Imagine a time before laptop computers and cell phones, a time when most men worked with their hands to earn a living for their families. It was not all that long ago. In 1984 Harley-Davidson was producing its last Shovelhead motors and its first Evolution motors. The oil-leaking, ride-it-and-repair-it world of blue-collar American motorcycles was coming to an end. Up until the advent of the Evo motor (as it was called) you had to have a tool kit strapped to your bike if you intended on riding it. Then the Evo-powered Harleys appeared on the scene and almost overnight, the two-wheeled world changed.
Traditional bikers looked at the Evo motor with disdain. The Harley faithful were never ones to accept change easily. There was even a popular T-shirt that proclaimed, “See no Evo, hear no Evo, ride no Evo.” But at the tail end of the Reagan era, many Americans had something called “disposable income” which could be used to purchase things they wanted to have but didn’t strictly have to have. A $16,000 motorcycle is NOT as essential as a roof over your head but a whole lot of upscale Americans went out in droves to buy new Harley-Davidsons.
Willie G. Davidson’s nostalgic Softail bikes reminded baby boomers of the motorcycles they grew up with. Basically, when you look at a Heritage Softail, something inside you says, “Now that’s a Harley.” The Softail line was not only a brilliant marketing move, but the bikes were also oil-tight and the Evo motor offered the first stock Harley that you could ride for 100,000 miles without needing a tool kit strapped to it. Remember that before the Evo, riders were used to having to tear their motor down every 20,000 miles for a rebuild.
The reliability of the Evo-powered Harley-Davidsons of the mid-1980s created an entirely new generation of Harley riders. For the first time, you didn’t need to have a lot of knowledge about engines to ride a Harley. Hell, anyone could do it. I remember walking into Bartels’ Harley-Davidson in Culver City back in 1984 and drooling all over a new Softail Custom. An old school biker was glaring at the machine and said to me, “You know what’s wrong with these new Harleys?”
“They’ll sell ’em to any rich jerk who wants one.”
You see, riding a motorcycle in America had become a brotherhood. If you rode a Harley, you were instantly a brother of the road. If your bike broke down by the side of the road, other bikers would stop and help you get your bike going again. If the bike needed more care than a roadside fix, they’d take you home, put you up for the night and get you and your scoot to the nearest reputable dealership the next day. We took care of our own because no one else would ever dare to stop and help “one of those damned long-haired scooter tramps.” That’s why Harley riders still wave to each other as they pass. It’s an unspoken rule… we’re brothers.
The Evo motor changed all that. I ran my hand over the leather seat of that Softail Custom in Bartels’ and up walked salesman Gene Thomason. Gene’s a lifelong biker and knows where all the bodies are buried if you know what I mean. He smiled and said,” You know what they say, there are two kinds of people in this world, the ones who own a Harley and those that wish they did.” Gene was right. Baby boomers came out of the woodwork to buy the new Harleys. Some were empty nesters. They had owned a motorcycle in High School or college, got rid of it when they had a family to raise “because the wife says them murdercycles is too damned dangerous.” Once the kids were out of the house, these guys started looking at the Harleys with affection. They’d bring their wives into dealerships and sit them on the passenger seats. Back then, many Harley dealerships would let you take the bike around the block if you were a really serious potential buyer. That cinched it. Empty-nest couples found a new way to connect with each other on the roads of America aboard a powerful, gleaming Harley-Davidson. Gene sold me that Softail Custom by the way. I traded in a leaky Shovelhead for it.
The new bikes drew a lot of business professionals who had never been on a motorcycle before. These white-collar guys saw a new Harley as a status symbol. After all, most blue-collar Shovelhead riders couldn’t afford to just plunk down $16,000 for a new Evo bike. But doctors, dentists, accountants, lawyers and stockbrokers found a new form of freedom aboard their new Softails. These professional men had high-stress jobs, trophy wives and big mortgages to pay. For a few hours every weekend, they could don brand new Harley leathers, start-up their Harleys with the touch of a button (you didn’t have to spend a half-hour sweating over a kick starter), and roar off, disturbing their uptight, upper-income neighbors. They’d spend a few weekend hours catching a little wind and feeling the freedom that riding brings.
The new Evo-powered Harleys were bulletproof and new riders could take a run down to the corner bar or cross the country without worrying about breaking down in some redneck town to await the fate of Captain America and Billy from Easy Rider.
