Dawn of the dark custom culture

Milwaukee moves to reclaim the lunatic fringe

West Hollywood, Calif., Jan. 19,—Did someone slip me a club drug? Am I hallucinating or am I really in a black-walled cavern with a rave DJ standing over his soundboard flanked by video screens running loops of guys on skateboards while on the other side of the room another pair of screens display lurid footage of two guys beating each other bloody, and where the white-bearded visage of Willie G. Davidson floats about the proceedings wearing a gangsta black do-rag instead of the familiar and reassuring beret? And standing sepulchral in the middle of this madness is a black-shrouded form that appears to be a motorcycle, but I don’t know if I’m here to witness its unveiling or drink its blood. All I know for sure is that I’m supposed to be at a Harley-Davidson press conference, which are always conducted in a clean, well-lit place, but I could swear I’ve stumbled instead into, like, the Viper Room.

What? This is the Viper Room? This is Johnny Depp’s dark haunt where that Phoenix kid OD’d on goofballs? And this is a Harley-Davidson press conference? Whoa. How times have changed.

And that’s exactly the point The Motor Company is making with all of this, and being none too subtle about it. The rare unveiling of a new model in midyear is only the first of the evening’s revelations here in the heart of tragically hip and trendy West Hollywood. Also being unveiled are a new model-family buzzword, a determined return to The Company’s neglected bad-boy roots, and an aggressive campaign to attract the young and the restless. Nowhere is the latter more pronounced than on those video monitors flanking the DJ. The skateboarders on screen are, in fact, Team Emerica, a group of hog-riding skateboard thrashers who are suddenly the adopted poster boys of the fresh demographic target and rediscovered edgy attitude of The Motor Company.

But it’s the bike that matters most, and for devoted Harley watchers, the unveiling of the new model—ominously dubbed the Softail Cross Bones—provides the answer to the question of where the FLSTSC Softail Springer Classic went last year after leaving the lineup for 2008: It ran off and joined a cult. The cult of the “Dark Custom,” to be exact. That’s the new buzzword nomenclature hatched by Harley to describe not just the Cross Bones, but their other recent forays into blacked-out menace and minimalism. These include the Nightster, Night Train, Night Rod Special and the Street Bob, and the family resemblance is undeniable. As described by Bill Davidson, the essence of the Dark Custom is “raw, simple, aggressive, and badass.” And Bill takes the new nomenclature a step further, coining the term “Dark Custom Culture” to describe who these bikes appeal to, and from what we can gather, it’s a culture populated by hip young subversive types; by punks, headbangers, suicide girls and blood sport aficionados. In this realm, black is the new chrome, ultraviolence the new ethos, and any perception you may have had of The Motor Company going fuzzy-friendly and benign in recent years officially outdated. All of the lunatic fringe qualities and subversive tendencies associated with this Dark Custom Culture are, of course, reminiscent of what it used to mean to be a biker, and poignantly pointing up that attitude resurgence is a reworking of the iconic AMF/Harley #1 logo—prominently displayed on the wall of the Viper Club—with the stars and stripes motif replaced by stark black and white with a skull at the top.

And the Cross Bones is definitely not your father’s Harley-Davidson. It’s more like your grandfather’s. Retro details abound on this machine—even more retro details than were found on the distinctively vintage-styled Springer Classic it more or less replaces in the Harley collection. But whereas the Classic evoked the stock appearance of a ’40s-era Knuckle or Pan, the Cross Bones evokes what that stocker ended up looking like once it had been thoroughly bobbed and chopped and turned into a statement of outlaw cool. The reappearance of a cat-eye style dash is a nice touch of nostalgia, as are the half-moon floorboards, round brake pedal pad and a sprung solo saddle. The Cross Bones’ custom cred is provided by apehangers,

a fat 200mm rear skin, black-rimmed steel spoke wheels and Von Dutch pinstriping on tank and fenders. The familiar Evo-era round air cleaner is back—in black, naturally—to further distinguish the Cross Bones from the rest of the Milwaukee lineup. Dipping into the new P&A offerings for this model can take the bike even deeper into traditional bobber styling with a high black sissy bar and fender-mount P-pad.

It’s a striking design, and when Willie G. declares that it “goes back to the bikes that were running around the circle back at Hollister,” you can’t help but agree with that assessment, and you also can’t help but register his reference to Hollister in this context. This is Harley reconnecting with and embracing the outlaw element of its past, and it’s about time. This is, after all, the element that ultimately proved its biggest selling point, but one that—in the opinion of a good many of the Bar & Shield faithful—they’ve retreated too far from, leaving the door open to any number of interlopers looking to put that stamp on their own machines.

In scrambling back to those roots and reestablishing the marque as the marque of rebels and rowdies and borderline sociopaths, The Motor Company has ventured into uncharted waters, putting the Bar & Shield center-ring in the Ultimate Fighting Championship series. That explains those video screens at the Viper Club showing guys pounding the crap out of each other. In announcing the company’s high-profile sponsorship of the UFC, Bill Davidson notes that this is the first time in Harley’s history that they’ve put their name on any sporting event outside of motorsports. It’s a weird choice for that distinction, if you ask me, but then everything’s just a little bit weird here tonight, as you’ve probably gathered, and there’s a lot to assimilate. Easiest to assimilate is the Cross Bones, which is a thing of pure raw beauty and go-to-hell attitude. It’s a smashing addition to the Harley stable, and with a list price of $16,795, it could prove bad news for custom competitors thriving on the bobber craze. What’s going to take some getting used to are the methods Harley’s now using to romance a younger audience, but even so, you’ve got to give the company props for shaking things up and infusing a new energy and focus into keeping the Bar & Shield vital to motorcycling and center stage in contemporary American culture. That’s übercool, dog.


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