Lifestyle, attitude and shrewd selling

Review The road

August 27, 2006|By John Lindner | John Lindner,Sun Reporter

The Harley-Davidson Reader

Edited by Michael Dregni

Motorbooks, an imprint of MBI Publishing Co. / 348 pages / $24.95

Harley-Davidson owners know they've got a lot more riding on their bikes than their fannies.

Powered by a reputation that encompasses a passel of American virtues including patriotism, personal freedom and social rebellion, the Motor Company, as it's also known, delivers a distinctive, celebrated motorcycle. At the heart of its appeal are lifestyle and attitude. From its authorized apparel shops that will never bear the scent of 90-weight gear oil, to its freshly polished dealerships, Harley-Davidson has reaped a brand loyalty best illustrated by the vast mosaic of bodies on which its trademark is tattooed. In addition to the affection of riders, many of whom love the machine far more than they love the manufacturer, Harley-Davidson is an American marketing legend.

The company weathered long lean years throughout its history. Even today in some circles it suffers the after-effects of a poor reliability rap it earned under the ownership of American Machine and Foundry Company (AMF) from 1969 to 1981. After senior executives bought the company that year, Harley-Davidson solidified its standing as the premier American motorcycle manufacturer.

Under tremendous pressure from foreign competitors, Harley executives sought and received a short-term tariff on large-bore import bikes while they set about rebuilding the company.

Harley improved its staple big V-twin street bikes. Then it transformed its grease-stained hole-in-the-wall dealerships into shimmering biker boutiques. And finally Harley capitalized on its biker-cool cachet by slapping its brand on everything from underwear and jewelry to furniture and dog clothing.

The energetic entrepreneurs who run the company know that as long as there are passionate Harley riders there will be family and friends willing to buy them gifts for birthdays, holidays and special occasions. Enter the coffee-table book. They're safe bets. The forte of these things typically is color photography backed by brochure-style prose the writing of which is predicated on short attention spans. That is not the case with The Harley-Davidson Reader.

True, the book presents 200 images over 348 pages. But the mostly black-and-white photographs, reprints of movie posters, advertisements and book jackets are accompanied by little or no caption information. Decent eye candy, but after the first 100 images the second hundred seem redundant.

Another curiosity: The book is peppered with full pages dedicated to brief quotes from widely varied sources including celebrities, the movies Easy Rider and The Wild One, The New York Times and a snippet from an Arlo Guthrie song, to name but a handful. The desired effect appears to be furtherance of a mood. But that, like the images, is secondary.

The strength of this book is its extensive anthology of voices.

Reprinted here is Hunter S. Thompson's 1965 Nation article on the Hell's Angels - which preceded his book on the same topic and which established Thompson as the founding star of gonzo journalism.

A couple of pieces consider the infamous and overblown 1947 Hollister, Calif., biker party that welded the outlaw image onto American motorcycling. An excerpt from the autobiography of Sonny Barger, former president of the Hell's Angels Oakland chapter, rounds off the bad-boy offerings.

Befitting a man of action, Evel Knievel's entry fills but half a page. A longer piece by Ace Collins, Knievel's biographer, reveals how Bobby Knievel became Evel. Daredeviltry makes a stand in these pages, along with the winking admonition, "Kids, don't try this at home."

Two Davidsons get in on the action. Jean Davidson, granddaughter of Walter Davidson, H-D's co-founder and first president, delivers the foreword and a reminisence of her first ride. Her tone will be familiar to any Harley fan familiar with company publications such as H.O.G. Tales and Enthusiast. Far less familiar, however, is co-founder Arthur Davidson's 1914 condemnation of motorcycle racing in "motordromes" - prompted by the deaths of two racers and six spectators. His letter reveals an early reluctance on the part of the company to get involved in what Davidson calls the "racing game." One of the dead racers was his friend.

A literary tour de force, hardly. But The Harley-Davidson Reader does offer an effective overview of the events and perceptions that helped create and futher the Harley-Davidson legend.

Taken as a chorus, the voices in this anthology present themes that will resonate with true believers as deeply as the Harley engine's signature rumble.

John Lindner owns four Harley-Davidson motorcycles and three H-D themed coffee-table books.

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