By Ray Seidel
The world’s oldest motorcycle – Royal Enfield, and America’s oldest motorcycle, Indian Motocycle, both beginning in 1901, were little more than bicycles with motors attached. (And yes, Indian left the ”R” off the name.) After about a decade, many new manufacturers sprang up with actual, albeit rudimentary, motorcycles, and a host of innovative features. This necessitated advertising to highlight not only why buying a motorcycle was a wise purchase, but that theirs was the top brand.
Initially, motorcycles were good, affordable transportation, yet from the very beginning the fun factor of being a recreational vehicle was played up in the ads. The freedom of riding in the open country was a common theme. And of course all the new features were listed for the new model year highlighting improved comfort, more durability and mechanical improvements. Touring mountains, valleys and winding roads in the 20’s gave way to performance by the 30’s. Rugged and fast was the pitch of the day.
This is not to say the economics of owning a motorcycle was overlooked. Bikes that were easy on gas, oil and rubber were great for commercial use or keeping costs in check for commuting. Add to that an advertisement showing the juxtaposition of a rider on a road by himself waving at a long line of people trying to board a bus!
However, racing was also becoming increasingly popular, and the make with the most wins had bragging rights for performance and durability. It is said that fully one half of Indian’s sales came about because they outperformed the competition on the race track.
During the war years of the 40’s, civilian motorcycle production ALMOST came to a stop. It is a well circulated myth that “war is good for the economy.” It in fact is not, as anyone who lived through that period can attest. Seemingly everything was rationed – sugar, meat, gasoline, rubber, metal. (Remember Howard Hughes’ “Spruce Goose” – no metal for construction, so made of wood.) This of course included motorcycles, with production of bikes going to the war effort. Ads during this period were for “essential use” civilian motorcycles. With approval from the government, essential meant farmers, police, postal workers and the like could still buy a motorcycle to keep the country running.
Speaking of police, Harley-Davidson and Indian Motorcycles coveted their business, which made up a significant chunk of their sales. Though each company had ads on why their police bikes were the right choice, the purchasing process was often rigged in advance in favor of whatever brand a particular police department preferred. If they wanted a Harley, the requisition would specify the bike must be “right hand throttle” or if Indian “left hand throttle.” (Presumably this meant Indian-riding cops had their right hand free to pull out their gun.)
Post-war ads were now largely showing bikes as “cool,” seeing as the economy was booming and motorcycles of one sort or another were within reach of many a budget. And going from the 60’s to the 70’s, many a nubile nifty was poised in all her glamour next to a bike to capture one’s attention.
Overseas, our friends were doing much the same with couples pictured with that particular motorcycle, the Germans emphasizing performance, while the Brits, Dutch & Italians are often looking at maps, ready to have the great Adventure for the Day.
Early ads said that motorcycles were practical and fun, while more recent ones that bikes are sexy and cool. They are all of that, and more. Regardless of what kind of bikes or riding you like to do, motorcycle ads through the years have been interesting pictographs of our culture.