Last of the Red-Hot American Fable-Makers

Tripping It

Lehighton (PA) Times News

August 28, 1971

The motorcycle is a vehicle that carries a very unique American fable. It has a mystique that is not shared by any other machine ever made. And it is constantly diversifying its appeal.

It probably all began with visions of a great new invention, because that’s how a good many American fables and product begin. (In fact, that’s how America began.)

The first motorcycles were understandably crude. Steam-powered experimental prototype models were being made in 1868. They did not fit into the mass production standards of Americana until 1901, however, when they were produced by the E.R. Thomas Motor Company.

From that point the ball was picked up by a host of American companies, the most famous of the elder cycle manufacturer brand names being Harley-Davidson and Indian.

Today the industry has evolved into something world-wide and very much contemporary. England and Japan are two of today’s greatest bike makers, and there are as many kinds of bikes on the markets as there are places a person can think of to ride them.

There are motorcycles that are at home in rugged country, traversing rocks and gullies; there are models that are at home on superhighways; there are others that feel supremely comfortable on the Bonneville salt flats. There is a bike for every pocket, for every taste, for every job, from herding cattle to terrorizing the little kiddies at the school crossing.

It is becoming harder and harder to scare the little kiddies, however, since the motorcycle has filtered down to them in the form of TV cartoon programs like Motor Mouse, a dashing little fellow on a well-tuned and well-polished bike who always seems to evade a certain cat that is after the little feller’s hide.

The noise and the potential danger of a motorcycle is lost on the average teenager, too. Caught in the vice-grip of trying to set his mind straight in a too-fast society that is hell-bent on twisting it out of shape, the kid mentally (at least) rebels. And rebellion’s keynote today is to out-gross society. A motorcycle, with its visions of Hell’s Angels and the Breed, its curling clouds of burning oil and its polished chrome and raised handlebars, its roar of power and its feel of the road all crash together in a symbol of rebellion that gives even the smallest 90-lb. weakling an orgasmic feeling of striking back, of being independent and of having a whole parcel of power between his legs.

Psychologists have a fun time analyzing die-hard motorcyclists. They have long contended that the rabid motorcyclist has a feeling of inferiority that extends all the way down to his manhood. The cycle is supposedly a mechanical extension of his male phallic drives, hyped in with a chain-drive to a madly spinning wheel, which gives him a mobility that his imagination often lacks. In a few cases, the psychologists may be correct. Maybe the cycle does cover for a feeling of inadequacy.

If we were to sit down and gather, like a huge spider, little packets of statistics from motorcycle dealers and from manufacturers, I think that we would see that the number of people today who own cycles are not the hell-bent-on-rubber, sado-masochistic, unwashed, glutton-for-trouble maniacs that we envision from seeing too many drive-in cycle flicks.

Motorcycles today are owned by just about every strata of people. Kids scoot around on mini-bikes, hunters gallivant around the woodlands and along trails on trail-bikes, secretaries in the larger cities drive a motor-bike to the office to avoid traffic, and so do some of their $50,000-a-year bosses. Very respectable, middle-class couples often have two cycles parked in their garage; when vacation time rolls around, they roll them down the driveway, sleeping bags strapped to the handle-bars, heading out away from it all to see a little of the country and to get away from the 9-to-5 grind.

Through the mass commercialism of the motorcycle and its derivatives, however, man still has that old urge to get the most he possibly can from his machine. While at the same time the factories are accommodating them by making sophisticated advances in performance, roadability, and handling.

A good many cycle owners still do their own work on the machines, making modifications, adding performance equipment from speed shops. The most enthusiastic once they are at ease with their bikes, are not above letting it all hang out over the weekends, entering motor-crosses, hill-climbs, and eventually national championships.

What we had at one time thought of as heroism and daring has been put down by modern society, because so much that was done with a handful of guts and a certain swashbuckling flair is now handled by machines and covered by contractual agreements that do not allow men to embark on dangerous assignments anymore. So, when the weekend comes, a mild-mannered advertising executive or a supermarket assistant manager can don his leathers and blast off to an amateur motorcycle event, where it is just him, his machine, a course, and a bushel basket of buts he’s had stewing in his belly all week.

If he finds that he has a particularly large helping of guts, he may graduate up to the expert class and take part in American Motorcycle Association events, running on dirt or asphalt, on road courses or ovals, up hills or around pylons.

If he is especially daring and if he has a feel for his bike and for the road surface, he can blast down the thin line between cohesion to the road and a very bruising tumble, making 180-degree turns at fifty and sixty miles per hour, while he hangs himself and his bike out at a 45-degree angle, feeling through his fingers, through the seat of his pants, through the drift of the wheels, through the vibrations, through the angle he is seeing the roadway, through the whisper or the scream of the tires, courting danger but using up a quart of adrenalin and pulling together the grace of a ballet dancer, a tightrope walker, and a man mastering his immediate environment.

He is not totally unique, of course: he has had his predecessors: trick riders at rodeos, cross-country single-engine airplane stunt pilots of the 1920s, and Hollywood stunt men.

However, when he’s out there alone, with the road whizzing by very close to his heels, the tires kissing the road, who’s there to tell him he isn’t unique in all the world? Ain’t nobody around but him and his bike, and the wind’s the limit.