Harley turns 100 (published Cycle Torque, May 2003)

Numbering in the tens of thousands, Harley-Davidson fans made a pilgrimage to Sydney Showground on March 15th and 16th to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the iconic label.

Advertisements promised the 'Party of the Century', and with its mix of exhibitions, live music, and plenty of bikes the 'Open Road Tour' did not disappoint.

The 'Open Road Tour Exhibition' proved popular with crowds keen to learn more about the motorcycle from Milwaukee and escape the heat. Organisers.opted for a hands-on approach, with people encouraged to take a seat on the nearest Electra Glide or Sportster, or try on a leather jacket emblazoned with an eagle for an instant dose of cred. There was something for everyone; toddlers coloured in motorbike pictures with crayons while their parents marvelled at the display of Hogs from the early 1900s to the present. Tattoos have long been a means of branding oneself as a part of Harley culture, so it was little surprise to see a stall encouraging young and old to pick out one they liked. The kind that washes off after a week, but they left smiles on the faces of seven-year-old boys who grinned proudly at their arms.

The nearby 'Antique and Custom Bike Display' gathered some of the most unique Harleys from around the nation. They were the full spectrum of colours and vintages, adorned with flames, flowers and flair. "No two bikes are alike," marvelled Glenda, secretary of the Harley Owners Group in Wagga. "I guess that's why Harleys are so popular, because you can customise them, you can express your own personality through the bike, you can do what you want with it. You're only limited by your imagination and I guess some dollars."

Outside there were demo bikes to ride; the full-size version for adults and some mean looking trikes for the ankle biters. Richard Kent delighted his audience with a trials display, although his skillful handling disappointed the young boy beside me who was keen to see a crash. Crowds were consistently ten deep at the stunt area's shows, which also included a burn-out display. The entertainment didn't stop there, with the amphitheatre showcasing some cabaret style musicals and even a cooking show from acclaimed chef 'Biker Billy.'

Indeed there was so much to see that Kathy, a Softtail owner from Brisbane, suggested that attendance on both days of the festival was a must. "We were here yesterday," she said, gesturing to the large group of friends who had made the journey with her. "We mostly saw the displays, all the different types of bikes and things. We haven't seen a lot of the shows and stuff, so we'll do that today."

While the show impressed the travellers, Kathy's highlight was the trip down the coast with her pals. "The ride down has been great. It's been fabulous," she enthused.

The Open Road Tour was more than a reason to party, with proceeds from the events worldwide going to Harley Davidson's favourite charity, the Muscular Dystrophy Association (MDA). Harley has supported MDA for 23 years, during which time the partnership has raised more than $40 million. "The really great thing is the awareness. Just to be able to be here so that people can find out about us because so many people don't know what this disease is," said Arlene, a spokeswoman for MDA in Sydney. The organisation sold raffle tickets and badges over the weekend to raise funds, and were impressed with the generosity of the crowds. "It goes towards all of our services, which includes things like equipment, like wheelchairs for people. It includes things like support groups. It includes things like money towards research, anything that our members need," said Arlene.

Once you'd checked out the exhibits and shows, the Harley-Davidson stage was the place to be. On Saturday it housed popular Aussie rockers Killing Heidi and the revamped INXS. Sunday saw Diesel deliver a greatest hits set, while Vanessa Amorosi entertained a small mid-afternoon gathering with popular blues standards. Indigenous band Yothu Yindi proved to be a crowd pleaser and the perfect warm-up for the anticipated address from the Davidson family.

Harley's chairman and chief executive officer, Jeff Bleustein, teased the crowd with promises of exciting new models, before introducing the family everyone wanted to see.

"Thank you Australia! Thanks for being a part of our great birthday party," drawled a beaming Willie G Davidson, the figurehead of Harley-Davidson. "Thanks for riding with us. Thanks for being a part of this thing that's going to go on for another 100 years." He passed the microphone to son Bill, who thanked the people of Sydney for their hospitality, before the trio appeared ready to leave the stage. The crowd was having none of that as they chanted "Nancy! Nancy!" The matriarch of the Harley clan chose to respond to the family atmosphere that the celebrations fostered. "Thanks to the mums and dads who brought their children. This is truly a family affair and we were so thrilled to see all the children here."

For the weekend was ultimately about people. The people dancing, beer in hand, to Jimmy Barnes as he provided the music that would close the party. The families who sat subdued behind the throng; mothers and fathers gazing at their children sleeping in Harley-Davidson T-shirts. The groups of friends, long-term relationships and new acquaintances made over the weekend. For Glenda of Wagga the highlight was "To come up here and be with people who share a passion for bikes. Just to come together and enjoy that." And enjoy it they did.

(c) 2006 Lauren Katulka