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Almost Fiction: Motorcycles in history

By Sam Jones


Confucius says, “Harley is best… F**k the rest,” or something like that. He said a lot of things. OK, Confucius rides a Harley-Davidson, so what. Ever wonder what other historical figures ride?

The Norse gods Thor and Odin rode Nordic BMWs; great giant 1200cc BMW GS dual-purpose bikes that can go around the world conquering anyone in their path. Being highly dramatic Teutonic types and needing a proper theme song to accompany the sword and the battle-ax, operatic strains of Wagner’s “Ride of the Valkyries” with an added 200-voice chorus follows them for effect. If the music was good enough for the 1930s movie serial Flash Gordon, I guess it is good enough for Thor and Odin.

The Greek god Zeus would ride something spectacular with style, power and fire. Zeus rides an outlandish chopper with extended front end, 10-foot sissy bar and a supercharged Harley Panhead. Hitting the nitrous bottle spouts real 20-foot flames.

The Roman god Jupiter (because the Romans stole everything from the Greeks and never came up with an original idea of their own) would ride a copy of a Panhead chopper. To fulfill heaven’s copyright requirements, they put a stolen Harley in a Xerox machine and changed it 10 percent, thus inventing the first Japanese metric cruiser. Jupiter would learn to ride on the smallest of all of these, a 250 Honda Rebel.

Hannibal! Hannibal crossed the Alps into Italy and did it on elephants. Now there is a picture: elephants in climbing gear, Gore-Tex anoraks, knit hats, ice axes strapped to their tails, hanging on to ropes with their trunks and pounding pitons with their tusks. I have absolutely no idea what kind of motorcycles he took with him from Carthage; the files have been lost. But because they would have to be very maneuverable, my guess is that they would have been trials bikes and I would like to believe they were Bultaco Sherpa Ts.

Not a real god in strictly religious terms, Attila the Hun and his hordes would cross the Russian steppes and conquer Europe. Riding the Swiss Army Knife of motorcycledom, the Kawasaki 650 KLR dual-purpose bike, he commanded thousand of crazy, doped-up rejects from the X Games riding motocross bikes. Nothing could stand in their way. Ahh, I can see it now, thousands of screaming outriders and scouts, Huns crossing the deserts, mountains and rivers on dirt bikes hacking at defenseless civilians, raping and pillaging their way across Eastern Europe, through France and into Italy.

That would scare the hell out of the Pope and Italian Catholics. By the way, the Pope rode a three-wheeled ATV trike with a canopy.

The Christian Crusades were an attempt to recapture the Holy City of Jerusalem from Islam. European knights in shining armor rode the huge war horse of motorcycles, V-8 powered Boss Hoss behemoth, chromed so they could stay shiny. The knights did their own share of raping and pillaging as they worked south toward Jerusalem to extirpate the Muslim infidels.

The Muslims, in defense, rode something faster and more maneuverable—sportbikes, crotch rockets and café racers—to repel the invading infidels. (I wonder why the bad guys are always called infidels? But I digress.)

The crusaders and the Muslims would fight back and forth burning and raping each other until the knights ran their big V-8s out of gas and had to go home.

Then there was a Children’s Crusade, but it is hardly worth noticing. Following a kid that said he saw God, European children snuck out at night and decided to do what their fathers couldn’t: reclaim Jerusalem. With nothing to fear because God was on their side, the kids kickstarted their minibikes and made for the Mediterranean, whereupon the first slaver they ran into promptly put them in chains and sold them and their minibikes for a good price, making himself a nice profit.

Convicted of heresy, Joan of Arc was burned at the stake for riding a Honda Gold Wing.

We know what kinds of bikes were used in World War II. The Germans had BMWs and Zundapps, both as solo bikes and sidecars. The Americans had Harley WLAs and Indians 741s. The English had Ariel, BSA and Triumph. The French had… well… I can’t think of a French motorcycle and it really doesn’t matter because the French were overrun so fast by the German blitzkrieg, they wouldn’t have had time to fill the gas tanks.

By the way, Hitler doesn’t ride. His troops rode the heck out of the BMWs and Zundapps, but he doesn’t ride. He sits in a bunker and gives orders to his army on how to invade Russia. I don’t think he read much about Napoleon and his defeat at the hands of the Russian winter.

I do know what the Russians rode—the Ural sidecar. They were said to be a direct copy of the BMW; perfect reproductions right down to the last nut. One story says that Stalin bought several pre-war BMWs to duplicate and smuggled them into Russia through Finland. Another story says they were purchased from Germany during the Nazi/Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of 1939. Either story is correct or incorrect. But it was a fact that the Russians had plenty of Ural sidecars, and better winter coats and boots. The Germans always had the sharpest, best-looking uniforms. Their long, leather trench coats were classic, but not particularly warm. However, when it comes to winter, function wins over form and the Russians and their warm boots marched and rode those Urals right into Berlin.

Winston Churchill rode a Brough Superior that he bought secondhand from T.E. Lawrence, (Lawrence of Arabia).

Franklin Delano Roosevelt was crippled with polio so he rode in a Harley-Davidson ULH sidecar with his wheelchair tied on the back.

Hideki Tojo rode a Marusho.

Mussolini… well… Italian motorcycle manufacturers MV Agusta, Ducati and Moto Guzzi don’t want to claim him, so we’ll just pretend we didn’t bring him up.

Not-so-distant history sees Ronald Reagan riding a Harley-Davidson; he even saw to it that the company was loaned federal monies.

Margaret Thatcher rode a Vincent with a big Union Jack painted on the tank.

What do today’s politicians ride? Those pillars of society who pander for votes while pretending to lower the price of gas all ride high-mileage motor scooters built in China.

Thus, history is primed to repeat itself. The stage is set for the next Mongol/Chinese invasion… that of Genghis Khan the Second.


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