The Vanishing Motorcycle

I like this Harley Davidson t-shirt because “Santa” reminds me of Esau, a guy I know. He’s no rebel: just a big, courtly, white-haired guy who loves to cruise his Harley out on the open road even past age 70.

Esau’s a good and gentle man, talented in so many ways. Only relationships confound him. My thought: a powerful steed, an open road and a big sky give him what he needs to keep his head straight.

I also like this t-shirt because it is history: at one point Santa Cruz had a Harley Davidson dealership, and this t-shirt came from it. Here’s the other side, if you can read it: an expanded version of the Harley logo with “Santa Cruz Harley Davidson” written on it. It’s not much easier to read in person.

Santa Cruz Harley Davidson was somebody’s dream: a super-plush full service dealership with an actual museum on the premises. Vintage Harleys stood on exhibit in front of realistic dioramas with explanatory text, special lighting, and everything you’d expect in a natural history museum. That store was so much cooler than it strictly needed to be.

And it succeeded, out there on Soquel Avenue in a former department store. The dealership opened into the white-hot economy of the mid-1990s. Harleys flew out the door throughout the dotcom era and into the housing bubble.

I’d drive by sometimes and see the Harley truck offloading a dozen new motorcycles, each wrapped in brown kraft paper as if it were a present. The words “YOUR HOG IS HERE” appeared on the wrapping in big bold letters.

And then it was 2008. The housing bubble collapsed. The financial system nearly did. A lot of people got poorer quickly — and never got richer again. What also collapsed was peoples’ interest in $35,000 motorcycles. At Santa Crux Harley Davidson, sales screeched to a complete halt. The design on this tee has a “copyright 2008” notice on it, and by the end of 2008 the dealership was gone.

I’ve got several tees from local motorcycle enterprises and they have two things in common: they’re all bizarre, and all the businesses are defunct. The t-shirt above comes from a defunct builder of choppers. He was apparently very proud of being a Big Dick. I’ve not got another tee quite like it.

Here’s a t-shirt from a defunct motorcycle riding gear store: leathers, helmets, gloves, like that. Everybody wants to buy their riding gear from an evil clown, right? (Note that this store was part of a chain that still exists elsewhere.)

And finally, here’s a tee from “Basket Case,” a defunct locally-produced magazine for chopper fanatics. They just called it quits in May 2021.

A chopper, for those like me who know nothing, is usually a motorcycle that’s been modified (“chopped”) to have an elongated frame and a long front end with a long fork, tall “ape-hanger” handle bars and a big chrome sissy bar in the back. You know the drill: think “Easy Rider.” You can also build your own chopper using whatever remnants of old motorcycles are lying around, and a lot of gearhead motorcyclists are doing just that these days.

I have no interest in motorcycles, and yet Basket Case was still a good read. Sorry to see it go. Good t-shirt, too.

All these defunct businesses tell a story: the news for motorcycles is not wonderful. There were a fair number of motorcycle dealers here once, but not anymore. Not one dealer remains in the county. Okay, except for the Honda dealer who, I’m told, works out of his house.

The Great Recession took care of some of them, like Santa Cruz Harley Davidson, but the real problem is this:

Millennials aren’t buying motorcycles. Motorcycle riders are trending older, and the big $30,000 cruiser bikes built for them don’t really appeal to younger riders — even if they could afford them. Millenials, compared to Xers and Boomers, are poor. In Santa Cruz, somebody who wants a cheap in-town commute solution takes a good, strong look at e-bikes; you’ll find plenty of places to buy them, too, including one business that used to deal in motorcycles.

Plus, plenty of old bikers have taken their last road trip or will, one of these days. Who’s going to buy their well-cared-for road bikes instead of buying a new one? A lot of people.

I haven’t even heard much of the local traditional “motorcycle clubs” lately. These are the ones with rigid member discipline and rules, who only ride Harleys, and who are not great friends with law enforcement. Used to see a lot of event shirts like these around, from the Ghost Mountain Riders up around in the Santa Cruz Mountains. But lately, not. Nothing in the papers, either, not even food drives nor toys for the kids.

And frankly all these t-shirts tell one truth: motorcycles have been marketed as something dangerous, something rebellious, something violent. Is that the way forward for transportation? I worked on a college campus till recently, and I don’t think so.

If Millennials and Zs ever take to motorcycles in great numbers, it’ll probably be something moderate-priced, electric, high-tech, and reliable. These new riders mostly won’t be the old noisy, edgy motorcycle crowd: they’ll be looking for a different experience. They will expect good performance, of course, just as from their other mobile devices.

This tee for a Santa Cruz manufacturer of electric motorcycles promises: “No Gas. No Noise. No Clutch. Just You and the Road.” That’s what a Z might want. Myself as well.

Zs or Boomers, internal combustion or electric: the open road will always call to motorcyclists. And if you head out there on your e-cycle sometime, you just may see Esau on his old Harley. Wave, and he’ll wave back. He got another woman to marry him, and it looks like it’s working. And if Esau can make relationships work, there’s gotta be hope for the motorcycle industry.

But it will be electric hope.

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