(If you’ve missed any of our Birth of Bikers series, click here to catch up.)
As we learned in the last thrill-packed installment of Birth of the Bikers, by the late 1970’s, disenfranchised youth on both sides of the Atlantic were riding motorcycles, watching biker movies and enjoying the freedom of being in the wind. No doubt about it though, they picked up their cues on biker attitude, slang and style from the good ol’ U.S. of A. This meant that a true biker in Europe needed a Harley-Davidson to consider themselves part of the brotherhood.
In 1980 the Harley-Davidson 80 cubic inch FLT wore the King of the Highway crown as the ultimate touring bike. The Motor Company also unleashed their all-black Sturgis limited edition model Low Rider. At the same time, rumors of a possible buyback from AMF were flying around Daytona Bike Week. On February 26th, 1981, a group of senior executives from Harley signed a letter of intent with AMF to purchase H-D. The purchasing group was led by Vaughn Beals, an AMF executive in charge of Harley operations, and included Charles Thompson, company president; William G. Davidson and others in the company.
There’s no doubt that though quality control suffered during the AMF years, the sporting goods company also poured enormous capital into the Motor Company and into the development of new products such as the revolutionary Evolution motor. From 1969 to 1980, Harley’s revenues grew from $49 million to approximately $300 million. The return of the company to private ownership was completed on June 16th, 1981 and the shareholder group of the new Harley-Davidson Motor Company celebrated with a ride from the York plant to their Milwaukee plant letting the world know once and for all that “The Eagle Soars Alone.”
In 1982, the demand for heavy-weight motorcycles dropped by over 33,000 units compared to 1981 figures. Harley laid-off employees to bring production and inventories in line with demand. The Japanese continued to bombard America with middle-weight machines that were super-fast and ultra-dependable. In September of ’82, H-D petitioned the International Trade Commission for tariff relief from Japanese manufacturers who were building up inventories of unsold motorcycles in the U.S. On April 1st, 1983, President Ronald Regan imposed additional tariffs on all imported Japanese motorcycles 700cc or larger.
Proud Americans rallied to Harley-Davidson as the Motor Company improved its product and re-invented itself as a maker of dependable, quality machines. The Harley Owners Group (H.O.G.) was established in 1983 to give Harley riders a factory-sponsored motorcycle club to belong to. H.O.G. created rallies and events from local dealerships to national parties for bikers to attend. Within six years there were over 90,000 H.O.G. members worldwide.
Harley proudly introduced the 1340cc V2 Evolution engine on five models in 1984. The Porsche-designed v-twin motor was seven years in development and produced more power, was lighter, cooler running, and extremely oil-tight compared to its Shovelhead predecessor. The new FXST “Softail” gave the American biker a motorcycle hewn from the stuff of chopper legends. The bike featured hidden gas shocks, which gave the rear swingarm a hardtail look while offering some suspension to your backbone. The company began offering demo rides at their dealers, and in no time at all, up-scale babyboomers with disposable income, who had always had a soft spot in their hearts for Harleys, bought the new machines in record numbers.
Harley’s Chief Financial Officer, Rich Teerlink, guided the company to public ownership and in June of 1986 Harley-Davidson stock was offered on the New York Stock Exchange. 1987 saw the introduction of the FLHS Electra Glide Sport, the FLSTC Heritage Softail, the FXLR Low Rider Custom, and the 30th Anniversary Evo Sportster. In March of that year, Vaughn Beals announced that the company no longer needed the tariff relief to compete with the Japanese and terminated the five-year tariff early. This move was hailed by the press as one of the best public relations moves in history. At the same time, many used Harley Shovelheads showed up in Europe and bikers grabbed them and started chopping away to create their own custom scooters.
By the mid-to-late Eighties, new riders on new Harleys couldn’t help but notice motorcycle magazines’ coverage of such traditional biker parties as the Sturgis Black Hills Classic, Daytona Bike Week, and the Laconia Rally and Races. These new riders joined the old school bikers at rallies in droves and attendance tripled at the major rallies. The biker image, like it or not, was going mainstream in a big way.
At about this time, the aftermarket world was doing handstands to jump on the custom bike bandwagon and S&S Cycle was producing just about everything you’d need to build an entire Evo-style motor with all S&S performance parts. Custom bike builders like Arlen Ness, Donnie Smith, Dave Perewitz, and Ron Simms were building amazin’ chop jobs for big bucks, and new riders stateside were gobblin’ ’em up.
At the same time, America was becoming aware of epidemic illegal drug use in its cities and suburbs and the media was happy to play up the bad news. One percenter bike clubs were easy targets when pointing the finger at who might be supplying America with their pot and coke. A 1982 report from the FBI linked one percenter motorcycle clubs with the manufacture and distribution of drugs. It also cited a link between clubs and running prostitutes, offering contract murders, you name it. If it was illegal, one-percenters got blamed for it.
Law enforcement has long believed that motorcycle clubs are complex criminal organizations. The problem for them is that proving a club’s tie to organized crime is extremely difficult and demands major funding for long-term investigations. Sort of a catch 22. The R.I.C.O. Act was used in the 1970s and 80s in an effort to shut down the drug trade. Hells Angels Oakland Chapter President Sonny Barger was arrested on conspiracy and drug charges in 1979.
This particular case was a media circus lasting eight months. The court demanded that bulletproof glass be installed in the courtroom and that everyone in or out of the building was searched for weapons. Defense attorneys made the point that the R.I.C.O. Act is unconstitutional since a club cannot be held accountable for the actions of every member. When the case was concluded in July 1980, news magazines failed to report that after 17 days the jury could not reach a verdict on 32 of the 44 counts against Sonny, his wife Sharon and a few others.
Over time, the R.I.C.O. Act had decimated one-percenter clubs. Many patch holders were in prison, often on trumped-up charges, others went into hiding and some clubs collapsed entirely. As Harley-Davidson came out with their Evolution motor in the early 80s and white-collar workers took to riding new Harleys in droves, many one-percenter clubs were changing their image. Motorcycle clubs began getting involved with local charity projects, showing a new face to the public. If they were to survive they had to educate the public and prove that being a member of a motorcycle club did not make you public enemy number one.
Eventually, the media perceived this shift in outlaw attitude and reported on it. In 1990 the Los Angeles Times had a headline which read, “Hells Angels Make Good Neighbors in Ventura.” The piece had to do with the club’s ability to coexist with locals and mentioned their efforts at raising money for local charities.
While the world in general still considered outlaw motorcycle clubs to be populated by madmen, murders and miscreants, the average Harley riders in the Nineties were more likely to be doctors and lawyers, dentists and stockbrokers known as “weekend warriors” or “Rolex Riders” who brandished Born to be Mild tattoos that pronounced such mottos as “Live to ride, ride to brunch.” The two-wheeled world of bikers was changing fast.
To be continued…