READ THE FORWARD TO ROAR AND THUNDER BY GEORGE SNYDER
The press of wind whipping legs, arms, buffeting the face around a shield; leaning with the machine around corners and curves; firmness of the seat, knees pressing the tank between them; smell of the road—household cooking, cigarette smoke, exhaust fumes, roadside plants and flowers; sounds from motorcycle pipes; the hum of tires on asphalt; changing pitch of engine while shifting gears; eyes darting left, right, up, down, knowing where surrounding vehicles are located, looking everywhere for trouble—expecting it, ready for it; hands curled around handlebar grips; fingers pulling and releasing clutch and brake levers; twisting the throttle—pull of acceleration; lifting and pressing feet to shift gears and to brake; feeling at one with, an extension of, soul connected to...the machine. These sensations I have experienced while riding a motorcycle, one of the most magnificent machines invented by man.
The prime influence to motorcycle development came from two manufacturers: the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company and the Motorcycle Division of Honda Motors. No other single brand influenced American riding life more than these two. My lifetime search for the perfect motorcycle has so far taken me through five decades and twenty different machines. I bought my first two-wheeled vehicle, a 2hp Cushman motor scooter in 1952 at age 14, during a time when the post WWII motorcycle scene saw an emerging market from the British. Machines named Triumph, Norton, Ariel, BSA (Birmingham Small Arms), AJS/ Matchless were imported, and dominated American highways, growing to their zenith in the sixties and early seventies.
The European front of the Second World War saw 300,000 motorcycles involved, carrying supplies, running communication, transporting riders of importance, going where four wheel vehicles could only look. Some had fire power mounted in front that allowed the rider to shoot back. Before WWII Harley- Davidson even produced motorcycles in Japan called the “Rikuo,” used as the Emperor’s escort and by the Japanese army against us. Subsequent wars relied less on motorcycles. A few V-twin Harleys were used in Korea, but Vietnam, Desert Storm, Iraq and Afghanistan were fought with helicopters and tanks. Today the United States Marines use a diesel-converted Kawasaki KLR dual purpose machine, the KLS 650 that will do 80mph and give 120mpg, available to the general public in the spring of 2006. Military also use the “Rokon Trail Blazer,” a two-wheel drive through torque converter, odd-looking cross between motorcycle and scooter. It uses a 146cc Chrysler outboard engine with 8 hp at 7,000 rpm, goes about 30mph, and carries its fuel and water in the rims. But it was the Second World War that used more motorcycles than any other conflict.
During World War Two America sent Harleys and Indians. The 500cc (30.50 cu.in.) Indian was heavy and slow. The more popular 750cc (45cu.in.)V-twin Harley reached 85mph and the factory sent 88,000 of them into battle.
The British relied on 350cc singles from Matchless, Ariel, Triumph, and Royal Enfield. Before the war Royal Enfield built a factory in India and the 350cc (21cu.in.) “Bullet” became the most popular motorcycle in Asia. Today the Bullet is 500cc and India still cranks out the sedate utilitarian two-wheel work horse. In recent years they have even been exported to the U.S., selling for around $4,000. You can pick up one new in India for about $1,400.
The German enemy used a BMW (Bavarian Motor Works) R75 that hit 70mph and was used often with sidecars. There were a few Zundapp, basically a BMW wannabe. Even Harley once had an opposed twin for combat. The Beemer engine was developed from airplanes; one powered the infamous “Red Baron” biplane during WWI. Uniquely adaptable for sidecars, BMW was first to introduce supercharging in later racing years. They were also the first motorcycle ever to use hydraulic damping telescopic forks. German engineering and craftsmanship showed in the Beemer a type of reliability other motorcycles tried for but seldom gained. On road and off-road, slogging through rutted mud trails or humming along a smooth highway, during a time long before a specialized off-road motorcycle was ever designed or built, more BMWs have been ridden around the world than any other brand of motorcycle.
The Italians, often called “fanatical fighters for lost causes” went from enemy to defeated ally and the army rode a Moto Guzzi 500cc that reached 80mph. Piaggi Aircraft supplied small air dropped scooters that they ended up naming the Vespa (wasp).
After the war, homecoming GI’s refused to accept the type of transportation American manufacturers shoveled out at them, in cars or motorcycles. They had been exposed to driving that was fun—and quick, nimble motorcycles easily adapted for off-road use. Rather than the dowdy Chevy or Plymouth they could wheel around in a zippy MG or Jaguar or Austin Healy. And rather than the behemoth Harley or Indian, there was the lighter, faster Triumph or BSA or Norton with a powerful 650cc (40 cu.in.) vertical twin engine and a four-speed foot shift. A big safety factor issued by British ads was that their motorcycles could be shifted without taking your hands off the handlebars. No foot clutch with a gas tank hand shift.
Harley-Davidson did work to compete with the British bikes. They dragged out the old Army 750cc (45cu.in.) side-valve, flat-head V-twin engine and put it in a smaller frame, introduced hand clutch, foot shift, and called it the “K” model. It looked sexy but was a performance slug. They went racing with it but it could only compete against 500cc (30.50cu.in.) British twins, which the governing body, the AMA (American Motorcycle Association, not to be confused with the current American Motorcyclist Association) sanctioned and would not allow 650cc (40cu.in.) overhead valve engines to compete at the same level. The Harley engine went to 883cc and became the Sportster which was physically small enough for a woman to ride. Later the engine was pumped to 1200cc, although the Sportster remained a physically small motorcycle, and to a few red-neck, slow-witted, simple-thinking big Harley riders it was called “the bitch bike,” just as passengers always rode “the bitch seat.”
Except for BMW, in no way could a motorcycle of that era be called reliable. At least not in the way a car was reliable. A trip of over 200 miles was an adventure. With the British it was the electrics, as if England manufacturers (Lucas) never learned how to make a decent electrical switch. The Harley’s and Indians vibrated so hard things kept falling off, and they handled so badly any road with tight curves had the rider telling falling down stories. Plus the big V- twins took 25 to 30 kicks just to get them running, and did they ever leak oil. Except for the BMW reliability in motorcycles did not occur until Honda started exporting their machines.
After the war, a Japanese mechanic, Soichiro Honda, took one look at the bombed out devastated parking lot that used to be Japan and decided people would need a cheap way to get around. His tiny business supplied piston rings for the re-emerging Toyota car company. In 1947 he found some generator engines for army field telephones and installed them in bicycle frames. He quickly sold them all. Most motorcycle companies, including Harley-Davidson, started the same way, small engines in bicycles. Honda’s first production “Dream” motorcycle, a 98cc two-stroke, came out in 1949. It was called the Dream D. In 1951 Honda released the Dream E, a 146cc four-stroke. Then in 1952 came the first Cub, a 50cc two-stroke that later became four-stroke, and Honda Motors was established on the motorcycle scene. Although popular throughout Asia, the tiny buzz-bombs were no threat to mighty Harley-Davidson.
Yamaha came late to the motorcycle arena but the name goes back to 1880 when clockmaker Taracusa Yamaha founded Nippon Gakkin Company building clocks. He died in 1916 just when the company started making pianos. During the war Yamaha produced metal aircraft propellers for the Japanese effort. In 1950 they came out with a two-stroke 125cc “Red Dragonfly” motorcycle and Yamaha Motor Company Ltd was founded.
Suzuki made treadle-type cotton looms from 1908 but their plants were destroyed in 1945. After the war, with a bad silk market, Suzuki branched out making electric heaters and farm implements. In 1952 they introduced a 7hp 36cc two-stroke engine clipped on a bicycle they called the “Atom.” Their first motorcycle, a one-cylinder 90cc machine came out in 1954.
Kawasaki started aircraft design and metallurgy in 1924 then after the war, in 1949, began producing engines for motorcycles. Their close relationship with BMW helped in design work. Their first motorcycle, based in the “Meihatsu” subsidiary company of Kawasaki Aircraft emerged in 1954. In 1960 they bought “Meguro Motorcycles” that had been building four-cycle, single cylinder motorcycles since the war, from 60cc to 250cc, and built their own plant, Kawasaki Motorcycles.
In 1956, my sailor buddies and I hit the beach off our aircraft carrier in Yokohama where we rented motorcycles. Young, dumb and full of juices, our antlers were out, hard and sharpened. After getting the bikes we swung by to negotiate with “Mamma-San” and picked up our young, adorable whores then rode up, down and yonder tearing up the Japanese landscape while our girls squealed with delight. My ride was a 250cc four-cycle, single-cylinder Meguro, a brand I had never heard of but that surprised me with its snap. My precious cargo was barely noticed back there being such a tiny package. When she held on for dear life, it felt mighty fine.
Kawasaki clung longest to two-cycle engines before switching to the four-cycle pioneered by Honda. Even as late as 1973 their Mach III had a three-cylinder two-stroke, wild/crazy handling, 498cc, 60hp @ 8,000 rpm screamer that weighed 395 pounds and streaked along at 119 mph. Kawasaki later followed Honda, Suzuki, and Yamaha with inline four-cylinder, four-cycle engines.
