HAVANA,June 26th More than a dozen Cuban bikers wearing black leather vests gather at an open-air bar in Havana. They chat and drink near the Malecón along the coast as the sun drops over the ocean.
Their bikes sit in a perfect row along the road. Passing cars, many decades old, sound their horns at the group. Passers-by admire the motorcycles — Russian Planeta, British Triumph and BSA bikes.
Among them stand three Harley-Davidsons, venerable and wild, that have been running for more than a half-century. The bikes are just a few of the dozens of Harley-Davidsons made in the ’30s, ’40s and ’50s that travel Cuba’s roads, motorcycles that have remained on the island after the communist revolution and U.S. trade embargo.
The bikes, symbols of U.S. independence and adventure, have been passed down through the decades in Cuba. They were repaired and adapted time after time by Cuban self-taught mechanics, using parts from many makes of motorcycles and cars and, more recently, Harley parts brought from the U.S. in travelers’ luggage.
“They were made in U.S., but they have a Cuban soul,” said José Salgado, a Harley rider, or harlista, as the bikers are knowalgado stands by his 1946 flathead Harley. It has a black, horse saddle-shaped seat, a red, curvy body and long, black fringes falling from its handlebar and seat. Salgado, who repaired and adapted the bike through the years using whatever parts he could find, crafted the silver bar that surrounds the seat back so that it resembles the shape of the Harley logo.
A man from Austin, Texas, stops to look at Salgado’s bike.
“That’s beautiful,” he tells him. “You are a lucky man.”
He is the only one of his brothers who inherited his father’s love for Harleys.
“Down the tires I leave the stress, the worries,” Salgado, 54, said. “It’s like a therapy. I feel free on it.”
This is the passion for riding Harley-Davidson that Salgado shares with so many others around the world, riders from all backgrounds and ethnicities, said John Tabar, general manager of the Naples Harley-Davidson dealership. Harley riders keep up their motorcycles and gather to share a common experience they love and to help others, Tabar said. The Harley-Davidson culture revolves around this passion.
“It’s the love of riding a motorcycle,” Tabar said. “It’s the heart of it.”
Salgado wears a patch on the left shoulder of his leather vest with the signature Harley-Davidson emblem. On his left hand, he wears four silver rings. One has the design of a Harley engine. Two others have skulls, including one with wings like those on the Harley´s emblem.
“Skulls protect you,” Salgado says.
On the right shoulder of Salgado’s jacket is another patch, a symbol with the Cuban flag that identifies him as a member of the Latin American Motorcycle Association, known as LAMA. The international riding club, founded in Chicago in 1977, has chapters all over the world, including Naples.
The group organizes monthly meetings, like the one Salgado and other bikers attended at the open-air bar near the Malecón.
For Salgado, his Harley is his escape, a chance to get away. And he admits he spends a lot of time escaping, just like his father once did.
“My father’s divorce was because of a Harley-Davidson,” he joked. “My father was always lost. And that happens to me as well.”
Salgado remembers as a child when Cuban villages nearly emptied as residents watched the government-organized marches at the Plaza de la Revolución in Havana. When the streets would clear in his hometown of Quivican, Salgado said he would march in a different way on his father’s bike, riding freely on the open roads.
His hometown used to organize motorcycle and horse competitions before and after the revolution, Salgado said, but that tradition has since died.
He has ridden other motorbikes, like a Soviet-branded Ukrainian Verkhovyna moped and Polish motorcycles. But Harleys fascinate Salgado, a mechanic who learned how to repair them from others and from books.
He bought his first Harley, a 1947 side valve, in 1984. It took him about 15 years to find parts and restore it. Then he got his second Harley about five years ago, a trade he made for another bike he owned. He spent about a year restoring that Harley.
The bike has pistons from a Czech car, a Skoda. The carburetor came from a Japanese bike. He added a second clutch in the left handle because he has a disability in his left leg. He repainted the yellow bike red and added white paint strips along the sides of the black tires.
In his garage, Salgado works on Harleys and other bikes. He began noticing about six years ago more owners bringing him Harley parts imported from abroad.
Second-hand Harleys are more expensive in Cuba now, Salgado says. Prices have gone up for the past 15 years as the bikes have become a vintage possession. A new Harley in the U.S. can easily cost $20,000, and some high-end models have suggested retail prices exceeding $40,000.
But what Salgado finds priceless — other than riding his Harley — is his riding club, LAMA.
“We are brothers of the road. We are a family,” he said standing at the bar near the Malecón. “We feel the same passion for the motors.”
For the Cuban harlistas, their bikes are more than a vintage possession, a means of transportation, a source of pride and a passion.
An estimated 120 bikers ride their Harleys on Cuban roads, says Abel Pez, 52, a harlista and organizer of the yearly gatherings of Cuban Harley-Davidson riders in Varadero, a popular beach resort on Cuba’s northern coast. Bill Jackson, the archive manager at the Harley-Davidson Museum in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, said that’s close to the 150 or so he’s heard others estimate remain in the country.
Very few of those, Pez said, are from the 1930s. They are mostly from the ’40s and ’50s, up to 1960, when the U.S. imposed the trade embargo. No models after that year were officially allowed in, although Pez said he has seen two or three modern Harleys on the road recently. He has no clue how they got into the country.
Pez owns a panhead Harley with a 1948 engine that he bought eight years ago. He painted it blue, changed the seat and added dampers to give his back an easier ride on the rough, pothole-filled roads of Cuba.
Unlike other harlistas, Pez likes motorcycles made by manufacturers other than Harley-Davidson. But he has loved the motorcycle from the day as a child he saw a neighbor ride one.
“The noise it made, it was an imposing motorcycle,” Pez said.
Before communism came to Cuba, local motorcycle dealer Luis Bretos sold Harley-Davidsons at his Havana dealership, and Cuban police were among his clients, Pez said.
Since 1917, the first Harley motorcycles and parts were sold at Harris Brothers in Old Havana and by Pujol Soler in Santiago de Cuba, Conner Gorry writes in the book “Cuban Harleys, Mi Amor.” Both sold their franchises to the Bretos family of Santiago de Cuba, Gorry wrote.
The Bretos family sold about 500 Harleys in the 1940s and ’50s to customers who included police and armed forces. Bretos organized popular promotional events like rallies and races, Gorry wrote. By the 1950s, Harleys reached the height of their popularity in Cuba, but the dealership closed in the aftermath of the revolution and embargo.
Cuban mechanics kept the Harleys alive with whatever parts they could find. Pez said the bike requires a lot of work and is expensive to keep up.
He finds parts in J&P Cycles, which has stores in Iowa and New York. His wife is Canadian, and he can get parts mailed to that country. Then he, his wife, or a relative can pick them up and bring them to Cuba. He also can find some parts in Cuba from buyers who bring them from the U.S. to sell.
Tabar, from the Naples Harley dealership, admires how Cuban harlistas have been able to keep their bikes from the ’40s and ’50s running. It’s more difficult for a Cuban rider.
“They don’t enjoy that much access. They have limited resources,” Tabar said. “With their ingenuity and their hard work, they have to repair them.”
Antonio Ramírez Alonso attended a recent LAMA gathering in his red 1947 flathead Harley 1200. His love for Harley also is inherited. His grandfather was a harlista. When he was a child, Ramírez’s father took him for rides on his Harley, with Ramírez sitting between the tank and the engine.
“I think that this is the greatest thing,” said Ramírez, now 53. “It’s an emotion that you have inside, a heritage.”
Harleys weren’t expensive in the time of his father, Armando Ramírez. He rode two Harleys, his private one and the one that came with his job as a police officer. Armando Ramírez joined the motorcycle acrobatic squad at the beginning of the revolution.
Ramírez keeps old photos of a carnival celebration outside Havana in 1964 where more than 15 officers rode on a single Harley, a castle of men intertwined by arms and legs as the public watched.
When his father sold his personal bike, he kept the horn and then handed it down.
“It’s there, in the bike,” Ramirez said.
His black leather vest displays his Road Captain badge, two Cuban flags and a U.S. flag pin. He bought his 1947 bike in pieces eight years ago from a mechanic.
“They had taken it apart to fix it, but they never repaired it,” he said.
Ramírez and his father put it together in about a month-and-a-half with the help of friends. Ramírez, a mechanic and a taxi driver with a 1955 Oldsmobile 98 Rocket, said he has lost count of how many bikes he has repaired in his garage. He often builds the parts himself.
“It’s something that you love,” he said. “Assembling one of these engines and making it work is like going back to the tradition.”
Ramírez said he and others learned from the older mechanics. On Father’s Day, they travel from the Hotel Nacional in Havana to the Cemetery of Colon where some Harley mechanics and riders are buried. They go to pay their respects and bring flowers to the grave of Pepe Milésima.
“He was the one who knew more, and he always guessed why the bikes broke down,” he said.
Tony Macrito, spokesman for Harley-Davidson Motor Company, said they are aware of a passionate base of riders in Cuba and they are assessing the need for their products there. But there are no immediate plans to seek approval to sell their products in Cuba.
“It’s about finding the right way to enter the market at the right time,” he said.
Near the open-air bar, Ramírez said he takes pride in maintaining his Harley.
“Wherever I arrive, people ask us to take photos with the bike,” he said. “Girls who are going to become 15 rent them to shoot photos with them.”
He understands why.
“No engine will be manufactured like this one,” he said. “That sound is incomparable.”
Or, as Salgado put it: “God created the world in seven days. The eighth, he created the Harley-Davidson.”