The following is a guest post by Eve Pearce
For many, a motorcycle is not just a possession it is a passion. With an air of speed, strength, danger and solitude their make-up is innately, albeit stereotypically, masculine. As such, its mythological status in American society can be traced back through an intensely patriarchal social history that has both helped and hindered the country often considered the last super-power. Part of this rich and complicated social history is the continued promise and pursuit of the American dream: an idea woven through fact and fiction, great literature, art and film has exploited Americans’ unwavering belief in this most indefinable of concepts. The peak of the twentieth century brought a rejection of these seemingly imposed values and allowed the American dream to be superseded by a want for excitement and a desire for recklessness: the perfect opportunity for the motorcycle to embed itself as an American icon. Indeed, the motorcycle is the mechanical embodiment of man’s lust for life and his chasing of the elusive American dream all in one.
Though the word biker can often conjure up the image of a leather-clad loner, the reality is much different. However, modern motorcycle owners vary greatly in their backgrounds and their beliefs. No longer is biking the sole environment of rebellious ‘bad boys’ or the wrongly perceived domain of men suffering from mid-life crises. Those who own or collect classic American motorcycles do so with a dedication and passion perhaps understood only by others within their circle. In place of the gang culture that sprung up around bikers in the 1950s, there are now sedate social gatherings where bike owners share knowledge about securing classic motorbike insurance and tips about maintenance. The cost of caring for and preserving these bikes is more than made up for in the pleasure that they bring to their owners. Although this flies in the face of the biker as a lone rider, there is no doubt that the draw of the open road and the sense of freedom involved is an underlying attraction of owning a classic motorcycle.
Creating an American legend
This need for solitude and open spaces can be found in that greatest of American myths: the cowboy. Although the archetypal figure of strength and masculinity and one that remains a figure associated with American man, the reality of the cowboys was quite different. So how did a band of men whose sole purpose was the non-glamorous, non-violent, non-dangerous herding of cattle across the Great Plains become the gun-toting heroes that we all know today? With myths defined by culture and society and often symbolic of said society’s hopes, dreams and desired appearance to the outside world looking in it says much that the American cowboy is an image that has remained. Even with the mechanical addition of a motorcycle, the legacy and potency of the cowboy as lone rider is a testament to their symbolic significance. However, it took the onset of popular entertainment to transform the humble shepherd into a much-feared and lauded American hero.
When the bare bones of cowboys’ lives were harnessed in mass produced pulp fiction and low budget B-movies they became the epitome of everything America deemed great. The cowboy emerged as a figure of immense strength propaganda wise and was loved by women and admired by men in equal measure. In his early dominance of B-movie productions, the cowboy character was in fact intended as a moral compass for America’s youth: he was dependable, untouchable and inherently decent…and still an evolutionary step away from the cowboy he became. For bridging the gap between the all-American squeaky clean infallibility of his first screen appearances and the bad boy biker that emerged in the 1950s was the reinvention of the cowboy as out and out gunslinger. Who cares that in reality cowboys used guns rarely and only to ward off wolves? In the movies a shootout became an inevitable by-product of being a ‘real man’. Obviously.
Brave new world
In the late 40s and early 50s, even this new-improved American hero was beginning to falter. It was a time when Hollywood was changing and its leading men were too. The pretty boy acceptable faces of Gregory Peck and Cary Grant had once worked happily in tandem with the rough masculinity of cowboys extraordinaire Gary Cooper and John Wayne, but were about to be shaken by some new additions. The collapse of the cowboys’ ideals were inextricably linked with a country still wounded by war: and a country both questioning and questionable in its claim to be the pinnacle of fairness and democracy. Something new was needed to symbolize this unstable shifting in society and Marlon Brando, James Dean and Steve McQueen were there to fill the void.
Not only did these three portray new kinds of American heroes, their ‘live fast, die young’ outlook off-screen helped perpetuate and continue the myth of the lone rider…with a powerful motorcycle replacing a trusty horse. Dean in particular is forever linked with the agony and ecstasy of the need for speed. Though his untimely death was by car, not bike, it only served to popularize the appeal of motorcycles. For the newly christened ‘teenagers’ they represented something exciting, something young, something rebellious and ultimately, something desirable. Furthermore, Dean and Brando’s rise to stardom brought with it a new theory of performance: the method. The grittiness and realism of this acting was in keeping with an America growing tired of artifice and pretense and demanding ‘truth.’ Although McQueen viewed acting as rather more of a hobby – something that often got in the way of his actual passion: motorcycles – his career did span one of the most challenging and changing times in America’s history.
The King of Cool
From the emergence of teenage America through to the absolute breakdown of trust in authority, McQueen consistently displayed something of a devil-may-care attitude. In his work, in his spare time and even in his relationships he appeared to seek trouble and as his fame grew so did the American counter-culture. His refusal to fall in line became synonymous with McQueen the motorcyclist and thus the machine itself strengthened its grip on rebellion, strength and a ‘cowboy’ attitude. Perhaps the most iconic McQueen motorcycle moment comes in The Great Escape; for a film considered a classic, there are many issues - not least is its tendency to play somewhat fast and loose with a little something called historical accuracy. This is encapsulated by McQueen’s supremely laid-back but subtly brilliant performance as Captain Hilts. As his comrades escape in more routine, indeed non-anachronistic ways, Hilts inexplicably but joyously makes a bid for freedom on a Triumph TR6. Its ridiculousness is fabulous and in many ways it represented McQueen’s own difficulty to come to terms with his stardom. A man who owned over 100 Harleys, McQueen would use his bikes to escape the Hollywood hustle and bustle for the freedom and air of the open road. Indeed, they were his great escape throughout his career.
With the unshakeable glory days of America long gone, the motorcycle has far more disparate meanings in today’s America as does its spiritual predecessor the cowboy. Indeed, even the word ‘cowboy’ has suffered from negative appropriations outside the US. Its association with poor workmen, careless individuals and cavalier attitudes has in some ways belittled the myth of the American hero. In Europe especially, the perceived insensitivity of George W. Bush to a range of politically precarious issues saw him labelled a cowboy … and not in a good way. But at its heart, the cowboy, the biker, the lone rider is the embodiment of something good. It is the rhetoric of the dreamer with a discourse of ambition and independence that lives on in today’s classic motorcycle enthusiasts. These are distinctly American values and it is here that the icon of the lone rider perhaps plays its greatest trick: providing people with an impression of rebellion and social rejection whilst they actually fulfill some of the country’s most valued morals and characteristics. Genius.