Leatherballs I: Who does Harley think they are?

I love Harleys. I hate Harley-Davidson. That seems to be the consensus among old-school biker types these days, and they just might have themselves a point, too.

The Motor Company has always had its problems keeping its hardcore fan base happy. It seems to have a special talent for stepping on its own crank and pissing off (or on) the very people who did the most to make it the institution it is today. Ever since I’ve been riding H-D’s (since ‘82), I’ve heard complaint after complaint, and seen the Powers That Be at H-D making the sort of bonehead moves, again and again, that regularly generate those complaints like some sort of whacked-out fuckup factory.

What the hell could they have been thinking when they decided to sue independent bike shops that used “hog” or some variation thereof in their shop name? I’m sure most of you remember that one. It ain’t as if Harley thought that “hog” business up themselves, after all. But they sure were willing enough to glom onto the idea—and then have their slickee-boy lawyers claim it as their very own private property.

And apehangers; they trademarked apehangers, ferchrissake. Trademarked ‘em, that is, after denouncing way back when the people who invented ‘em, and the way-out chops they were bolted to, as unsafe, unacceptable, and just generally mad, bad, and dangerous to know. Customization was something the factory didn’t much like back then; now, “customs” are what they sell the most of. Nothing wrong with learning from your mistakes and adapting to changing times, of course, but it does tend to tick off independent shop owners and backyard customizers a mite when the factory does its level damnedest to put ‘em out of business—and then turns around and steals their best ideas, copyrights ‘em, and sues the pants off of aforesaid innovators for using their own inventions without properly crediting the Great God Harley.

I hear HD ain’t cooperating with S&S like they used to; you could prove it by the fact that when I went to bolt an S&S onto my ‘06 half-a-Harley, I had to grind a whole bunch of cylinder fin off just to get an Allen socket in there to do the job. That was no accident, and the hassle it produced was no fun. Luckily, the cylinders were coming off anyway for some other mods we won’t discuss right now, lest you ever be tempted to bet me a hundred bucks that your Low Rider can take me 0-100 (hint: it can’t). That made it relatively easy to get mine done and together.

But what about Joe Biker out there, working in his attached garage, basement, or under the shade of his favorite sycamore? What’s he supposed to do? And, more to the point, does Harley give a damn?

Why, it’s enough to make one consider riding rice.

Except dammit, no, it ain’t.

Something you oughta know about me: I am not a kid anymore, but sometimes I like to ride like one. The only thing I like better than going fast is going faster yet, and I spend more time looking over my shoulder for John Law before cracking hard on the loud handle than I do calmly taking in the scenery. I’ve been stuck on Sportster for years now, although I’ve owned just about everything H-D at one time or another, and I wring every last bit of go-juice out of each and every one of them like a thirsty castaway squeezing his last orange.

And I think we’re all big boys and girls by now, and can admit that these rice-rockets will surely walk past most of our fine American iron as if we were in reverse. The Jap bikes are fast, alright. But even for a guy like me, fast just ain’t everything.

I ain’t riding rice. Period. It’s not even a question to be considered for me, and I suspect for most of you reading this. I’m not into busting anybody’s balls for riding Jap, though; there have been times in my life when I was stuck with a Yamakawazukibitsosushi myself, and it’s a free country. But no matter how bad Harley jerks us around, no matter how many times they try to trademark engine noise, no matter what army of lawyers they send to my house to tell me to cease and desist from violating the pristine purity of their perfect product, my ass sits on Milwaukee steel, or it stays the hell home.

At this point, seems like maybe an introduction might be in order. I’m known to my tightest bros as Leatherballs—no, really—and I’m pretty sure I don’t wanna know why. I’m a former truck driver, a former independent-shop Harley mechanic, and a professional rock and roll/rockabilly guitar player and singer. I’ve been on two wheels my whole life, starting with a Honda SL70 back in 1971 when I was just a kid. I’ve ridden ‘em all over the years, but have been a full-bore Harley guy since ‘82. I’m partial to Sportsters, like I said, and I like building ‘em light, simple, plain, and quick. I don’t care much about topping out at 180 or grinding pegs on steep mountain curves; mostly what I like is getting from about 30 to about 90 in a straight line in less time than it takes to say it. I’m from the South and I’m goddamned proud of it. I’m not quite old enough to be entirely old school, but I can sure as hell see old school from where I’m at. My overall attitude was best summed up by another biker-rag columnist from years back: I ain’t nobody’s mother.

They’re letting me say whatever the hell I want around here, and I plan to take full advantage of it. But that’s probably enough to chew on for starters. See y’all next issue.

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