Communism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance

Harleys in Havana? ?Como no? Every one of them is a vintage classic. And every owner an obsessive fanatic.

Cuba is a place of legends. Some are as open and public as a billboard. Others are whispered with a guardedness normally reserved for state secrets. Here is one of the latter: Shortly after the triumph of the revolution, agents from Castro's government dug a huge hole in the ground -- the precise location remains a mystery. Into this hole they dumped hundreds and hundreds of Harley-Davidson motorcycles formerly used by the army and by Batista's feared national police. Flatheads, knuckleheads, panheads, models from the 1930s through 1960. All of them six feet under for eternity, fertilizing the island's sweet cane and strong tobacco. They remain there today, awaiting discovery by some lucky soul.

But outside of legend, the Harley has in fact managed to survive. More than three decades after the closing of Casa Breto, the Harley-Davidson dealership on the corner of Aguila and Colon streets in Centro Habana, the throaty rumble of the mighty hog can still be heard. From Miramar to Regla the thunder resonates from an estimated 100 vintage Harleys that continue to prowl the broken streets of Havana.

Their proud (some would say fanatical) owners, known as Harlistas, have had to rely on ingenuity to keep them running all these years; no authentic Harley-Davidson parts are available in Cuba. At least not officially available. If you have a foreign friend, and if that foreign friend has access to a Harley-Davidson dealership, maybe that friend will occasionally be kind enough to bring you something you desperately need for your bike. But most of Havana's Harlistas turn to a small, nondescript garage in the Luyano neighborhood, south of Habana Vieja, where a man named Sergio has made Harley-Davidsons his life's passion.

Located directly across the street from his house, Sergio Morales's shop is a cramped space, dimly lit by filtered sunlight and the glow of low-watt bulbs. Motorcycle parts -- most of them homemade -- are scattered everywhere. The rear of the garage is crammed shelf over shelf with mudguard ornaments, exhaust systems, light moldings, shock absorbers, oil tanks, and various automobile parts and scrap metal waiting to be modified to fit Harley-Davidsons. The distinctive smell of gasoline and oil is pervasive.

Sergio stands amid three partially rebuilt Harleys, a half-smoked Popular dangling from his lips, his fingers permanently soiled with the black grime of motorcycle blood. As dramatic new economic reforms were implemented in early 1994, Sergio recalls, he took advantage of the opportunity to legitimize the work he'd been doing for roughly twenty years -- he applied for and received a license to operate a private business, an internal-combustion engine repair shop. The license cost him 90 Cuban pesos per month, just under four U.S. dollars (since then the price has risen to 200 pesos per month, about eight dollars). These days he owns the only legal garage in all of Cuba that specializes in the repair and restoration of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

"The Harleys here are about 25 percent Cuban-made," he says, pointing out that one of his own bikes is equipped with Alfa Romeo pistons. "That's Cuba -- hay que resolver, chico. Years ago I sacrificed a perfect exhaust system. We sliced it in half to see how it was built. Now we make perfect replicas. We also make Hydra-Glyde shock absorbers, by far the most popular replacement part in Cuba. Older Harleys come with the frente rigido, which is very limited at absorbing the deteriorating Cuban roads. We make oil tanks and adapt pistons, the whole timing device with cover, and just about every body detail from lights to ornaments -- all made right here."

He picks up a cylindrical piece of metal about the length of a man's finger and twice as thick. "This is the soul of a Harley-Davidson," he explains. "The crank pin. Hecho en Cuba, right here in this shop. We take some Russian pressure bearings, open them, and take the ball bearings out. Then we seal them together and grind it to the right specification we got from original crank pins."

Sergio, who is 46 years old, acquired his first Harley in 1974 while working at a state-run truck garage under the man who is credited with saving Cuban Harleys from extinction and who is also recognized by Harlistas as having been the best Harley-Davidson mechanic on the island -- the late Jose Lorenzo Cortez, known to the cognoscenti by his nickname: Pepe Milesima ("Pepe" is the familiar version of Jose; "Milesima" means thousandth, a reference to the man's reputation for mechanical precision.)

"Pepe taught me everything about Harleys," Sergio recalls. "I was his apprentice. He got me started with my first Harley, a troublesome 1946, 45-cubic-inch flathead. I got rid of it very quickly. Then I got the '46 knucklehead you see there. There are probably no more than a dozen left in Cuba." He pauses, lost for a moment in the memory. "Pepe was a great man. All the Harlistas loved him. He was the best mechanic around. He was incredibly meticulous."

The conversation moves across the street to Sergio's house, where he serves up some cafe cubano for his two helpers, a neighbor, and a Harlista who has stopped by to pick up an accelerator cable. "Next Saturday my daughter Miriam is getting married," he says to me. "You ever been to a Harley wedding in Cuba?"

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