In Britain, besides the big builders of vertical twins like Triumph and BSA, a motorcycle factory with a short history - 1950 to 1955 - blasted on the scene with a remarkable machine. Howard R. Davis lent his initials to the 61cu.in. V-twins, and called them the Vincent HRD. Handling left much along the roadside but they did move along. Guaranteed out of the box to do 125 mph, with names like Black Shadow and Black Lightening—they came in any color you wanted as long as it was black. In 1955, the last year for mighty Vincent, a Black Lightening hit a track speed of 185 mph without supercharger or turbo.
As for big bikes in those days, there were no choices of 1100 cc, 1500cc, 1800cc, or 2,000cc. Classification was divided to: big bikes, 650cc to l,000cc with Norton and Moto Guzzi later coming out with an 850cc. Middleweights were 300cc (Honda later made several 305cc) to 450cc and 500cc. Lightweights were anything under 300cc; that included classifications of 250cc, 197cc and 125cc, with several less popular models in between. The U.S. had their big elephants, the 72cu.in. Harley-Davidson; and the 80cu.in. Indian Chief with side-valve flat-head engines.
Ah, Indian and the legendary Chief. In 1925 the Indian factory at Springfield, Massachusetts employed 3,000 people in three shifts and was one of the largest motorcycle factories in the world. By 1953 the last Indian Chief had rolled off the assembly line. The factory and everything connected to it was sold to Associated Motor Cycles of London. They brought out British looking Indians named Arrow (250cc) and Warrior (500cc) that enjoyed a short run of moderate success. In the nineties a try to revive the big Chief here in the U.S. had an abysmal parts network and faded quickly to oblivion. A duplicate experience happened in 2007. And again in 2012.
Twice the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company almost went under due to a combination of the times, bad management, greed, arrogant leadership, and some say a bad product—traits that bring companies down even today. Another outstanding flaw, their engineering people had a habit of releasing drastic changes to unsuspecting riders before they were adequately tested. The Harley rider became research and development through many justified complaints. During the early thirties, production fell 80%, caused mostly by the Great Depression. Nobody had money to buy a car or motorcycle. It was hard enough to get food. In 1935 Harley introduced a 61cu.in. overhead valve engine with wrinkled looking rocker covers. It became known as the “Knucklehead.” It was so popular it turned the company around.
Harley-Davidson survived the beginning British invasion after WWII but during the late sixties quality of their machines was so bad they could no longer match the better built British twins and sales started to ease down. In 1965 they went public. It was the same year they introduced the “Electra Glide” with electric starter. But they were in trouble. Bangor Punta tried a hostile takeover that failed. The new generation of Davidson and Harley was not as enthusiastic about motorcycles as their parents had been. After all it was the sixties. There was a shooting war going on in Vietnam. Everybody had some cause to push, each lumpy with its own lunatic fringe. Many interests competed for attention of young folks. A motorcycle company was part of the enemy establishment. Negotiations started between management of Harley-Davidson and OMC, the outboard outfit, but fell through, and in 1968 the company was sold to American Machine and Foundry (AMF) that made bowling balls and other sporting goods. From the beginning it was obvious Harley-Davidson would be just a sideline for the new owners and only 15,475 units were sold that year. By contrast Honda production reached 10 million units worldwide, and while Honda still begged Americans to set up dealer networks, at home throughout Asia they were the motorcycle leader. Nobody appeared happy with the sale. Bill Davidson was kept as CEO but had no authority in the decision making process. Before the sale, Japanese manufacturers Honda, Yamaha, Kawasaki and Suzuki privately offered to float a loan to Harley-Davidson but they were arrogantly and promptly rejected. Davidson and Harley elders told their children to unload all stock in the company because under AMF the factory would go under in a matter of months. If that happened there would no longer be an American motorcycle on the roads of America. The offspring obeyed and thereby ended their association with the company. Under AMF leadership Harley-Davidson quality became atrocious. The machines even looked bad, like something a kid would throw together in his back yard. An electric starter meant rather than kicking and kicking you wore the battery down trying to get the thing to run. Vibration continued to spew parts along the highways and byways of America.
The debate over whether AMF saved or wrecked Harley-Davidson continues. If AMF had not taken over, there would be no Harleys today. Although Harley became a step-child in status, AMF did pump a lot of cash into the company, badly needed cash to stay alive. Harley-Davidson barely survived British motorcycle popularity. But export of the English vertical twins was already in decline and that trend would continue, from 71,000 bikes in 1969 to 3,100 in 1981. There was a new kid in town, and Harley-Davidson would never make it through the Japanese motorcycle invasion—unless they had some powerful help.
