Monday, September 1, 2008

Not exactly hog heaven, but V-twins rumble in Cuba

I met with Sergio Morales while in Cuba recently and he was still roaring around on an old Harley Davidson Servi-car.
"Our parents and our grandparents rode these machines," Morales once told me. "They're part of the family. And it's our duty to keep them alive."
I'm amazed at what Morales, shown above opening a Bucanero beer, and other Harley aficionados have to go through to keep their Harleys going. They make spare parts by hand. They restore and repair their old Panheads and Flatheads without any fancy tools or well-equipped shops. They are inventive, talented and largely self-taught mechanics.
"Maintaining a Harley is infinitely more difficult in Cuba than in the United States," Morales told me for a story I wrote for the Dallas Morning News. "We go through hell."
Adolfo Prieto, at left in the middle photograph, is another leader of Harley fans in Cuba. More more information, see his web site (in Spanish).


ProfessorP said...

I read about the Harley culture in the Cuba edition of 'traveler's tales,' but I haven't been able to get to the garage on the Atares side of La Habana Vieja to see it. LIke the Hershey train, it's one of those things I have to do but haven't found time to accomplish (haven't done the tango lessons either).

I hear there are a number of international types who bring their Harleys in pieces to be rebuilt by the afficionados. I think it's just another one of those businesses that could flourish if the market had a chance to get there.

alongthemalecon said...

The Harlistas are a great bunch. I hadn't heard of people bringing Harleys to Cuba to be rebuilt. That's interesting. Below is a story I wrote about the Harlistas in 1999. It's out of date. I'm working on a new story about the Harlistas.

The Dallas Morning News

Cuban devotees work hard to keep old bikes running
Tracey Eaton Mexico City Bureau of The Dallas Morning News
Published: July 21, 1999

Legend has it that after the 1959 revolution, Cuban agents seized nearly 1,000 Harley-Davidson motorcycles, dug a huge hole in a secret spot and buried the fabled machines, dealing a blow to the American way. Four decades later, Cubans argue furiously about whether the tale is true. But one thing is certain: The indomitable Harley lives on in the land of Fidel Castro, thanks to ordinary Cubans who go to extremes to preserve their beloved "hogs."
"Our parents and our grandparents rode these machines. They're part of the family. And it's our duty to keep them alive," said Sergio Morales, head of Cuba's only garage dedicated to restoring and repairing old Harleys.
Americans have heard this kind of story before: Man finds meaning in life while restoring or working on an old motorcycle. Now imagine Cuba, cut off from the United States, with no classified ads, virtually no spare parts from the United States, no junkyards, no Internet sites to help find that obscure 1955 crank pin.
"Maintaining a Harley is infinitely more difficult in Cuba than in the United States," Mr. Morales explained. "We go through hell."
Yet it's a fate he seems to relish.
"It's all about sacrifice. You have to earn the right to ride these machines."
Mr. Morales, a thin, wiry man of 48, is the undisputed dean of
Cuban Harley owners, who proudly call themselves Harlistas. Besides running a tiny repair shop in Havana's gritty Luyano neighborhood, he is president of Cuba's Association of Classic Motorcycles.
"There have been times when we haven't been able to get tires for our motorcycles, so we have had to use Volkswagen tires," he said. "They're too big, of course, so we have to pad the rim. And we have to add spokes. All by hand."
As he spoke, it began to rain, soaking the vintage motorcycles parked in front of his modest home. All were knuckleheads, flatheads and panheads - Harley models produced in the 1940s and '50s.
Mr. Morales puffed a soggy, half-smoked cigar while his wife, Miriam, served cups of strong, sweet coffee. Their furry white pooch, Harley, suddenly bounded outside and barked as the couple's son-in-law kick-started his battered old motorcycle, then roared down the street.
Dog on a hog
"We sometimes take the dog for motorcycle rides. He likes that, but he doesn't like the sound of the engine," said Mr. Morales, taking a sip of coffee. "I guess it's too loud. Hurts his ears. But we like 'em loud."
His living room was decorated in the Harley motif: A color poster of a 1992 Harley Softtail graced one wall, a stuffed "hog" was perched on top of the TV, and odd engine parts from 1940s-era Harleys were stacked neatly on the floor. A sign read: "God created the world in seven days and on the eighth, he created Harley-Davidson."
"Evangelists sometimes walk by, read that sign and get all upset," Mr. Morales said. "They go into a long explanation about how God created the Earth in six days and rested on the seventh day. Then they stop and ask, "By the way, what's Harley-Davidson? "
He stepped outside and walked across the street to his repair shop, crammed with cycle parts.
"We take parts from Alfa Romeos and other cars and from other motorcycles and adapt them to fit our Harleys," he said. "Or we make our own parts. Our motorcycles have so many Cuban-made parts, we consider them "Made in Cuba.' It fills us with pride."
Valuable hybrids
He estimates that there are at least 100 working Harleys in Havana. American motorcycle experts say the Cuban Harleys would probably have value in the United States, even if they are hybrids.
"You could make a ton of money if you could get those Harleys out of Cuba," said Dick Winger of the Antique Motorcycle Club of America, with 8,000 members worldwide. "They're very collectible."
The price of vintage Harleys in the United States has dipped since it peaked three or four years ago, but everyone still wants an old Harley, said Steve LeMay, 40, a Californian who restores old motorcycles.
"Basket-case Harleys" - with their parts literally piled in baskets and cardboard boxes - start at around $4,000, he said. Restored models average $18,000. And some of the rarest and most coveted Harleys, such as the 1936 knucklehead, "can run $35,000 to $50,000."
It is extremely difficult, under Cuban law, to export old Harleys. But some foreigners who have moved to Cuba have bought old motorcycles and had them restored, a trend that saddens Harlistas.
"We're the ones who have made the sacrifices to keep these motorcycles running. I'd hate to see foreigners come in and buy them all," Mr. Morales said. "They wouldn't appreciate them. You have to work on them yourself to appreciate the beauty of a Harley."
Classic- motorcycle experts who have journeyed to Cuba from other countries have been amazed by the Harlistas' dedication and know-how. Consider what happened when Toronto mechanic Donny Petersen conducted a workshop for Harlistas in Havana in 1997.
Down cold
The Harlistas "wanted to get right to their favorite subjects, which involved the redirection of internal oil passages inside the engine . . . " Mr. Petersen later wrote. "There wasn't anything they didn't know about their machines. They can take a motor apart blindfolded and put her back together again."
Mr. Morales, his hands blackened by motorcycle oil and grit, said he once cut a perfectly good Harley exhaust system in half just to see how it worked. Harlistas have to be fanatical about the care of their machines, he said.
"We use these motorcycles for work, for transportation. We can't survive without them. This isn't like the United States, where you have to have money to buy a Harley. In Cuba, it's the poor who have Harleys."
Hogs fell out of favor in Cuba in the 1970s and '80s as motorcycles from the Soviet bloc flooded the island.
"People didn't want Harleys anymore," Mr. Morales said. "They were too much work to keep up, and the price of them dropped. You could get an old Harley for $500. They became the motorcycle of Cuba's poor."
Die-hard Harlistas refused to abandon their motorcycles despite the sweat and ingenuity required to keep them going.
Disciples of "Pepe'
Mr. Morales learned to repair Harleys under the late Jose Lorenzo Cortez, nicknamed "Pepe Milesima." His friends called him Milesima, meaning a thousandth, because of his never-ending quest for mechanical precision.
Harlistas honor Milesima every Father's Day, the day of his death. They climb onto their machines, ride to Havana's Colon Cemetery and gather around a tomb marked, "Pepe Milesima, Harley-Davidson mechanic."
"Pepe learned to fix Harleys before the revolution," Mr. Morales said. "He was a true master."
In those days, Harley-Davidson had a bustling dealership in Havana.
"Harleys sold like hot bread. They sold like crazy," said Lourdes Bretos, daughter of the late Luis Bretos, who ran the dealership.
She did stunts on Harleys, even riding one along the top of the narrow seawall on the edge of Havana.
"Those were the best days of my life," said Ms. Bretos, a Miami resident who left Cuba in 1961. "We toured the entire island by motorcycle, going where there were no roads."
Hundreds of regular Cubans, along with dictator Fulgencio Batista's police and soldiers, rode Harleys. Castro loyalists despised the soldiers, a fact that might have fueled the tale about the mass burial of hogs.
Harley-Davidson executives hope to do business again in Cuba and visited the island in 1995 to explore the possibilities.
The company, founded in a backyard shed in Milwaukee 96 years ago, sees Latin America as a potentially lucrative market. Already, demand for Harleys in Europe, Japan, Australia and other countries is soaring.
But back in Havana, Harlistas say money is hardly what matters to them. Sounding like the characters out of the 1974 book Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, they say owning a Harley in Cuba is more about life and truth. Friends and family. And don't forget hardship.
"Take the way we start our motorcycles," Mr. Morales said. "It's by kick-start. There's no electronic ignition. No button to flick. You have to give it a kick. You have to use some muscle. It's a ritual. And it's not always easy.
"Like I said, it's about sacrifice."

