Communism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance
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?"
They gather at Sergio's before the wedding -- about 30 Harleys and a smattering of old Nortons and Triumphs. The two-wheeled guests are decked out in leather, bandanas, shades, boots, and Harley-Davidson T-shirts advertising U.S. dealerships and motorcycle rallies from years past at Daytona Beach and Sturgis, South Dakota. When the bride steps outside, an ear-splitting symphony erupts as the bikes rev their engines in unison. The noise -- so overwhelming it is tactile -- seems to engulf the street, the block, the neighborhood, the entire city. Young Pioneros walk by gaping at the strange-looking crowd and the infernal noise. Elderly neighbors cover their ears in disbelief and horror. Some actually smile.
Miriam was supposed to lead the way in her father's three-wheeled knucklehead with a modified rear carriage, but the restoration work was not completed in time. So she rides instead in a '57 Chevy convertible owned by a family friend, perched above the back seat like a homecoming queen, her pristine white bridal gown fluttering in the breeze. The line of motorcycles follows, a spectacular entourage that stops bystanders in their tracks.
After a civil wedding at one of Havana's many palacios de los matrimonios, the procession moves to a banquet hall by the sea near Miramar, just west of downtown. The bikers talk, they brag, they argue, and soon a challenge is set: A Triumph will race a Harley. The Harley wins. Upon returning, the Triumph rider angrily drops his bike on the pavement and rushes his opponent. Fists fly, women scream, men yell, and they are pulled apart. The defeated Triumph owner picks up his broken rearview mirror and hastily departs. The party has barely begun.
Guests are served meals in small cardboard boxes Sergio's family had prepared the day before: rice, beans, a bit of pork, and a piece of dessert cake. For liquid refreshment there is a seemingly endless supply of government-issue beer, not Hatuey or Bucanero but that labelless brown brew, half-flat and bitter. The rum is the same burned-molasses-and-raw-alcohol concoction that everyone drinks -- not great but not terrible. Amid the food and drink there is much good cheer and Harley talk. And then the power goes out.
But as they say: Where there is a Cuban, there is a solution.
Someone drives a Willis Jeep into the banquet hall and turns on the headlights. Then the wiring from the Jeep's stereo is rigged to the hall's loudspeakers. The salsa again pulses and the dancing resumes. A beaming Sergio gives me a wink: "El cubano inventa, chico."
As the night wears on, the crowd slowly begins to thin out, each departure announced by the echoing rumble of a Harley heading home.
Havana's Harlistas are an obsessive lot. So knowledgeable are they about their machines that they claim to be familiar with every single Harley-Davidson in the capital city. And so devoted are they to the hunt for genuine spare parts (much less the possibility of finding an intact motorcycle) that they will drop everything and travel anywhere at the hint of a possible new discovery.
Just such a hint prompted a quick trip to the town of Matanzas, 90 kilometers east of Havana. Recent rumors had it that a Harley of some sort, in unknown condition, was located there in the possession of some unidentified person. Not much to go on, perhaps, but enough for Sergio, his wife Miriam, his second daughter Mildrem, and his chief mechanic Nelio Acosta to pile into my rental car and head east.
With Nelio guiding the way, we cruise slowly through the seaside town and pull over near a bodega where three young shirtless men are working on bicycles. "Companero," Nelio calls out the window, "you haven't seen where there's a Harley-Davidson around here?"
The men look over. "A what?"
"Tu sabes," Nelio says. "One of those big motorcycles, makes a lot of noise. A Harley."
Then an older man sitting nearby looks up. "Harley-Davidson?" he asks.
The old man points in the direction of the water. "Anda, go ask around there. There are some kids who work on motorcycles and I think they know about a Harley-Davidson there."
"Gracias, puro," replies Nelio as we drive off.
After asking half a dozen people, we end up at a house that may or may not be occupied by a certain man who may or may not have a motorcycle that may or may not be a Harley-Davidson. Sergio and Nelio walk in while the rest of us wait in the car.
After half an hour or so they return and climb into the car. They say nothing. Miriam is going insane with curiosity. As we pull away from the house, Nelio and Sergio begin laughing hysterically.
"?Que fue, chico?" Miriam implores.
"He's a crazy old man," Nelio says. "It's perfect. It looks like it's been garaged since 1958. It doesn't even have 30,000 original miles!"
"He's a senile old man," Sergio adds.
"?Que? Does he want to sell?" Miriam asks excitedly.
"No. El viejo has the Harley, a '57 Chevy, and an old Ford. They're all perfect, but he doesn't want to sell anything."
"Cono. APero porque, chico?"
"He thinks he's working on them," Nelio laughs. "He goes into his garage and starts banging on things. He thinks he's fixing them."
