The Wild Ones -- Harleys Come To Hollister
From the four corners of the North American continent, from Europe, Australia, South America and even Asia, in a thundering herd of speeding motorcycles, will come the new riders of the apocalypse. Drenched in black leather with new bandannas tied loosely around their necks, they'll grip tightly to the reins of their iron horses with skull-ringed fingers as they race to a date with destiny at the seat of creation, the place of primordial ooze: Hollister, California.It is conceivable that more than 350,000 motorcyclists could show up in this small town of 19,000 residents on July 4, 1997. They will be there to celebrate the 50th anniversary of a minor disturbance that has grown to mythic proportions. Called a "motorcycle riot" by the local papers in 1947, the event was later glamorized in Stanley Kramer's 1953 classic film, The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. Bound up for decades between legend and reality, it is still considered the seminal moment in the development of the "motorcycle outlaw" genre.Hollister, it seems, was born wild. The town was named after pioneer and cattle rancher Joseph Hubbard Hollister, who was responsible for the first thundering herd to arrive there, driven across the plains to California in 1853. Many years later, after the impact of internal-combustion engines and those strange motorized bicycles that became the new "iron horses," the pastoral setting of small-town Hollister became the ideal location for a stop on the "Gypsy Tour."The Gypsy Tour was a series of motorcycle competitions sponsored by the American Motorcycle Association. Scheduled during the spring and summer months, spectators and competitors would travel locally, regionally and sometimes across the country to participate. It was a venue for socializing as well as racing.WAR OF THE WORLDSLike many other pastimes and lifestyles, however, it would be put on hold with the outbreak of the Second World War. GIs returning from World War II were considerably different from their counterparts of previous wars. For one thing, there was little doubt about what they had been fighting for this time-the American way of life. Many would marry and settle down, buy a house, raise children and work a steady job.They would live in and help construct an era when, as L.A. artist Robert Williams once put it, "mediocrity and conformity were next to Godliness."But many would drift away from the pack. Among the brave and valiant survivors forever changed by the war experience, there was a significant number of ex-GIs who refused to go back to their pre-war existence. They wanted more action. One of the ways to find it was on a big motorcycle with a lot of "drag" -- acceleration -- and a "growler," a loud, unmuffled exhaust, or "straight-pipe."Feeling expatriated within their own country, these rebellious riders headed out on the highway, looking for adventure. The motorcycles they chose were mainly American, mostly Harley-Davidson, and the rules of the "sport" they participated in were the ones made up as they went along.It was such a group of loosely organized, nonaligned motorcyclists that rode into a Harley-Davidson/AMA-sponsored "lifestyle" event in Hollister in 1947 on the Fourth of July.MEDIA TURNS THE WHEELS OF MYTHOLOGYJust one sensationalized account of what happened appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, which covered the event in its pages for seven days. Reports of "as many as 12,000 persons" in attendance on the first day transmogrified to an "estimated 4,000 motorcyclists." Despite the inaccuracy, there was something strangely visionary about the Chronicle's editorial that cautioned, "It was a performance which clearly proved that the straight-pipe motorcyclist, individually, has been underestimated as a social anarchist."Here was the germ of identity, the seed of inspiration, that would grow in the fertile American cultural landscape, nourished by the news and entertainment industry. The media chain reaction that began with the Bay Area press soon went national. Papers across the country covered the story. Life ran a pictorial documentary with a meager 115 words based on reports from the wire services. In 1949, writer Frank Rooney produced a short narrative called "Cyclist Raid" based on his reading of the Life article. Rooney's narrative was picked up by Harper's and serialized in 1951.Stanley Kramer read the Harper's serial and came up with the idea for a movie. John Paxton, author of the original screenplay of The Wild One, based his script on Kramer's reading of Harper's. This now classic film developed a theme for a generation to both identify and internalize: the outlaw biker -- a myth that would become reality.The big American motorcycle soon became a vehicle of antisocial mobility. Much to the chagrin of both the Harley-Davidson Motor Company and the American Motorcycle Association, the genre emerged around the late '60s and '70s as an identifiable, circumscribed lifestyle. More than a brand name, Harley-Davidson had become a way of life.IMAGE AND MANIPULATIONAny riders who might appear in Hollister these days, however, may be vastly different from their early postwar ancestors, those original "straight-pipers." Still, law enforcement, local business and government officials are working hand-in-hand to try to stop an event that is currently in the planning stages. But just who is in this new motorcycle brigade?Armchair philosophers have all told us about the de-evolution of the biker outlaw genre from pastime to lifestyle to style. Indeed, for some new riders it has now become a ready-made, weekend identity. Expensive black-leather jackets hang in closets alongside Giorgio Armani suits, and RUBies-rich urban bikers-own $20,000 motorcycles that share garages with high-priced BMW and Mercedes-Benz automobiles. They've become The Wild One -- for brunch bunch.But to be fair, there are still some old riders around that were in Hollister in 1947. Some of the founders of the Hell's Angels motorcycle club, members of a bomber support squadron during World War II, were there, along with early clubs like the Tulare Rebels and the Boozefighters. Recognizing the historical significance of the original event, the Angels have had an annual Fourth of July run to Hollister since the early '50s.Then there are the neotraditionalists, those young motorcycle enthusiasts who won't ride any Harley made after 1965. They will be there, too. So will the wide range of riders who participate because they are victims of style, myth-consumers, advocates or adventurer wannabes. And you also can expect to see scores of new women riders who are now part of the genre.At this stage, arguments about authenticity are difficult if not impossible. After all, it's the '90s and riding a bike is as authentic today as it ever was, just as long as the name on the motorcycle says Harley-Davidson. And if it does, there will probably be a whole lot of them in Hollister come this July. You just can't argue with tradition.SIDEBAR #1THIS HOG HAS MOVED FROM OUTLAW TO GOLD-CARD STATUSBy Kelly LukerGone are the days when one actually needed a bike to be a biker. Today, you can put on a Harley-Davidson T-shirt and slug back a few Harley-Davidson brews while you smoke your Harley-Davidson cigarettes. While you're at it, you can admire the little lady in a Harley-Davidson swimsuit and your little bundle of joy eating strained peas in his Harley-Davidson baby bib.Welcome to the wonderful -- and profitable -- world of brand licensing, which the Harley folks have embraced with a big ol' burly bear hug.According to the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based company's public relations manager, Dave Elshoff, a range of accessories from tacky doodads to the requisite black leather jackets pulled $292 million into company coffers last year. Elshoff estimates that more than a thousand items have been licensed to wear that familiar orange and black wing design. "We're not just a motorcycle company -- we're a lifestyle," he says.Considering a recent tour of products displayed at various local Harley headquarters, one can only nervously consider just whose lifestyle Elshoff is referring to. There's logo-emblazoned piggy banks (niftily shaped as cycle gas tanks), Harley-Davidson candle holders, rhinestone-encrusted brooches proclaiming "I [insert heart shape] Harleys," playing cards, pens and watches.For the outlaw biker who is considering adding to his porcelain collection, there is the charming Lladro-type figurine of a tousle-haired youth selling "Harley rides -- Five cents." Speaking of which, one can read to his or her own tousle-haired young'n each night from Patrick Wants to Ride, a picture book detailing one child's heartbreak at being too young to drive a Harley. Happy ending, though -- Moms and Pops give him a helmet and include him on biker runs.How a machine better known in the past for its proclivity to break down every other day managed to capture the hearts and minds-- and especially the pocketbooks -- of the people may well go down in history as one of the great marketing victories of all time. Ten years ago, about 35,000 Harleys were rolling off the assembly line while the company hovered in dire financial straits. Last year, 105,000 were snapped up. There now is up to a six-month waiting list for some models. And there's a good reason why you may want to settle for the figurine instead of the machine -- most models start at $18,000 and go up from there.But the good folks in Milwaukee are just as happy with your $17 purchase. "It's a lot like courtship and marriage," explains Elshoff of his company's strategy. "If you take the Harley-Davidson T-shirt as the first date, engagement might be a [Harley-Davidson] leather jacket." As the romance progresses, the company figures, sooner or later you'll be escorting that 700-pound blushing bride down the aisle.