Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Boomers and Bikes

As I look back over my life, a reminiscence that I have often shared in stories and notes on this very blog, I reconsider and relive the events — the “life and times” so to speak. I mean, who wouldn’t like to turn a dial and return to those earlier days? To re-inhabit a twenty-year old body, full of good health and promise. To once again live those exciting years, growing up, raising a family, re-experiencing the experiences. It was fun the first time, it would be great the second time.

Of course, it doesn’t always go well. There can be losses and changes and bad decisions that would make someone my age just be glad to have reached this point in life and have no desire to go back and do it again. As they say, “your mileage may vary.”

Putting negativity aside, I’m a member of the baby boomers. That generation born after the end of World War Two … that giant pig in the demographic snake, working our way through to the bitter end.

By definition, baby boomers would be those born after 1945 or '46 to a point about fifteen or twenty years later … say 1960. Since I was born in ’47, that puts me on the leading edge of that special — just ask us — generation. We were the “me” generation, and still are. We did things our way and we demand things our way.

Sons and daughters of the “Greatest Generation,” we had it all, or at least a lot of us did. They made sure of that. We were raised in a world of luxury and freedom from want. We had a soundtrack and the movies were made for us. We had television and stereos and hot cars. Madison Avenue aimed their charms at our wants and needs, and Detroit shaped their vehicles to our style. We were rebels, perhaps without a cause or a clue, but one thing was for sure: we were in rebellion. Against exactly what? Well that didn’t matter much. It was the rebellion that was the point. No one was going to tell us how to live our lives!

That hasn’t changed in the nearly 70 years I’ve been here on this planet expecting to have it my way. From Woodstock to Social Security, we’ve always redefined life in this country, and we’re headed for retirement homes with that same edge and attitude. Will there be room for our Fender amps at “the home?” What size engine in that wheel chair? Can it be supercharged?

It is fun to frame that time in terms of events, issues, and products. One that has always been a focus of mine, since I got the first one at the early age of 14, is motorcycles.

As you study the history of these machines you find Harley-Davidson producing a range of bikes affectionately known as “Panheads.” It is common to define the big Harley twins by the appearance of their heads. It started with the “flat-head” engine, although that name wasn’t unique to Harley. Then, in 1936, they produced their first production overhead valve big V-twin, and it quickly gained the moniker of “Knucklehead” due to the appearance of the castings on the top of the engine.

As the design of Harley-Davidson engines evolved through the years, the distinctive shape of the valve covers has allowed Harley enthusiasts to classify an engine simply by looking at the shape of the covers, and the Panhead has covers resembling an upside-down pan.

The history of Harleys is one of steady improvement and an evolution of design and engineering. After the end of the war, Harley began to create a major revision of the “Knuckle.” They designed a new aluminum head, replacing the previous cast iron and taking advantage of the availability of this light weight metal after the shortages of the war.

They made a major change to the top-end design, enclosing the valves and rocker arms in a large pan, somewhat reminiscent of something you might find in the kitchen. This change improved the performance of the engine keeping water and dirt out and the oil in, the latter being something Harley struggled with for many years. The “Panhead” came out in 1948 and lasted until 1965 when the steady H-D evolution morphed the design into the “Shovelhead.”

Since, like the Panhead, I too was "born" in 1947, and I graduated from High School in 1965, moving on to bigger and better things, it seems the Panhead and I were twins separated at birth. We "grew up" during that 18 years before becoming transformed into a more adult image, yet retaining the basic style and ambiance we had developed during that critical "boyhood."

In terms of style, I believe the Panhead models are the archetype of the Harley mystic. Sure the Knucklehead is cool and established the size and shape and expectations, but it is the Panhead that refined the lines and the look into the timeless model that our generation has followed throughout our life.

It was the Panhead bikes that first gave us the hydraulic front fork. The Hydra-Glide, introduced in 1949, the second year of the “pan.” That was the clean and modern, and not to mention more comfortable and rideable, front end. Ten years later came the Duo-Glide when Harley finally added shocks to the rear and the hard tail was replaced — only to come back in Choppers and the Softail. Then the Electra Glide replaced the kickstarter in 1965, the final year of production of the Panhead. That was boomer built too. I mean, kicking a bike to life was cool, but we had matured and ease-of-use became our mantra, later to be picked up by Apple and the computer nerds.