"!Que viejo ese!" Sergio snaps. "We have to be there when he changes his mind. You know one day he's going to decide to sell it -- just like that."
"His children want him to sell," Nelio says.
"We just have to keep coming back," repeats Sergio.
What a find! But how frustrating. Nelio, Sergio, and his family will keep this information to themselves, and they'll begin making the trek to Matanzas on a regular basis. In the meantime, we drive to different house, not far away, in pursuit of yet another rumor.
A Havana neighbor of Sergio's had given him an address along with the tantalizing information that he might find a man there who had Harley-Davidson parts, and that the man might be willing to sell them for the right price. It turns out to be true. For $170 Sergio buys two mudguards, two transmissions, a wheel, one complete gas tank and one half of another gas tank, as well as a few odds and ends. Not an outrageous ripoff, but no bargain either. Still, Sergio seems pleased and gives a sly wink to signal his approval.
Harlistas with sufficient money engage in a different sort of scavenger hunt. Julio Merida is one of those people. For months now he has been rebuilding his '56 panhead. Pieces of the bike are laid out like a puzzle in a room of his home in La Lisa, an outlying Havana neighborhood. Under his bed, carefully covered with a white cotton sheet, he stores the freshly painted mudguards and gas tank. Because he is rebuilding the machine using only genuine Harley-Davidson parts (purchased abroad for him by foreigners), it has become a protracted effort. It also has become astronomically expensive. His wife brings cafe cubano as Julio leads a tour of the project. She rolls her eyes: "!Esta loco! He spends more money on that thing than the average Cuban makes in a lifetime. Why? APorque, chico?"
"Women don't get it," Julio says with a smile and a shrug. "A Harley is like a mistress." Foreign friends have brought him everything from chrome-and-gold gas caps to brand-new piston rings. The paint job alone -- using rare, American-made, orange-gold metallic paint -- cost $200. "This will be the finest Harley in Cuba when I'm finished with it," he boasts.
Indeed, when completed, Julio's bike will be awesome, a like-new antique that would make most Harley fans drool with envy. But he'll get an argument from Sergio Morales and other Harlistas in Cuba. "If it's a question of money, the foreigners will always have better Harleys," Sergio observes. "Julio works for a foreigner and he's spending so many dollars on that motorcycle. You can say money made it, not Julio. How can the average Cuban pay for original Harley parts and American metallic paint? A few weeks ago we had a contest for the best Harley-Davidson and a debate arose: Should foreigners be allowed to compete?" In the end, a Harley owned by a German living in Havana won the contest, and Sergio wasn't surprised. Foreigners in Havana, he says, can easily afford to spend a few thousand dollars for a Harley, and a few thousand more to have it restored to mint condition with original parts. In fact, the increasing number of foreigners doing just that has caused the price of vintage Harleys to rise significantly.
Sergio and Nelio are in the shop dismantling the engine of a black Harley that's been leaking oil. Fernando Perez, a 62-year-old retired health worker who comes by to help and simply pass the time, works on a classic Harley sidecar. Another assistant is busy grinding and hand-sanding mudguard ornaments recently arrived from a foundry.
Despite the din, the men can hear two Harleys approaching from almost three blocks away. Their unannounced arrival for a repair (one bike's timing mechanism isn't working properly) is typical. Also typical is Sergio's response. He asks Nelio to investigate the timing problem and then invites everyone else across the street to his house for some cafe cubano. While his wife uses household scissors to cut engine gaskets from a sheet of rubberized material purchased from a peddler, the men settle in the kitchen for coffee and Harley talk. When the discussion turns to tools, Sergio produces an oddly shaped wrench. "There is a wrench just like this one that is special for the Harley-Davidson," he says. "It's very particular, it has this strange curve. This one is Sovietica, for use on a tractor. It is exactly like the one we need for the Harley."
The coffee break is brief. Nelio has fixed the balky timing mechanism without charge and the two bikers roar off. Only later does Sergio inform me that one of the men, the one known as Ernestico, is the son of Ernesto "Che" Guevara, the late revolutionary hero and avid motorcyclist.
Sergio pulls out his log book. In the last four years he has been keeping a record of all the Harley-Davidsons that come to his shop, as well as their repairs and parts modifications. "This way," he explains, "we can keep a tab on the Creole parts we make and see which ones are working better than others."
In the afternoon, as Sergio's wife begins cataloguing the parts scheduled to be chrome-plated the next day, a new Nissan rental car pulls up. Two men get out and approach Sergio. One of them, a Spaniard whose Harley Sergio has been restoring, remains quiet. The other, a Cuban, wears a spiffy green Izod shirt and has a cellular phone strapped to his thin leather belt. The Cuban argues with Sergio about the slowness of the work.
