Cycle World magazine cover July 1967

I’ve been reading about U.S. motorcycling in the between-the-wars period, 1919 to 1939. That was a time in which great prosperity (you’ve heard of “the roaring twenties?”) was followed closely by a terrible drop into a long-lasting economic depression. Much like the part of the 21st century in which we are living now–motorcycle sales swooped up to the fabled sunny uplands of 2005, then took a dive in 2008 to ’09.

And in the Great Depression that began in October, 1929, motorcycle sales crashed by 85 percent or more. Dozens of small producers just winked out of being, and on March 31, 1931, bicycle magnate and owner of Excelsior-Henderson, Ignaz Schwinn, called all his motorcycle division employees together and told them, “Boys, today we quit.”

The remaining makers, Indian and Harley, were desperate for cash and on more than one occasion shipped product they sorta suspected wasn’t quite ready for market because they needed the money (they didn’t have government-mandated product recall in those days).

And although Indian had long been a technology leader in motorcycling, the harsh law of “No bucks equals No Buck Rogers” affected everyone. So instead of advanced new models pushing the envelope, what the market got was drastically restyled taillights and bold new graphics–the “streamline look,” which then affected even such mundane products as pencil sharpeners and chests-of-drawers. When I went to the Milan show for the first time after that 2008 crash, where was the emphasis? It sure wasn’t on new models! It was mostly fun-but-silly-and-cheap electronic gadgetry–like systems that allow me to lie on the living room sofa, reviewing my track-day laps on my SmartPhone, in direct communication with my bike’s ECU data system. Tiny silicon chips cost pennies, but production lines for new models cost zillions.

Back in that bad old depression of 1929, the motorcycle racing that had once packed big facilities with eager spectators shrank away to nothing, forcing the AMA to announce a new form of competition, based upon production machines. They called it ‘Class-C.’ The original intention was that competitors would ride their bikes to the track (try that with your basic TZ750), remove the road gear, and race (that purity of intention was soon modified by the all-too-human desire to win). Today the apparent coming thing is ‘spec-class racing. Whole grids of identical standard bikes, making costly fabricating, welding, machining, and endless track and dyno testing unnecessary.

I was going to tell you what happened to motorcycle magazines in the 1930s but I’ve decided to leave that to your imagination.

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