjoyed listening to Jay Allison's piece on Harley Davidson motorcycles and the mystique that surrounds this American icon. I also read with interest and dismay some of the comments left by other listeners. A few of you have had less than desirable interactions with Harley Davidson riders. That is unfortunate and I wish you could have had the experience I have had. One listener commented that "Harley Davidson riders represent the most disgusting, arrogant, ugly American at it's best". I belong to an American Legion riders group in Tennesse and don't recall meeting anyone who fits that bill. We have members who ride Harleys, Triumphs, Victorys, and other brands. I have never seen any of our riders snub others because of the brand of bike that they ride. We have ridden as a group to raise money for various causes such as school supplies for children, cancer awareness, toys for tots, and individuals in need. I see nothing "ugly" in that. As Legion riders we are all active in the military or are veterans. I see nothing "disgusting" in serving your country. It is also motorcycle riders who work as a unit to provide privacy at funeral services for fallen soldiers. All this being said, I know nothing I write here will change anyone's opinion about HD riders. I want only to show the other side of the coin and express how thankful I am to know such a great group of people and share with them a sense of community and compassion for others while also enjoying the freedom of riding a motorcycle.

Oct. 17 2010 02:23 PM
Egmont van Gronigen from New York

I found the story about Harley Davidson culture very one-sided. All immature praise, bluster and chest-thumping with only a brief mention about how revolting many people find these machines and the idiots that ride them. The idea that people have the 'freedom' to make their motorcycles as loud and obnoxious as possible, terrorize quiet neighorhoods, and cause the most lawless noise pollution I can think of, is astonishing to me. They sound like broken, in-effecient, out-of-date, machines. They don't impress civilized people. I don't ride, but I have the heard the nice, modern, smooth hum of BMW motorcycle and was very impressed. This was a machine for people with respect for their surroundings and neighbors.

Harley Davidson riders represent the most disgusting, arrogant, ugly American at it's best. When they parade down streets in my neighborhood, I flash them the one-finger salute. When they wake me up at 4:00 AM after drinking at local bars...I wish I could puncture their tires. These noise-makers should be illegal and cops should issue very expensive tickets to the a-holes that threaten peaceful people with their noise and rage.

Does the HD make you feel secure about your limited mental abilities and your questionable manhood? Grow UP!!

Oct. 17 2010 11:40 AM
Dave from Colorado

This will draw ire, but my experiences with Harley Davidson motorcycles is not mixed, but poor. I rode old BMW classics which definitely made me look anti establishment. By appearances, I was not in the go-fast fancy schmancey bikes or gear. But in my many travels all over the country, almost consistently, Harley riders acted liked stuck up snobs and wouldn't so much as wave.

Tho I had many experiences, two define them. Years ago my wife and I pulled under an old gas station awning to duck a thunder storm that was passing through. 30 seconds later a Harley puled to within two feet of us to do same. As I always did, I said "Howdie!" The dude did not look at us, did not acknowledge us, nothing. It was the epitome of acting the Harley persona. The dude was in his "Harley role", aka being a world class jerk. Yeah yeah, real independent. A real rebel. Gag me with a spoon... this demeanor I see almost always.

While riding through the Black Hills, saw a broken down cycle. It was a Harley. Parts all over the road shoulder. It was getting dark. I stopped and as I always did, I said "Howdie! Need any help?" The dude blew me off with a terse "No" and turned his back on me, even though he definitely needed some assistance.

Add to this just passing Harleys. The Harley riders never waved, gave hand signs, nodded, they Harley ever started (sorry, couldn't resist that old joke), nothing.

Experiences like this were constant. My old bikes, my gear, everything about my ride including my appearance should have opened at least a small door. But these experiences were so consistent, I gave up. Maybe it has changed, but for years and years, this opinion was not something I developed, it was forced on me by the many Harley riders who rode around like that were all that and more, and I finally just stopped trying.

To this day, when I see a Harley, I could care less, and when we are coming up onto a stopped or broken down cycle I will say "probably a Harley" and 9 times out of 10, 'tis.

I didn't make this so. Harleys? And its fiction? You can have 'em. I made a far better sociable, friendlier choice in old BMers. And they start and run and Harley ever break down. And other non Harley riders at least, wave.

Oct. 16 2010 05:24 PM
Cat from Kansas City

I wanted to thank Jay Allison on his reporting about Harley Davidson motorcycles. I no longer ride but when I did, I wouldn't ride anything but a Harley. I loved his enthusiasm and really appreciated the sound quality when they were recording the "loudest pipes" brought back wonderful memories. Don't worry about the minivan, Jay! It includes the wife and kid! Most Harley's can't boast that!

Oct. 15 2010 04:21 PM

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