Once they are gone, Sergio complains: "You know, I don't mind the Spaniard, but there's nothing worse than an arrogant Cuban who thinks he's better than everyone just because he's got money."
Adds Nelio: "Cuba teaches us all one thing: Patience."
"And that Cuban, of all people, should know what it's like to get work done here," says Sergio's wife Miriam, gesticulating wildly. "It takes time to get the parts, to take them to get chromed, to grind a piston for a perfect fit, fine-sanding the parts by hand. We didn't work most of last week because there was no electricity."
"That guy acts like it's his Harley," Sergio continues, "but he's only the employee of the Spaniard."
"It's like those people who work the dollar stores," observes Miriam. "They treat you like you're dirt, giving you bad service and acting superior toward you."
Father's Day is a very important occasion for any Harlista in Cuba, for on that day in June the bikers pay homage to the late Pepe "Milesima" at Colon Cemetery. As the clock nears eleven, Harleys begin to gather at a prominent crossroads inside the vast burial ground. Among the tall royal palms and the thousands of statues burning white under the hot sun, they park their bikes and wait for stragglers to arrive. Then they ride together to the designated mausoleum.
Four dozen of them make their way to the site and listen as Raul Corrales reads a eulogy. Among the crypts inside is one at floor level with a plaque that reads: "Pepe Milesima, mecanico de Harley-Davidson, de sus amigos y familiares." Above the plaque is the familiar shield of Harley-Davidson Motorcycles. After all the bikers have had a chance to pay their respects, they return to their machines, start their engines, and rev them in tribute.
Following the ceremony, they ride together -- 50 strong -- along the wide Havana avenues. Over the years, this Father's Day event has become the Cuban equivalent of one of the big bike rallies in the United States. People in the streets turn to the devilish sound and the blinding flashes of chrome and they point, shout, and wave.
The caravan makes its way to the eight-lane highway that loops around the southern outskirts of Havana (known informally as Ocho Via). The road is perfect for cruising; only occasionally does an automobile appear.
Eventually the riders pull into a paladar (a private restaurant), a cabana with a palm-thatched roof and no walls. The Harleys park under the shade of the palm trees as the mild breeze cools their engines. Inside, Nelio and Miriam take charge of ordering food and beer and collecting money, all in U.S. dollars. Paladares are only allowed by law to have twelve seats so they join tables together and the women sit while the men hang out in groups, talking motorcycles and drinking beer.
Fried pork steak, arroz moro, yucca, Hatuey beer. The easy chatter floats in the warm air. The subject isthe famed Daytona Beach Bike Week. "Cono," someone laughs, "they say Coca-Cola spent $100,000 customizing a Harley just to win the show -- $100,000. Tu sabes que es eso?"
"It's in that magazine at Sergio's house."
"That's how it is there. It's advertising."
"You know a new Fat Boy costs more than $20,000?"
"I hear in Miami there's a one-year waiting list when you buy a Harley."
The owner of the paladar asks us to leave because he needs the chairs for waiting customers, and once again the Harlistas hit the road like rolling thunder. Ocho Via is all theirs. They ride helmetless and free.
On Friday nights many of Havana's Harlistas gather in the parking lot of the Riviera Hotel near the western end of the oceanfront Malecon. Inevitably a crowd of curious onlookers forms; on this evening they stand in awe of ten shiny bikes. Locals and tourists alike stop and take photographs, ask questions, and wonder at the impressive beauty of these gleaming relics in such a decaying environment. The Harlistas proudly show off their wheels.
Sergio's wife Miriam pulls me aside to show me an identification card she has received from the United States. "Ven aca," she says. "They spelled my name wrong. How can I get this changed?"
The card is from the Harley Owners Group, and she is the first female H.O.G. in Cuba. A half-dozen Harlistas became members last year at about the same time they formed a group called MOCLA (short for Motos Clasicas de Cuba), which they hoped would receive official governmental recognition. Their stated goal is to maintain old and classic motorcycles and to encourage friendship among all bikers. Although membership soon grew to more than 100, state approval is still pending.
I hop on the back of Pedro Vejerano's red and white '52 panhead. As we take off, Sergio waves and hollers, "!Nos vemos en Sturgis!"
Pedro gives me a ride down the road to the plush Hotel Nacional. His Harley rumbles and growls its way up the hotel's long driveway. As we pull up at the front entrance, cameras click and heads turn. It's as if a movie star has arrived. Someone asks, "ADe que ano es?" Another shouts, "!Mira eso!" And another: "?Que motor es ese, chico?"
The porter's lips move in a whisper as he says to himself: "Arly Daveeson.
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