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American Motorcycle Renaissance a Long Time Coming for U.S. Bikers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

In 1953, the Indian Motorcycle Co. rolled out its last gleaming Blackhawk Chief. And for the next four decades, America had but one serious motorcycle maker: Harley-Davidson Inc.

Italy boasted a handful of manufacturers during many of those years. So did England--and England is an island. The even smaller island nation of Japan had several bike builders that were turning out chain-driven road rockets by the freighter load.

For bikers in this country--a nation with 3.9 million miles of highway, a film canon that includes “Easy Rider” and “The Wild One” and a collective consciousness that yearns endlessly for the open road--it was all a bit embarrassing.

Seemingly overnight, however, those who had pined for a big, kidney-kicking American bike, but not necessarily a Harley, have a host of choices.

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Three major manufacturers--Buell, which was born in a barn; snowmobile maker Polaris, which is building a new bike called the Victory; and Excelsior-Henderson, an old name revived by two brothers who were sick of their Harleys--are building bikes. Numerous small shops are crafting Harley clones, $20,000 to $30,000 custom bikes hand-built largely of Harley aftermarket parts. And as the domestic motorcycle industry enjoys its seventh straight year of growth after two decades of decline, a coalition of California and Toronto investors is making the umpteenth effort to resurrect Indian.

Harley’s Role

The renaissance of American motorcycle making--based mostly in small Midwest towns like Buell’s home of East Troy, Wis.--has been largely funded by nostalgic baby boomers who have discovered cruisers, the low-slung, big-engined, nowhere-to -go-and-no- hurry-to-get-there bikes.

In no small way, Harley has helped power the market--and its own competition. More than a decade after the federal government tossed the Milwaukee-based company a life jacket by placing tariffs on some foreign-made bikes, Harley has remade itself and can’t keep up with demand. Polaris and Excelsior-Henderson, among other newcomers, are unapologetically courting those at the bottom of the Harley waiting list.

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But as much as anything, the new era has been ushered in by a motley mix of gear heads who began by building motorcycles in their garages, by small-time bike mechanics and big-time companies that saw in cruisers a niche too big for even Harley to fill, and by cyclists who after decades of waiting for an American motorcycle were willing to put up $1,000 as down payments on bikes they had never seen, let alone ridden.

“I would have liked to buy an American bike years ago, but they just didn’t have one for me,” said Terry Makinen, a just-retired electronics worker from Waukegan, Ill. Taking a shot at the troubled Harley of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s, he said: “I liked riding my motorcycle. I didn’t much like having it in the shop.”

So he bought Japanese bikes. In the 1960s, he rode a Honda 450; later his bike of choice was a Yamaha Virago. In the early 1990s, he and his wife, Cyndi, trolled the shores of Lake Michigan on motorcycling’s equivalent of the motor home, a Honda Gold Wing. But, he said, “it just wasn’t fast enough.”

When Makinen read about a new $13,000 cruiser called the Victory, a bike with an engine bigger than those in some Eastern European cars and with such modern equipment as fuel injection, he put in his order and laid down his cash.

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That was last March. The bike didn’t arrive until October, and when it did, it was the wrong color. He took it anyway.

“Look at that,” the silver-bearded Makinen cooed recently, lifting a dust cover and proudly revealing a 600-pound black, red and chrome cruiser--one of the very first to roll off the Victory line in Spirit Lake, Iowa. “Not bad, huh? And it’s fast.”

Despite this country’s cycle-friendly infrastructure, building bikes here has never been easy.

The United States, unlike other countries, has long viewed motorcycles as potentially hazardous toys for the thickheaded rather than as an economical way to get to the office. Perhaps equally problematic has been the fact that those building bikes have frequently been more adept at popping wheelies than balancing books.

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In the first half of this century, the U.S. boasted dozens of motorcycle manufacturers that turned out what were essentially gas-powered bicycles for leather-helmeted thrill seekers. Harley, Indian and the original Excelsior-Henderson--the Big Three--dominated the market. But by the time Marlon Brando’s “The Wild One” was released in 1954, introducing the motorcycle as a pop culture harbinger of trouble, Harley was the only one left.

The U.S. market for motorcycles was not truly tapped until the 1960s. And it was the Japanese who did so, leaving fans of American motorcycles to sulk and hang signs that can still be seen at bike shops and roadhouses from here to Hollywood: “Parking for American Motorcycles Only.”

The Japanese introduced inexpensive, well-made, fuel-efficient designs, and they were soon selling more motorcycles than everyone else combined, said Don J. Brown, an Irvine-based consultant who has followed the industry for three decades.

In 1960, Americans bought 60,000 motorcycles. In 1970, they bought 750,000. During the oil crisis of 1973, sales peaked at 1.5 million. All but 40,000 or so were manufactured in other countries, the vast majority in Japan.

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During 1998, a year in which a motorcycle show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York made some art critics gag but drew record crowds, Americans bought about 817,000 motorcycles and all-terrain vehicles.

