TCS Daily

Knucklehead Nation

By Ralph Kinney Bennett - May 22, 2003 12:00 AM

When I was a kid living in Rector, Pa., I slept on hot summer nights with my head next to the screen in my bedroom window, listening to the gentle ripple of the creek, the sigh of the wind in the sycamores, and the rip-roar of a distant motorcycle.

You see, there was this guy who lived somewhere in the hills out beyond Rector (which is just a country crossroads with a barking dog and a post office) and he rode a motorcycle. It was a Harley-Davidson, of course, an old pre-war knucklehead.

Late, late on some of those velvety summer nights, when the juke box had gone silent at the Rustic Inn, nearby, and the bars had closed in Ligonier, five miles away, I would hear this Harley knucklehead coming home. It had a very distinctive sound. Actually, it was much more than a sound. It was a complete personality - all muscle and music and manhood.

The sound would wake me from my sleep and I would hear that Harley descend the hill out of Ligonier and head east on Route 30, the Lincoln Highway. I could tell exactly where it was along the route home by the rising and falling of the engine. It produced an indescribably satisfying and celebratory flat out roar as it passed the swimming pool at Ligonier Beach. Then, in a few seconds, the tone would drop and deepen as the bike neared the McCutcheon house and the turn onto Route 381, the Rector road.

Closer and closer the sound of the V-twin came, its timbre changing, its exhaust popping with every turn in the road. Then it would open up in a glorious crescendo on the straight mile leading to the little hill at the edge of Rector. With a hoarse sort of whisper the bike came up the short, steep, curving hill. Then, a great ripping noise filled the night as the thing streaked down past the post office, across the little concrete bridge and past our house.

A curving slice of light from its headlamp would slash across the ceiling above me. Quickly I would rise on one elbow and watch through the other window as the tiny taillight, like a burning cigarette, disappeared around the curve at "Aunt" Sarah's house. The sound would diminish as the bike tore through the darkness on the winding macadam of 381, heading south into the forest and farmland of Cook Township.

I remember standing outside Huskey's store one day, feeling the heat radiating off the engine of that Harley, with its odd-shaped rocker covers (the source of the affectionate name knucklehead). I rode away on my second-hand Sears bicycle pretending I was astride that motorcycle. But no matter how many playing cards I attached to my spokes with clothespins I could not duplicate the delicious sound of that motor. It was true then and it's true today, nothing sounds like a Harley.

That was more than 50 years ago. And now Harley-Davidson is celebrating a century of building motorcycles. The deep rumble of their engines - a distinctive aural trademark with a lineage back to the company's first V-2 of 1909 - is known all over the world.

William Harley was 21 years old and his partner, Arthur Davidson, was 20 when the two set out to build a motor and bolt it onto a beefed up bicycle. Arthur's brothers, William and Walter, soon got involved in the project and a wooden shed in the Davidson backyard in Milwaukee, Wis., became their "factory." In 1903 they produced three hand-built motorcycles. They were actually a little late in the game. A sort of motorcycle mania had been sweeping along in the United States and Europe for some time.

A German, Dr. N.A. Otto had patented the first practical gasoline internal combustion engine in 1876. The four-stroke or "Otto" engine was rapidly refined, especially by a former assistant of Dr. Otto, one Gottlieb Daimler, who hit upon the idea of mating his little motor to a bicycle. In November 1886 a man with another name that would loom large in motor history, Wilhelm Maybach, successfully rode the smoking, popping Daimler-powered bike.

There was a prescience to the machine, a tribute to Daimler's keen engineering imagination. With its engine upright between the wheels and beneath the rider's seat, it foreshadowed modern motorcycle design. This may not seem much of a thing, but in ensuing years, as many adventurous mechanics, engineers and not a few charlatans pursued the motorcycle craze, they produced a gaggle of two-wheel contraptions worthy of Rube Goldberg.

Working from what was then (and still is) the classic bicycle frame, they couldn't seem to figure out where to put the motors. They bolted them to the handlebars and front fork with a drive belt (thickly twined rawhide) running to the front wheel. They affixed them directly to the front wheel hub. They attached them to the vertical bar just under the seat. They even tried placing the motor on an extended frame behind the back wheel.

Finally, in 1896, three Germans, the brothers Hildebrand and their assistant, Wolfmuller, produced a two-wheel vehicle expressly built for a motor, which was bolted low and amidships between the seat and the handlebars. It was the first motorcycle to actually look like one. In fact, they called it the Motorrad (English translation, motorcycle), apparently originating the term.

