(Note: This is part 1 of a 3 part series I will be writing exploring the confluence of Motorcycles and Guns, two of my favorite hobbies.) Alternate title: The Harley-Davidson is the M1911 of Motorcycles. Now that comparison can either be seen as complimentary or insulting to either marque, depending on your preferences, and in a way, that’s kind of my point.
Both products originated shortly after the turn of the (20th) century. Harley and Davidson produced their first workable motorcycle in 1904 (though the company was formed in 1903). The 1911 is a product-improved version of a pistol designed by John M. Browning and sold as the Model of 1905. Both saw widespread usage for the first time in World War 1, and both have a fanatical following that approaches that of a cult.
The similarities don’t end there. In the case of both HD and the 1911, the products have been superseded by several generations of product-improved successors. The 1911 by the likes of the double-stack Browning High Power, the double-action P-38 and the polymer-framed Glocks and Springfields of today. The HD by the lighweight British twins and singles of the 40’s and 50’s, then the high-revving Japanese two-stroke racebikes of the 60’s and 70’s to the big four cylinder 4 strokes of the 70’s to the modern hyper-speed crotch rockets and high-tech touring bikes of today.
And yet, the “obsolete” designs endure. In fact, they’ve both enjoyed something of a renaissance over the past 20 years. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, either. I can see a number of reasons why so many consumers favor the old designs over the “NEW! IMPROVED!” ones.
First of all, there’s conservatism. Not political Conservatism (though there’s a fair amount of that, too) but a kind of non-political, small-c conservatism of the “if it was good enough for my pappy, and his pappy, and his pappy, then it’s good enough for me” type. Heritage and History factor in, too. There’s something almost magical about touching, and using, the same type of pistol that went from the trenches of the Western Front to the Central Highlands of Vietnam; just as there’s a thrill riding the same kind of bike that raced around the board tracks of the 1920s to the hill climbs of Sturgis and Laconia to the sandy racetracks of Daytona Beach.
There’s also the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” kind of pragmatic conservatism. A broken gun could leave you dead in a gunfight, and a broken bike (with no way to fix it) could leave you by the side of the road in the middle of the desert or the mountains. Even in an age when most of us don’t wrench our own bikes or ‘smith our own guns, having a simple, proven design gives a kind of psychic comfort that the more modern designs (with their polymer whatchamacallits and overhead cams) dont.
It’s also worth noting that both 1911-worship and Harley-worship are, for the most part, American phenomena. A kind of nationalistic pride and/or chauvinistic preference for the products that were invented here (the 1911 in Utah and HD in Wisconsin) over those suspicious furrin’ types.
[Note: I realize that there are HD aficionados worldwide, but their HD-centric attitudes are really an enthusiasm for American biker culture. Similarly, there are non-American shooters who like the 1911, but they, too, tend to be Amero-philic in their outlook.]
All of the above factors are, for the most part, irrational. No military force of any size would prefer a 1911 to a more modern design (small groups of Special Operators don’t count, as they tend to be “gun guys” anyway), just as no motorcycle roadracer would choose an obsolete HD as his steed.
And yet, both the 1911 and the HD soldier on, proof positive that as much as we might like to pretend we are choosing these products for purely practical reasons, in reality, our choices are just as likely to be driven by emotion.
Both the 1911 and the Harley Davidson are at the center of an ever-expanding enthusiast-driven market with die-hard fanatics, passionately defending their chosen brand against all comers, dismissing the competition as “junk,” and vigorously debating the merits of extended-slide-releases and Stage II performance kits.
Not that there’s anything wrong with that. While neither Harleys nor 1911s are my cup of Joe, I will be the first one to admit that my visceral attraction to Triumph motorcycles and Smith and Wesson revolvers is not driven by totally rational, left-brain thinking. Not every choice in our consumer culture has to be made on the basis of pure, utilitarian function or cold, Einsteinain logic. Heck, that’s one of the great things about America – we’re free to make irrational choices.
After all, “because I want one” is as valid a reason to choose a product as any other reason, right?