In 1969 Honda came out with what may have been the greatest motorcycle ever built up to that time: the Honda in-line four-cylinder, 5-speed, front disc brake, 4-pipe exhaust, electric start CB750K.The machine was great looking, decent handling, civilized, over 120mph fast, reliable enough to go 100,000 miles, docile at low speed and gave over 50mpg, and it sold for about $2,500. Honda touted it as a modern affordable super bike. It was unlike anything that had ever been produced before and it knocked the entire motorcycle industry right on its tail.
Harley-Davidson had already tried to compete. To counter the rising sales of affordable lightweight British and Japanese machines, they had imported the German DKW 125cc and called it a “Hummer.” The engine had also been used in the British BSA “Bantam.” It was fairly reliable for its day; one had been ridden across North America by a British lady librarian. In response to the slightly larger engine market, they imported an odd looking Italian Aermachi in 250cc and 350cc and called it the “Sprint.” But these imports were not real Harley-Davidsons built in the good old United States of America, and real Harley riders knew it. So did buyers. Although sales of the “Hummer” were adequate, and there was mild success racing the 350cc Aermachi, the imports later faded in a fog.
The seventies and early eighties were a decade of many poorly made American manufactured products. Poor quality was a disease that spread through the world, not just with motorcycles but with everything from cars to washing machines. The factory heads stated their products were “good enough” for the buying public as they took the profits and ran. Little was pumped back into factories to create better research and development, automation, and inventory control. Because of this the American steel industry was devastated by more efficient, better produced, cheaper Japanese steel.
Japanese motorcycles were put together like a watch. Though they got their horsepower through high RPM, they just ran and ran. The worst you could do to them was not ride them. They did not take kindly to just sitting.
For Harley-Davidson something clearly had to be done if the United States of America was to continue producing a home grown motorcycle. The management at Harley-Davidson threatened the UJM (Universal Japanese Motorcycles: Honda-Yamaha- Kawasaki-Suzuki) with heavy tariffs unless the Japanese manufacturers floated them a $40 million loan—a loan they had refused before. Harley had no authority to execute such tariffs so they went begging to the government. Although members of the UJM had to compete with each other, and all other motorcycles of the world, they had a friendly camaraderie among themselves, an attitude they wanted Harley-Davidson to join. But when threatened with high tariffs they cooled and backed off with friendliness. And later Yamaha was the first to emerge with a motorcycle designed to compete directly with Harley, the V-twin Virago.
Then, as if Harley-Davidson didn’t have enough problems, in 1974 Honda knocked the motorcycle industry on its tail again by introducing the Honda GL1000 Gold Wing, with an engine size aimed right at the big twin. Except the Wing was a water cooled, shaft drive, opposed four with the reliability of the best cars. Kawasaki quickly followed with its own versions of the Wing, and Harley-Davidson felt itself going under once again.
President Ronald Reagan heard the cries and somebody in Washington crunched the numbers. With the new decade of the eighties, sales of motorcycles with engines more than l,000cc (61cu.in.) tallied up to: Harley-Davidson 33%, Honda 26%, Kawasaki 16%. Big Japanese motorcycles were selling more units in America than the home grown product. Worse, most law enforcement traffic officers in the nation, except in Wisconsin, rode a Kawasaki, not a Harley-Davidson. The tariff was made law.
Whether it was a call to patriotism, “outlaw element” worship by a certain type of rider, or what was up to then an underground cult, the “myth” of Harley- Davidson grew like locusts engulfing a rice field. “I’m an American, no stinkin’ rice burner for me. If you’re a real American, you ride a Harley.” But the machines were ridiculously expensive and in 1981 AMF executives had all but given up on the Harley-Davidson and quit pumping money into it. To spur the budding interest movement along Willie G. Davidson, AMFs Vaughn Beales, Harley-Davidson president Charles Thompson, thirteen Harley executives, and four banks, came up with $100 million and bought out AMF. The Harley-Davidson motorcycle was back in the family, although those with the last name Davidson or Harley became more of a figurehead than part of leadership. The proud motto became: “The Eagle Soars Alone.”
For new company owners the immediate engineering priority was two-fold. Introduce a revolutionary, and most important, reliable V-twin engine, and get the vibration away from the rider. The name of the engine was the Evolution “Evo.” The German Porsche Design Group, contracted to draw the original engineering plan—the Nova Project—was told the engine had to be leak free, trouble free, reliable and built at a reasonable cost. Harley-Davidson would not start selling the engine until it had gone one million test miles. It was a far different approach from the days when they threw it together and shoved it out on the rider. The evolution engine was introduced in the 1984 Harley-Davidson, complete with rubber mounting so only the engine and frame vibrated, and belt drive. The volcano erupting myth of Harley-Davidson continued to explode, and has not abated to this day.
In 1995 the “potato-potato-potato” engine sound that the Japanese never could duplicate became a Harley-Davidson registered trademark. There are those who think it is the sound of a yard tractor with a faulty muffler. Japan has produced many wannabe Harleys. They are popular because they look like a Harley but have water cooling, shaft drive —and with crankshaft counter balancers are vibration-free —and more reliable. But they are not accepted among the loyal myth worshipping real Harley riders, except with meaningless lip service, and likely never will be. Those who believe in the myth enjoy their machines. They have learned to live with its faults while praising its virtues, of which it has many.
2001 celebrated Harley-Davidson’s 100th birthday, a remarkable accomplishment considering the history and the product. The Harleys came into Milwaukee by the thousands. Most arrived by trailer and in the back of pickup trucks to be off-loaded and ridden around locally. In 1999 I had taken the opportunity to tour the Harley-Davidson engine manufacturing factory in Milwaukee. I watched all the parts go together in a clean work environment. I saw the division between engines destined for California, and those for the rest of the world. I looked in wonder at engineering blueprint archives where every part for every engine ever built by Harley-Davidson was on file. I was told every part could be machined on request. I did not ask about cost. I listened as each engine after the assembly line was run for at least 45 seconds. And run hard too. I did feel a certain pride. There is absolutely nothing on this planet as American as the big V- twin Harley Davidson motorcycle. As I did then, I do now wish them continued success.
Though I have never yearned to own a Harley Davidson, I do ride them from time to time to see how much they have changed, if at all, and what improvements have been made. My son has owned two. He later went with a Honda Shadow, but has now returned to the fold with a new full dresser Harley..
Motorcycles in the 21st Century have developed greatly from the tiny engine in a bicycle with pedals. The trend today is to make them look like they belong on a race track. The 650cc (40cu.in.) engine in some machines puts out more than l00hp and zips along at 140+mph, an illegal speed on almost every road and highway on earth. I see the riders hunched over their tanks like a monkey climbing on a football and I wonder if that can be comfortable for hundreds of road miles. Harley-Davidson has listened to the demands for retro-design and now produces motorcycles for nostalgia, modern in engineering but designed like the machines of yesteryear. It does not, however, look like a trend. The new “wannabe Harleys” from Japan look sexy as a college cheerleader.
American, Japanese, Italian, British, German - the motorcycles of today are international. Honda and Kawasaki have factories in the U.S., and in 2002 China started producing the Honda “Today” motor scooter. The same year sales of the design award winning, wildly successful Honda Super Cub reached 35 million units. The popular Enfield Bullet 500cc, produced in India, is now exported to the United States. The Harley- Davidson Sportster is assembled in Mexico. It has been said that if all imported parts were removed from a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, there’d be nothing left to roll.
The trend these days is to look at motorcycling as a sport. For most they are no longer cheap, basic transportation. The big road burners get worse gas mileage than many cars. And their technological complication has moved them far away from the guy under the tree in his back yard with tool box in hand. They all need special tools. But there are still reliable older motorcycles out there for those of us who want something less complicated and more basic, and for a few of us, still look like motorcycles. Many early machines are still rolling along. “Keep 'em full of fresh oil and they’ll run forever.” That is truer than realized.
With better after-market parts and better oil, cars and motorcycles can be used for more miles and years than they ever have been. Many are available and affordable. The high prices for Harley-Davidson still keeps them out of reach for most riders. But many will mortgage the house, take out long term loans, and even critically stare at how much food their children are eating, just to own one.
In my lifetime I have owned 20 motorcycles and ridden over 250,000 miles. Though not the most experienced rider, I am a rider of experience. Some of the machines I owned were good, some were awful, one or two were outstanding. It has been a lifetime search for the perfect motorcycle, at least for me. It all started way back in 1944 when I was a young shaver of six...
ROAR AND THUNDER BY GEORGE SNYDER
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From Cushman motor scooter to 4-cylinder Honda, Roar and Thunder is a personal lifetime journey of owning and riding motorcycles. Solo or two-up, it tells of riding adventures through six western states, Canada and Mexico—what was going on at the time, and the changes in motorcycles and attitudes about them. There are twisty open roads, sand trails, quick boring freeways, traffic jams, high desert winds and blinding blizzards. The big motorcycle evens of the past are here—Death Valley Run, Indio, Lone Pine, Yuma Prison Run, Sunday Poker Runs, and just rides for burger and beers. Absent are Harley-Davidson only events. If motorcycles are part of your life, come along for the ride.