Imagine a room so enormous that it can enclose an entire Boeing 707 aircraft in takeoff mode, wheels still extended as it lifts off at full throttle with a thunderous roar. Now imagine that gathered around this aircraft, dwarfed like chicks to a mother hen, are 40 motorcycles. If you’re getting this unusual picture, what you’re seeing is the Air Force One Pavilion at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum in Simi Valley, California, which debuted a motorcycle exhibition called Born to be Wild this summer. The why, who and where of this display make for a fascinating picture of two-wheeled American culture, and how President Reagan crossed paths with motorcycling.
The plane, of course, is Air Force One, which transported seven presidents from Richard Nixon to George H. W. Bush. It is displayed well above the floor as it seems to rush through the enormous window to take flight over the California countryside. The motorcycle exhibition’s three sections include six Harley-Davidsons and 15 vintage machines on a level with the plane, with 19 celebrity and movie bikes at ground level. Among the Harley collection are a replica of the original 1903 machine, a 1919 Model J in olive green with sidecar and a 1928 model with teardrop tank, the first year Harley to carry a front brake.
The collection displayed along the wall behind Air Force One leads off with the three-wheeled 1899 De Dion-Bouton, which won the Paris-Ostend road race that year at an average speed of 32.8 mph. Other early bikes include a 1922 Ner-a-Car with feet-forward seating and center-hub steering; “Cannonball” Baker rode one from New York to Los Angeles in just over seven days that year. Baby Boomers may recognize more contemporary machines such as the 1959 Cushman Eagle scooter, and from the ’70s, a Jawa Speedway bike, Husqvarna MXer and Honda CBX six-cylinder.
Why motorcycles at the Reagan? You may recall that back in the early 1980s Harley-Davidson was struggling for its very existence against the influx of low-priced, technically advanced motorcycles from Japan, and H-D alleged that the Japanese were “dumping,” selling motorcycles in the United States for lower prices than those same machines commanded in their home country. Harley’s management appealed to the United States Trade Commission, which imposed a tariff on bikes from Japan of more than 700cc displacement. The bill was signed into law by President Reagan in 1983, and was scheduled to be in effect for five years. Meanwhile H-D introduced the Evolution motor, and eventually the company was doing so well that it requested the tariff end a year early. President Reagan honored its request in 1987.
Who chose the bikes to be exhibited? Reagan Museum Curator Andrew Wulf told me, “When we decided to do the exhibition, people just started calling. As Southern California is a hotbed of motorcycle culture, we received some incredible local help. Our point person was Keith Mashburn, a retired Simi Valley firefighter who raced Yamahas in the ’60s and just knew everyone. Keith is highly knowledgeable and selfless, so he started allying with local bike enthusiasts. Others included Urban Hirsch, Daniel Schoenewald and Kaming Ko. It was actually pretty easy to find motorcycles, but extremely difficult to whittle the list down to 40. What was most revelatory throughout this process was observing how much joy these lenders—and visitors to the exhibition—have in these motorcycles.”
A sampling of the movie and celebrity bikes rounding out the exhibition includes the motorized penny farthing that Kevin Kline rode in Wild, Wild West, Robin’s Redbird and Batgirl’s Batblade from 1997’s Batman and Robin, and James T. Kirk’s machine along with a hovering police bike from 2009’s Star Trek. Others include a low-slung Dan Gurney Alligator, a replica of Floyd Emde’s 1948 Daytona 200 winner and a ’42 Indian Scout once owned by Steve McQueen. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger even stopped by to be photographed on the Harley Fat Boy he rode in 1991’s hit Terminator 2: Judgment Day. And there’s the Jelly Belly Bike created by Arlen Ness for President Reagan’s favorite candy company.
The Born to be Wild exhibition runs through November 9, 2010, at the Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum, open daily 10:00a.m.-5:00p.m. at 40 Presidential Drive in Simi Valley, California 93065, (805) 577-4000, www.reaganlibrary.com.