That figure is far below the 1973 peak, but the average bike today costs about $10,000, compared with $1,000 25 years ago ($3,230 in 1998 dollars). The market perhaps has never been stronger, analysts say.

Even though Japanese makers concentrated on lighter, less expensive bikes and left the heavyweights to Harley-Davidson, management at the company had become so disorganized and quality control so poor, that in 1983 Harley asked the government to step in. It did, placing tariffs on some foreign-made bikes for four years.

Even as domestic manufacturing reached a nadir, two things were happening that would help relaunch the U.S. industry: A Harley engineer and weekend racer named Erik Buell began, out of a sense of guilt, to build his own motorcycles. And baby boomers, who had learned to ride on the ubiquitous Japanese bikes, began to grow relatively wealthy and unabashedly nostalgic.

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A young mechanical engineer at Harley in the early ‘80s, Buell earned his living designing slow, heavy hogs, as Harleys are affectionately known. But he was a racer at heart and spent his weekends ripping around local tracks on the best race bikes--built in Japan or Italy.

Still, “times were tough. People were getting laid off at Harley,” Buell, 48, recalled recently. “I couldn’t be racing around the track on other people’s motorcycles.”

To ease his conscience, he began building his own bike, shaping the frame in his barn, piecing together cannibalized carburetors in his garage. It would take until 1993 and the first of two cash infusions by Harley, which last year bought most of his company. But eventually Buell would prove that it was possible to build and sell new motorcycles in the U.S.

“There’s always been some appeal to a bike that’s built here, by other blue-collar people,” said Buell, who doesn’t mind chatting in his office but would rather show off the cool new gas tanks at his assembly plant next door.

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“It’s like, ‘Yeah, yeah, our guys built it here.’ ”

The motorcycles his guys build--muscular, fast-cornering, slightly asymmetrical sportbikes--will probably sell a very respectable 6,000 units this year. And they aren’t the bikes most in demand.

The boomers want cruisers.

No pink-and-green plastic fairings. No screeching engines. “Motorcycles that look like motorcycles, sound like motorcycles,” Makinen said.

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When Harley couldn’t make enough of them, Dave and Dan Hanlon of Belle Plain, Minn., figured this was their chance.

They’d been griping for years anyway.

“We’d go to a rally and everybody was riding the same motorcycles we were, the same Harleys,” Dave recalled.

In the cruiser world, that’s like going to the prom and finding half the other girls wearing your dress.

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So the brothers acquired the Excelsior-Henderson name. They took out loans, gleefully putting their Harleys up as collateral. They borrowed money from friends and the state of Minnesota, and they eventually went to Wall Street, securing enough capital to build a 160,000-square-foot plant in their hometown.

The first production Super X, which sells for $18,000, rolled out earlier this month.

As with Polaris’ Victory, the idea behind the Super X was to build a classic, meaty American cruiser, but with all the high-tech goodies Harley has largely forgone.

Speed Bumps Lurk

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Despite the glee of riders, potential pitfalls remain for the new bike makers.

With Harley now owning 98% of Buell, the upstart company is financially secure but must work to protect its quirky niche: maker of sportbikes that are not the fastest, not the smoothest but are relatively comfortable for sportbikes and, equally important, welcome at Harley gatherings.

Polaris, which in addition to snowmobiles also makes all-terrain vehicles and personal watercraft, has a network of dealers already in place. But although the performance of the Victory has won it acclaim, some reviewers have complained that during their test rides, the bike didn’t turn enough heads.

Excelsior-Henderson may face the toughest challenges of all. After several years, the company has spent tens of millions of dollars and just recently got its first bikes to market. The Super X--which won’t reach California showrooms until spring--needs to be a hit, analysts say.

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For its part, Harley is ratcheting up production as quickly as it can, from 137,000 motorcycles in 1997 to 148,000 in 1998 and more than 160,000 this year. It wants to keep buyers on the road and off its waiting lists as well as to head off the competition.

All in all, after the last few decades, the whole scene seems like a slow ride down a windy road in a pair of wraparound rose-colored glasses.

After all, for $30,000, a father-and-son team at Titan Motorcycle Co. in Phoenix will build you the lowest, loudest chrome-shrouded Harley clone you could imagine, all by hand. Or you can pick up a Boss Hoss--a motorcycle frame, two wheels and a 283-cubic-inch Chevrolet V-8 engine that weighs half a ton and goes zero to 100 mph in six seconds. Indian unveiled a clone-style prototype at a January motorcycle show in Toronto. Although you can’t order an Indian motorcycle yet, you can buy an Indian leather jacket.

Back in Waukegan, Makinen could hardly be happier. The Victory sissy bar he ordered for his wife just arrived. So did the wind screen. He might even like this red-and-black paint job more than the blue one he originally ordered.

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The day the thermometer hits 50 degrees, the Makinens are gone.


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