Sunday, August 16, 2015

Randy D. McBee's "Born to Be Wild"

Randy D. McBee is Professor and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Texas Tech University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, and reported the following:
The 99th page appears at the start of chapter 3, which is titled, “‘You Ain’t Shit if You Don’t Ride a Harley’: The Middle-Class Motorcyclist and the Japanese Honda.” The chapter introduces the reader to a growing divide between motorcyclists that will shape motorcycle culture throughout the postwar period. The 99th page focuses specifically on the increasing numbers of British-made bikes that entered the U.S. market after World War II. Immediately following the war the U.S. government relaxed trade restrictions to help rebuild Europe’s economy and British-bike makers quickly took advantage of the opportunity. Before long Americans across the country were riding BSA, Triumph, and Norton motorcycles (to name a few), and the bikes quickly attracted the attention of Hollywood. The iconic film The Wild One (1953), which starred Marlon Brando as the leader of a motorcycle club called the Black Rebels featured Brando in the now famous look of the rebel--dungarees and a leather jacket--and he was riding a Triumph motorcycle.

Over the next two decades debates about brand name loyalty became increasingly acrimonious with the introduction of the Japanese Honda motorcycle in the early 1960s. Honda would quickly dominate the U.S. market for two main reasons: the company became famous for their clean, easy to ride, lightweight motorcycles that stood in sharp contrast to the 1000ccs (or bigger) Harleys that were hard to start, mechanically unreliable, and loud, and because of a famous ad campaign that identified Honda riders as the “nicest people.” This new breed of motorcyclist was depicted as clean cut, respectable, and middle class, and these riders stood in bold relief to the traditional motorcyclist who was an “outlaw” at heart and increasingly imagined as violent and anti-social.

The success of Honda and the emergence of the middle-class rider profoundly shaped motorcycle culture. Honda’s popularity was accompanied by a shrinking share of the market for Harley-Davidson, which held less than 4 percent by the early 1970s, terms like “Jap bike” and “rice burner” framed the increasingly tense debates about economic nationalism, and fears about motorcycle safety compelled legislators to start passing helmet laws in the late 1960s. Helmet laws were part of a broader effort to regulate “outlaw” riders who were depicted as a threat to the non-riding public but also to protect middle-class riders whose safety dominated discussions about the growing numbers of motorcycle accidents and fatalities. Outlaw riders opposed helmet laws. Middle-class riders were blamed for them. The frustration surrounding these two different groups undermined efforts to develop a grassroots movement to repeal helmet laws and the resulting frustration contributed in part to the first slogan helmet opponents adopted in their bid to challenge regulation: “Helmet Laws Suck.”
Learn more about Born to Be Wild at The University of North Carolina Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue