Harley-Davidson and the Search for the American Soul
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One fan's breathless overview of the impact Harley-Davidson motorcycles have had on individuals and popular culture. Yates, an editor-at-large for Car and Driver magazine, has here shifted from his career focus—on cars (The Critical Path, 1996, etc.)—to motorcycles. He sets out to examine the peculiar role that Harley-Davidson has played in the creation of the culture of motorcycles and "hogs" in particular. The emphasis is more on people than machines, although the history of the company is a critical part of this undertaking. An early pioneer in motorcycle manufacturing, Harley-Davidson developed some unique technical concepts and survived numerous boom-and-bust cycles in the country's economy and its own industry. The fabled turnaround of this enterprise in the 1980s is covered, yet there is not much explanation of how it occurred. Most of the book deals with motorcycle enthusiasts, including a long history of celebrity riders and especially "bikers," scattered clumps of individualists who find Harley-Davidson motorcycles the ideal symbols for vague ideas about rebellion and freedom. Somewhere along the way, the company decided to promote this antiestablishment symbolism rather than fight it, but in a carefully controlled manner designed to appeal to would-be riders within the establishment itself. Most of the corporate coverage is thin and lacks substance. The author prefers to focus on the culture of Harley fans rather than on the company. Yates does develop an appealing momentum when talking about ownership of Harleys in foreign countries, including Japan and Greece. Unfortunately, this information is too short and comes at the end of the book. Although Yates's prose offers nothing in the way of persuasive argument, it is colorful, as when aping the argot of bikers. Referring to the competition from overseas, for instance, he lambasts "rice burners" and "Jap scrap" as machines that may represent technological perfection but lack soul. Rambling, rarely insightful, and ultimately disappointing. Generates little original analysis about the Harley phenomenon. (16 pages photos, not seen)

Pub Date: June 3rd, 1999
ISBN: 0316967181
Page count: 272pp
Publisher: "Little, Brown"