49 cc, 1965, West Germany
Deutsches Zweirad-Museum, Neckarsulm, Germany


In the 1960s, motorcycles met fashion. Co-opted by both suburbanites and flower children, bikes were as relevant to the cultural iconography of the '60s as bra-burnings, LSD, and street protests. Self-fancied rebels cruised in packs on Harleys and nuclear families puttered on Honda Super Cubs. Motorcycles became familiar on both the new American superhighways and the old, middle-American back roads. Their speed, sexiness, utility, and custom design satisfied a society bent on expending energy. But as generations, races, and genders grappled with their desires and differences, cinema and advertising made the motorcycle motif solipsistic. A rebellious image became more significant than rebellion itself, and the motorcycle lost some of its nasty edge.

247 c, 1961, West Germany
Collection of John Mishanec
Night after night the news ran its typical template of the themes that preoccupied the Great Society: the Vietnam War, the Cold War, race, women's liberation, sexual revolution, and rock 'n" roll. The American populace revolted, but the revolution devolved into theater; in the words of Norman Mailer, "Conventional politics has so little to do with the real subterranean life of America that none of us know much about the real which is to say the potential historic nature of America." The discrepancy between mediated life and the elusive "real" of life had become vast.

Whatever history was being made, young people were making much of it. Whether by dying in Vietnam or deciding what band would top the now all-important charts, the largest age cohort in America, "youth," preoccupied a gamut of "authority figures" ranging from politicians to ad men to ministers to suburban moms. The world's youth were out on the road seeking freedom, and the motorcycle was as sure a vehicle as any to offer a quick hit of it. The film Easy Rider (1969) turned upside down the myth of the American Western--cowboy and horse and a code by which to live--and the gentlemanly John Wayne yielded to the dazed Dennis Hopper.

Harley-Davidson Easy Rider Chopper
1,200 cc, 1969 (1993 replica) United States
The Otis Chandler Vintage Museum of Transportation and Wildlife, Oxnard, CA

The youth of the world managed to make nearly every public act a political gesture, and tie-dyed shirts and long hair took their places alongside civil rights marches and draft cards. Rebellion became fashion, and Hollywood, Madison Avenue, and the motorcycle industry capitalized as never before.