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Outlaw Machine: Harley-Davidson and the Search for the American Soul

Outlaw Machine: Harley-Davidson and the Search for the American Soul

by Brock Yates, Brock Yates

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The legendary story of Harley-Davidson's rise to power—not only as an international industry leader but as an American cultural icon.

How did the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, originally a machine for casual riders, evolve into a symbol of defiance and liberation? An embellished 1947 Life magazine article about a California town terrorized by gangs of


The legendary story of Harley-Davidson's rise to power—not only as an international industry leader but as an American cultural icon.

How did the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, originally a machine for casual riders, evolve into a symbol of defiance and liberation? An embellished 1947 Life magazine article about a California town terrorized by gangs of motorcycle punks changed the world's perception of motorcycles from sporty machines to menaces-to-society, and as the loudest and heaviest bikes on the market, Harley-Davidsons were considered the baddest of them all.

Outlaw Machine chronicles the fascinating social history that built Harley-Davidson's reputation—including the rise of Hell's Angels and the counterculture classic Easy Rider—and, more entrancing still, the bike's and its company's storybook rise to international fame and popularity. Written by renowned automotive journalist Brock Yates, Outlaw Machine is the definitive book on the Harley-Davidson and its place in American culture.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Mr. Yates is a devout Hogophile...he tells a good story and loses as many teeth along the way."
The Wall Street Journal

"Outlaw Machine is a bitch of a fine payoff. This is an extremely smart book. In the business we have chosen, Brock Yates is The Man."
—Hunter S. Thompson

"If you're not born to be wild enough to actually buy a Harley but you still have Easy Rider daydreams, this bible of the great American two-wheeled death machine is for you."

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Few people would dispute that Harley-Davidson motorcycles are sluggish, expensive gas-guzzlers, outperformed by their quicker, more up-to-date Japanese counterparts. How is it, then, that the antediluvian Harley is wildly popular, coveted and revered by hard-core riders and RUBs (Rich Urban Bikers) alike? Yates offers a detailed history-cum-explanation. William Harley, and brothers Arthur and Walter Davidson, operating out of a shed in the Davidsons' backyard in Milwaukee, were an early success. But the company spent decades struggling once it became clear that automobiles, not motorcycles, would be the transportation of the future. After WWII, the company's survival came at a price: media hype about gangs like the Hell's Angels, and a spate of exploitation movies culminating in Easy Rider, effectively defined the bike as the plaything of rebels and ruffians. Yet it is precisely this association, long scorned by management, that lies behind Harley-Davidson's current revival. The Harley--with its bulk, its propensity to break down, its V-twin design unchanged since 1909 and its thundering noise--has become an American icon. While this book covers all the major moments in the company's--and the bikes'--history, Yates's attempts to link social history with the rise and fall of the motorcycle's appeal are forced. The prose can be turgid: Harley riders "assume an attitude of bloated potency and importance embodied in the motorcycle itself." Ultimately, the players in this story--from the pioneers who created the legendary machine to the devotees who ride and adulate it--never come to life as fully as does the motorcycle itself. (June) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
In this compelling addition to the literature on the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, journalist and automotive writer Yates (The Critical Path, LJ 7/96) probes the history and culture of the Harley and offers what he sees as the essence of the thundering American motorcycle, which has inspired cultlike devotion. This is a history not of the motorcycle but of the company and the social forces that defined the machine as an image of dissidence and freedom, an image that ultimately saved the company from bankruptcy and elevated the Harley to its status as a cultural icon. For Yates, Harleys have come to symbolize many of the virtues of the American spirit, having overcome a history of mechanical woes, poor company decision-making, and association with outlaw bikers. This is well written and extensively researched; Yates excels at locating events within their broader social and historical context. Solidly recommended for public and academic libraries.--David B. Van De Streek, Pennsylvania State Univ. Libs., York Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Dave Shifflet
All in all...Mr. Yates has written an interesting book, full of information, passion, and some pleasing swipes at the cultural conformity that is quickly reaching totalitarian strength.
The Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
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 proseoffers 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)

Product Details

Crown Publishing Group
Publication date:
Edition description:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

First Contact

The noise. The god-awful death rattle issuing from the bowels of his infernal machine. He had been a quiet kid, one of those bashful back-markers in elementary school, a pasty-faced runt lost in the playground stampedes and the adolescent classroom chatter. Now, suddenly, as a junior in high school, he had reinvented himself, a transmogrification of quasi-lethal intensity.

Among the brush-cut and bobby-soxed hierarchy of 1950s teenage life, he cut a wide swath, swooping among the Goody Two-shoes aboard his black-and-chrome monster. Wrapped in a wide-collared leather jacket studded with chrome, he was someone to be reckoned with, a stern-faced stud on a bad-ass motorcycle.

His classmates watched him in a confused state of part scorn, part envy, from the vantage point of establishment tools: teenagers operating in the mainstream of conventional lusts over fast cars and faster women. But the notion of a motorcycle—no, make that a Harley-Davidson motorcycle—was beyond the pale, drifting into the lurid red-light districts occupied by the devil drug, marijuana, and the white-slave trade. Other guys tried the zooter gig, fashioning themselves in duck's-ass haircuts and peg pants in open defiance of the conventions of khaki and gray flannel—the Fonzi-like prototypes later to be immortalized in Grease and other fifties flashbacks. But the over-the-top gesture, the ultimate fuck-you to the straight arrows and suck-ups of the day was that mother-humper Harley from hell.