The fact that upscale riders were entering the market en masse created a whole new industry to support their wants and needs. These newbies earned the name RUBBIE, which stands for Rich Urban Biker. Harley-Davidson’s Harley Owner’s Group (known as H.O.G.) catered to the new riders, offering local rides and fellowship for men and women to get together and enjoy their passion for Harleys. When you bought a new Harley you were instantly enrolled in this “club”, which also provided better deals on bike insurance, a touring service much like AAA, maps, emergency road service, a listing of all the dealerships in the country, even a fly and ride program. When you buy a Harley, you are suddenly a member of a gigantic family who have a good time wherever they ride.
At the same time, Harley got new riders to enter the fold by offering a hell of a deal on new Harley Sportsters as entry-level bikes. You could buy a new Sportster for $3,995 and sell it back to Harley within two years and apply the full $3,995 toward a Big Twin Evo Softail, FXR or dresser model. Suddenly, women threw their legs over their own Harleys. There was even a book called Hear Me Roar that focused on successful women who ride. Today, women riders make up 35 percent of new Harley owners in many states.
The coming of the RUBBIES created a wider gap between the haves and the have-nots. Part of the biker lifestyle includes the concept that anyone who is bold and brash enough to ride a Harley deserves some small modicum of respect. When rich urban bikers showed up at major bike runs such as the Sturgis Rally in South Dakota or Daytona Bike Week in Florida, more often than not, they trailered their bikes to the rallies. They would stay just outside of town, pull their bikes off the trailers and then ride the last few miles into the event with their new leathers gleaming in the sun.
This sort of activity pissed off the faithful old-school bikers. After all, riding is about riding, right? RUBBIES were seen as having no “heart”, no guts, of being worthless, rich sissies. There was even a popular biker T-shirt that proclaimed, “I rode my bike to Trailer Week!”
Still, the blue-collar and white-collar riders mixed together at bike events and rubbed elbows, though the RUBBIES generally washed their hands with disinfectant soap after shaking hands with any “real” biker. While bikers who had been in the lifestyle most of their lives seethed over the newbies and their Cigar Aficionado world of jet setting, big business bull, there was a positive side.
There’s something about a Harley, once you become a Harley rider you take up the bar and shield as part of your heart and soul. The new RUBBIES joined motorcycle rights organizations such as A.B.A.T.E. and began to use their big bucks and connections to defeat mandatory helmet laws in states across the country. When legislators would meet to discuss helmet bills they were used to ragtag groups of blue-collar bikers showing up to protest. This changed when the RUBBIES came to town with their celebrity friends. Lawmakers suddenly faced off against riding lawyers and such pro-motorcycle notables as Jay Leno, Peter Fonda and Larry Hagman.
Another positive effect of RUBBIE riders was that they poured big bucks into any and everything associated with motorcycles. Suddenly, local bike shops, many of which were run by old school bikers, were filled with work, turning stock Harleys into custom bikes. The motorcycle aftermarket began to swell with new products to feed the RUBBIE horde. These “mild ones” spent money on their two-wheeled passion, big money. It was nothing for a RUBBIE to buy a Harley for $16,000 and then spend another $16,000 on chrome, parts, accessories and custom paint.
Every year, Harley-Davidson production increased to meet the new demand for bikes. Pushed by new riders in an explosion of motorcycle activity, Harley was soon producing over 100,000 bikes a year, with plans of producing over 200,000 bikes a year by 2003. The problem was that there were just not enough bikes to supply yuppie demand. If you wanted, say, a new red FXSTC Softail Custom in the late ’80s and through the ’90s, you had to put your name on a list along with a deposit and wait three to six months for your bike to arrive at your local dealership. Naturally, new motorcycle companies appeared, offering bikes that already looked customized, to fill this demand. These factory choppers allowed a new rider to look bad-to-the-bone without ever having to turn a wrench. This also pissed off the faithful who believed that a biker didn’t deserve to ride if they couldn’t wrench on their own bike. But the fact that many traditional bikers owned these new aftermarket companies meant that they were forever in bed with the new riders for better or worse.
Besides creating an enormous industry to feed RUBBIES with the products they wanted, custom bike builders ramped up and began to make a lot of money. This was something new. Back in the 1970s and ’80s, the country’s top chopper builders were barely getting by. The market for choppers was just not that big and many of the people who rode choppers were outlaw bikers. Bike shops such as Denver’s Choppers were known for building everything you needed to build an awesome long bike, plus they’d build it for you if you wanted them to. On the east coast, Dave Perewitz and Donnie Smith fed the loyal with gorgeous custom bikes. On the west coast, Arlen Ness and Ron Simms produced high-end customs. But the glut of RUBBIE money turned these venerable builders into superstars.
In our next installment, we’ll discover how bike-building superstars became television stars thanks to the Discovery Channel.
To be continued…