A momentary aside: Descriptions of Harley engines based on the head design was a creation of the riding public, not the Harley sales department. Instead, Harley adopted these various “Glide” nomenclature. They started by putting the description on the front fender, and from there the monikers became regular brand names. When the new Evolution engine came out, some thought they would be called “Blockheads.” But that name never really stuck. You will hear some Harley engines, especially in the Sportster, called “Ironheads,” but EVO and Twin-Cam have become the names of the latest Harley motors.

So, starting approximately when I was born in 1947 (first one sold in 1948) right up to 1965, the year I graduated from high school, the Panhead was the latest and greatest Harley product. Since then the modern motorcycle world has pretty much tracked we boomers. We defined the market for most of those years, and — as we’ve grown older — Harley has continued to cater to us and our demands.

Not all motorcycle brands followed that trajectory, although the influence of Harley has led both the Japanese bikes to copy the V-Twin design and led the British models — at least some of them — to experiment with 270 degree crankshaft designs with the goal of duplicating the signature exhaust sound of the big V. Sure there are those of us that rode something different. That was part of our generation’s creed too … being different. But I think the Harley really captures, and continues to capture, our muse. And there is no question that the Harley Marketing and Sales departments have had us in their bullseye for all these last fifty years.

Just ask any Harley dealer about their “core customer” — boomer. Talkin’ about my ge-ge-ge-generation. (Hope I die before I get old.) Then there’s the Rolling Stones … that's the counter argument of “too old to rock and roll, too young to die.” As long as we’re enjoying the old sayings, don’t forget “all good things must come to an end.”

Think about the current popularity of trikes … three wheel motorcycles that you don’t have to hold up when you stop for a light or a stop sign. Very popular model from Harley and the big Honda Gold Wing alike. Heated seats, heated grips, loud stereo and GPS. What twenty-something would have asked for those options. We boomers … we do like our creature comforts.

Since the trailing edge of the boomer generation has about 10 or 15 more years to fit in the saddle before moving on to one of those four wheel carts the TV ads are always reminding us Medicare will provide, one has to wonder what next. Harley continues to produce the descendants of the original knuckle, pan, and shovel machines, but they have also moved in some new directions. Whether it is to attract younger riders or just to respond to constantly increased emissions and EPA rules is a matter of opinion.

Yet Harley has done new things from the V-Rod to the newer 500cc and 750cc sport bikes with the “Revolution” engine. Plenty of technology has been added to the “boomer-bikes,” but water cooled and overhead cams don’t really fit the Panhead defined mold.

Is there anything on the road more typical of a boomer than a big Harley “bagger” or cruiser? I don’t think so. I look at those crotch rockets that appear like fugitives from Daytona or some other road course, and I see that’s where the young blood is riding. Next time you meet a Harley, check the rider. Yup, gray hair, beard, a bit of a belly.

Consider the essential boomer movie. No, it’s not The Big Chill or Apocalypse Now. It’s Easy Rider. And what were they riding? Both Panheads. It doesn’t really matter. Knuckle or pan, shovel or EVO, or the latest version of the Twin-Cam or Sportster engine. It can be a hard-tail or a softail or a low rider fat boy. You, see, they are all the same. Slightly evolved over the years, but a comfortable and familiar shape. That hasn’t changed since the Greatest Generation. Just like the boomers, these H-D bikes have kept the same spirit through the years, even as they grew up and “matured.”

But the ride is nearly over. Next stop, the “home.” Will the next ride be electric? Will it have two wheels or three … or even four? All good things come to an end … eventually.

Now all the companies are starting to focus on the “younger rider.” Those 18-to-35 year-olds. They are the future. We boomers, we’re the past. It is a good past. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world. But nothing lasts forever, even a Harley. Face it fellow boomers … But it has been a good RIDE!

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