"Wheels" of any kind beyond a Schwinn was the ultimate guy fantasy. Decades would pass before the booming middle class could afford to outfit its high-schoolers with automobiles, much less anything as exotic as motorcycles. The periodicals of the early 1950s swooned over the alleged menace of "hot-rodders," a California manifestation involving youths aboard chopped and channeled flathead Fords who engaged in such sociopathic madness as "drag racing" and death-defying games of "chicken." These exotic little home-built machines, hacksawed out of prewar Fords, were viewed as a motorized expression of the newly discovered teenage species known as "juvenile delinquents." This alleged rabble, sporting T-shirts with Camel packs rolled into the sleeves, represented a new surge of Visigoths marauding through the nation's streets. The dreaded hot rods (a contraction of "hot roadster") would be chronicled in countless hysterical magazine and newspaper stories of the day, culminating in the 1955 cult film Rebel Without a Cause, starring that paradigm of 1950s punkdom, James Dean. Drag racing, as portrayed in the film's deadly duel, shook moms and pops out of their Barcaloungers from coast to coast. Images of every kid in America behind the wheel of a hopped-up Ford or, God forbid, a thundering Harley slashing through the suburbs at suicidal speeds, seared their suburbanite brains. Hot rods. Motorcycles. Leather jackets, and in the distance the fearsome tribal drumbeats of rock 'n' roll. The fall of Rome was upon them.

Among the foot-sloggers, the kid on the Harley-Davidson enjoyed an automatic status reserved for those with "wheels" of all types, but in his case they belonged to a mysterious, exotic and faintly ominous, flame-belching motorcycle. A scrubbed classmate from the suburbs was also among the anointed, but purely as a midget leaguer. Somehow he had talked his father into letting him buy a used, clapped-out motor scooter, a lumpy Cushman powered by a one-lung lawnmower engine. On days when he rode it to school, he parked it near the Harley, a dinghy moored in the shadow of that battleship, unworthy of notice by the ship's owner.

The Harley guy would leave class, cloaked in his leather armor on even the warmest days, and stride past the Cushman in total disdain. Legging over the Harley, he fiddled briefly with the fuel valve and the choke before commencing his ritual attack on the kick starter, leaping and cursing as his booted foot rocked up and down on the chromium lever. The monster would fart and grumble, fitfully barking in protest against the intrusion by its master. Finally, after minutes of refusal, the mighty engine would awaken, spewing clouds of raw gas and fire from its twin pipes, rattling windows and sending decent folk scurrying, their ears covered against the din. Once satisfied that the beast was awake, he would settle into its saddle and, rolling his gloved right hand on the handlebar throttle, rev the engine until the plugs cleared and the last living creature within earshot had been intimidated. Then, with his left hand he would reach for the shifter, jam the thing into gear, and roar away, weaving and yawing in a shower of gravel. To the witless squares who knew no such power, it was like witnessing a moon shot almost twenty years hence.

Properly costumed, he had become a member of a tiny, exclusive clique headquartered in a grease-stained warren on the edge of town. There a strange, lanky man ran a dealership for Harley-Davidson motorcycles. It was off-limits to decent folk, a corral for outriders and bandits, bikers and weirdos who rode motorcycles, more a collection of shacks than a real building. The floors were soaked black with motor oil and littered with shards of piston rings, broken chains, shattered cylinder heads, and bent forks—the effluvia of a thousand haphazard repairs. Outside leaned a rabble of old motorcycles, bare-boned frames, piles of shredded tires, and broken engines, a graveyard of outlaw machinery tended by the gaunt man who knew all and was all regarding motorcycles—the high priest in the smoky Harley temple.

One day the suburbanite ventured into the forbidden place, naively searching for a part for his Cushman. This was akin to asking the gunnery officer on the USS Missouri for a box of BBs. A Cushman motor scooter in a Harley-Davidson store? Send in the clowns! What's that pie-faced twit doing intruding with that puny, gutless slug among real men's machines? The dealer slouched inside, appearing nearly as filthy as the soot-stained walls. He grunted a response to the kid's question, barely deigning to deal with a noncultist. Other men lurked against the workbenches. They wore grimy denims and sported heavy engineer's boots gleaming with caked motor oil. They smoked heavily, filling the morbid room with gray clouds that mingled with the belching and backfiring of the Harley they were attempting to tune with large screwdrivers. The outlander had clearly stifled conversation, and it would remain so until he departed, leaving them to stand in silent witness to the rattle-bone thud of the big machine under the dealer's crude ministrations. The kid never returned. Nor did anyone he knew who was considered a member of decent society ever enter those dreaded precincts.

What People are Saying About This

Matthew Reed Baker
In this exuberant paen to the motorcycle, Car and Driver editor at large Brock Yates examines how Harley-Davidson, Inc., has fluctuated between dubious and triumphant business decisions since its incorporation in 1907.
—Matthew Reed Baker, Brill's Content

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