PHOTO(S): (1-4 The Dallas Morning News: Tracey Eaton) 1. Vintage Harleys are a common sight outside Sergio Morales' Havana garage, the only one in Cuba dedicated to restoring the classic bikes. 2. Sergio Morales says his dog, Harley, shown above with Mr. Morales' daughter Mildrem, likes motorcycle rides but not the sound of the engine. "I guess it's too loud. Hurts his ears." 3. Harleys in Cuba are maintained lovingly by devotees known as Harlistas, who scrounge or make their own parts. They have so many Cuban-made parts that they are considered "Made in Cuba," and their owners take great pride in them. 4. Sergio Morales: "Maintaining a Harley is infinitely more difficult in Cuba than in the United States."
Copyright 1999 The Dallas Morning News

South Florida Marine Real Estate said...

For those who haven't gone to Havana, now is the time to do it and not when Castro is gone. I am a pride old school Havana Harley Owner. Used to fix my four Harleys with almost bare hands and handmade tools. I remember the last 1959 Panhead I bought was inside an old rusted wooden box in a very old farm in Matanzas. 150 km from Havana. We all used to make jokes like "I have a flywheel face from Pinar Del Rio and another from Santiago de Cuba!" jaja I don't know bikes from here, but "our" bies back in cuba run almost with water inside their tanks. "They are so alive that they want to remain making noise even with parts made in USSR" Los americanos no saben lo que inventaron"some of us used to say that. We used to gather by the Malecon on Saturdays nights and just talk crap about the latest inventions, racing harleys with horsed, helping a friend to fix a leak in te carburetor or gast tanks patched with resins and glue. At the end of the night, we were just a crazy group having a lot of fun in a communist country riding an American legend. 1946 Knuckleheads, 1937 flatheads, 1950, 1952, 1956, 1959 Panheads... Thank you God for letting me live and breath those unforgettable 30 years in Havana. Thanks to all of you guys for thinking about us. You know you have a family waiting for you in Havana! Thanks for all your help and support. I am sorry for my bad english.