The final refinement came two years before the Harley-Davidson was born. Two French brothers, the Werners, designed and built a motorcycle with the now classic configuration. The aluminum crankcase of its single-cylinder engine was an integral part of the frame, low down and amidships. It was a handsome bike with a low center of gravity and fairly good weight distribution between front and rear wheels. The Werner layout, which gave a motorcycle better balance and helped both wheels to stick to the road, was a sensation on both sides of the Atlantic and widely copied.

The young men in the woodshed at Harley-Davidson knew they had many competitors in the motorcycle game. The most formidable would prove to be the Hendee Manufacturing Company, of Springfield, Mass., a bicycle maker that had introduced a motorcycle called the Indian in 1901. Many motorcycle makers thought they were replacing the horse and had a limitless market. But Harley and Indian and the scores of other manufacturers in the United States were up against something they did not grasp. It had to do with another company started the same year as Harley, 1903, by an inspired mechanic named Henry Ford.

America, the land of vast distances, was about to become the land of the long and open road and the affordable automobile. Thanks to Mr. Ford just about everybody who wanted to go somewhere could soon afford to do so on four wheels instead of two. The rapid advent of the cheap car meant an early withering of the motorcycle mania that blossomed before World War I.

By 1911, there were more than 150 motorcycle makers in America. By the 1930s they had dwindled to a handful. Motorcycles were used mostly by the police, some messengers, the military (Harley sold almost 20,000 machines to the U.S. Army in World War I) and a small contingent of oddball souls, leather-faced romancers dressed a little like aviators and chasing after an ineffable something that couldn't be found at the wheel of a touring car or even a rumble seat coupe. Only Harley and its greatest rival, the superb Indian, would survive the Great Depression. And Harley's biggest boost would be the 90,000 motorcycles it provided the military in World War II.

In Britain and Europe, on the other hand, motorcycles boomed. The Brough Superior, the Norton, the Wooler, Triumph, BSA, Vincent, Douglas, Scott, Panther, Ariel, are but a few of the names British motorcycle enthusiasts still conjure with. These and others competed with each other and with French and German makes in speed, reliability, innovation and prestige.

Meanwhile Harley constantly improved its position and its machines. Flatheads, panheads, knuckleheads, shovelheads; the wonderful motors with their distinctive sounds kept coming. Harley could build quiet bikes, too. An early nickname for Harley was "the silent gray fellow." Some Europeans scoffed at the huge displacement engines, fat seats and general brawniness of the Harleys, with their great wide teardrop fuel tanks, big tires and ever-smoother transmissions. But these were bikes suited to long rides over the country's hundreds of thousands of miles of paved roads.

And they looked good. No lean, ascetic, pinch mouth look. Harley's had an often imitated, never duplicated presence about them greater than the sum of the parts - gleaming paint and chrome, levers and tubes and pipes, springs and wires and braces, horns and huge headlights - all brought somehow harmoniously together in a kind of massive, streamlined complexity.

Indian, which made magnificent bikes, nonetheless went out of business in 1953. Harley was the only game in town. And it almost blew it. No need to dwell here on the vicissitudes of the last half of the Harley century. The company got sloppy and almost lost its way. Quality dropped even as the Japanese helped trigger a resurgence in motorcycling with a wide variety of innovative, fast and superbly made bikes. Harley had to beg for tariff protection while it tried to pick up the pieces of its heritage. But the company remade itself, rode out the storm and made a sensational comeback.

Now, more people ride motorcycles than ever before. They get on waiting lists for a Harley. There are better bikes, it can be argued (endlessly), but none, not even the Indian, carries with it the aura of two-cylinder gypsies, pirates, disguised bankers, cops in reflector sunglasses, fat daddies in chains and leather - the endless carnival catalogue of the "Hog" confraternity. This motorcycle is indeed "an American icon," and a tribute to the immeasurable indulgences of freedom - for when you get right down to it, there is little that is practical about motorcycles. And therein lies their lure.

They are dangerous and exhilarating.

They are an expression of individuality, even when they travel in packs.

They ride at the very edge between God-made and man-made, thrusting man into nature while saddled to sculpted steel - all at heart pounding speed. The trees, the clouds, images of the world as old as time, stream by, reflected in the gleaming paint and chrome of a teardrop gas tank on a time machine.

For a century Harley-Davidson has delivered this magic that cannot be explained, only experienced - like the sound of that knucklehead to a small boy on summer nights so long ago.

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