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Popularity of Harleys doesn't fade with age

Published Oct. 4, 2005

(ran LT NT CT)

Jimmy Todd bought his first Harley-Davidson motorcycle in 1949 and rode so fast that his adrenaline flowed like the lightweight oil in his engine.

The young hell-raiser from Childress, Texas, also discovered that the powerful bike could keep him ahead of police trying to nab bootleggers in the dry county.

"When I'd go by the Highway Patrol office," he recalled, "I would rack my pipes so they'd know it was me and they could chase me."

Back then Todd fit the image of a Harley rider to a tee _ young, long hair, rebellious, often at odds with the law. But like so many rebels, he matured, gave up the Harley, and settled into married life _ raising kids instead of raising cane.

Then, three years ago, Todd bought another Harley, joined a club of largely older bikers and started taking long trips with his wife riding in back. Now past 60, Todd fits an updated image of the Harley rider _ older, financially stable and more conservative than other motorcyclists.

The American-based Harley-Davidson corporation promotes this new image by sponsoring Harley Owners Groups, commonly referred to as HOG clubs.

At a recent evening HOG meeting at a pizza place in Northern California, Harleys flooded the parking lot while a sea of riders clad in black leather _ average age over 40 _ sat inside.

The purpose of the monthly gathering was to give Harley owners a chance to trade stories of biking escapades and plan expeditions. The maturity of the riders became evident when discussion turned to the music for an upcoming party.

"Something more along the lines of Lawrence Welk," shouted Bob Crowson, 67, a long-time Harley owner. Others nodded in agreement.

Several days later, in his law office in Elk Grove, Calif., Gaylord Mann quietly talked about his own love affair with the Harley. While he bought his first in 1950, the motorcycles have been in his family for years: In a place of honor at home is a picture of his father with his own 1922 model Harley.

Mann's 1945 Army reject Harley came at a price of $25 and required some assembly.

"Back then, they were all over the place, like popcorn," said Mann, 57. "You could get parts at Army surplus stores."

Over the years, Mann has owned 36 motorcycles, eight being Harleys. Like many in his age group, he was into racing for a while, in the '50s and '60s, but now is satisfied with touring. Today he owns two Harleys, a 1982 sporty model and a 1993 touring bike that has a sidecar "so my wife will ride with me."

For Ken Fudge, being straight-laced was just a way of life. But "when I turned 50 I turned over a new leaf." He shaved his head, got his first in a string of tattoos and devoted more time to riding his Harley. A Harley owner since 1945, when he owned an Army reject model, he has since owned from one to four motorcycles at a time, usually favoring the Harley-Davidson.

Vic Guidera, 50, owner of a Sacramento Harley-Davidson store, said that price plays a role in the rising age of Harley owners.

Harleys typically cost $5,000 to $17,000, with the more popular ones in the $15,000 range, said Guidera. But there's nothing to prevent those with the money from customizing the bike with various accessories to end up with a machine with a value of $30,000 or more.

"It's no longer a young man's bike because of the price," he said. "A guy will take a $15,000 Harley to a dealer and say, "I'm a special guy, I need a special motorcycle.' "

But older riders are in it less for status and more to fulfill a dream, said Guidera.

"They're all baby boomers _ they're all over 40, and they finally have the extra money and time to spend on a Harley they didn't have earlier."

That's partly the case with Jimmy Todd's wife.

"My wife was 55 before I ever got her on one," he explained. "I took her on an hour's putt and she said, "For the first time I understand why you like to ride.' Now she has her own leathers and helmet and she's going to go to motorcycle training school so she can get her own bike."

Until then, the Todds think nothing of doubling up on one Harley and heading up to Oregon, a 625-mile round trip from their Sacramento home, for lunch. Or taking an 8,000-mile trip to Daytona Beach.

"There's an exhilaration in riding my Harley at top speed," says Todd. "I'm 60, but I don't think I'm too old for anything."

Julie Howard is a writer and editor in Sacramento.