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Wild Thing

For 100 years, Harleys have fueled our road-warrior fantasies

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The early models gained traction with consumers because they were practical—and fun. A motorcycle could navigate the rutted dirt roads that often stranded cars, plus outrun and outlast most horse-drawn carriages.

Nowhere was the practicality of motorcycles so quickly understood as in the field of battle. During World War I, Harley and its main competitor, the Indian Motorcycle Company (maker of such models as the Chief and Arrow), furnished cycles to messengers and scouts at the muddy Western Front. Harley got the call again during World War II, producing 90,000 bikes for the United States and its allies.

After the war, plenty of Harley-riding vets came home wanting to cut loose. They formed motorcycle clubs and spent weekends roaring into towns, downing a few beers and then hitting the highway. No one thought that much about it until Hollister.

The rise of such rabble-rousing groups as the Hell’s Angels, who embraced Harleys from their early days in the 1940s, gave further currency to the rebel cliché. Ralph "Sonny" Barger, a founder of the Oakland chapter, claims that Angel modifications, such as moving the foot brake to the middle of the bike and increasing the horsepower, were quickly appropriated by the manufacturer. "When the rubber meets the road," Barger boasted in his 2001 autobiography, Hell’s Angel, "the yuppies and the RUBbers (rich urban bikers) will want what we want."

But Harley lost ground in the 1960s and ’70s when the Japanese—Honda, Kawasaki, Suzuki—invaded, flooding the U.S. market with less expensive, lighter and faster bikes. In 1969, manufacturing giant American Machine and Foundry bought the company and invested millions in retooling a plant. By the late 1970s, however, AMF had lost patience waiting for a turnaround; when 13 employees, including Willie G. Davidson, scraped up enough money—$80 million—to buy back the company in 1981, AMF was happy to oblige. "My decision was more emotional than financial," says Davidson. "If there was a chance to save this great institution, I wanted to be a part of it."

Harley cut costs and revved up sales; by the mid-1980s, the firm was cruising again. Today, even people who find motorcycling repellent know a Harley when they see one—or rather, hear one.

Of all its distinctive characteristics none is more familiar than the po-ta-to, po-ta-to, po-ta-to sound of the idling engine. That’s not by accident. It is the carefully engineered result of a design in which the pistons fire unevenly. The company could change it, but the emotional attachment is far too strong. "Not only can you hear it," says Bolfert, "you can feel it. It has a primal sound, like a heartbeat." And the beat goes on.

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