Ever wondered if your kids are getting your money’s worth at that pricey collidge? Here is proof that they are. I have the privilege of teaching some incredibly bright, hard-working students at Case Western Reserve University. These are engineering, math, nursing, pre-med, and various hard-core, thinky majors who are also game for an off-the-wall course called “Live to Ride, Ride to Live: Motorcycles in American Culture.” They read Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Pirsig, and articles from the International Journal of Motorcycle Studies. They analyze Richard Thompson lyrics. The culmination of the class is a research paper that they have to present to their fellow students. They have to select the topic of the final paper; some choose the obvious, some take risks. The paper below is one that I found particularly interesting, and I think you will, too. — Carter Edman
Hello, my name is Henry Hershey. I’m a rising sophomore at Case Western Reserve University studying biology and environment. I recently gained an interest in motorcycles thanks to a class I took called “Motorcycles in America” taught by Carter Edman. I researched this topic of motorcycles in masculine fashion trends because I wanted to learn more about why I want a motorcycle. Although I don’t currently own one, I’m working on it.
Photo: Sherman Thomas
What happened to men? When did tailored suits, cigars, and log splitting disappear? Why do young men covet their technology instead of their biceps? What you’ll find if you look closely is that although long gone, the old era of manliness has not been totally forgotten. Young men still imitate idols of masculinity like Teddy Roosevelt and James Bond. They do it through metrosexual style, and through motorcycles. As metrosexuality becomes more and more prominent, hegemonic masculinity fades into a retro fashion trend that motorcycle companies like Triumph are successfully exploiting.
“Man” has been redefined time and time again by his responsibilities dictated by his culture. For millennia, men were required to be strong, unemotional, and most importantly, useful. Although different cultures valued different traits to varying degrees, their congruencies collaborated to create the archetypal man. When men of this generation look for old role models, they find hardworking breadwinners, war heroes, and upstanding citizens. The things that these men did became standards for masculine behavior. Take Theodore Roosevelt for example. He is probably the best example of the old archetype of manliness: a rough riding, adventure seeking outdoorsman who also happened to be the president of the United States. He is worshipped for his legendary manliness. Other such idols include the fictional character James Bond. Bond was a different side of manliness. Sean Connery’s Bond was a womanizing, cigarette-smoking alcoholic who could shoot you between the eyes even after a few martinis. He is venerated as a hero of manliness too. However, these guys are from a dead era: the pre-feminist era. The things that used to define archetypal manhood have been altered by progressive feminism. As soon as feminism came into the picture, hegemony was challenged. Anyone who tried to be like Sean Connery or Theodore Roosevelt was called into disrepute by feminists – women who challenged masculine hegemony by being hired for upper management jobs, getting elected for political office, and joining the military. After feminism had established itself, men no longer had to be breadwinners, war heroes or upstanding citizens. Their wives, girlfriends, and domestic partners could take care of them (Paginda 2009). Also, men perceived that what women found sexy changed from a log splitting marine to a sensitive lawyer in a slim-fit suit that wouldn’t complain about changing a diaper. And so, men changed, willingly or not, to fit the new niche.
What remain of the archetypal man are his material belongings. Although there might seem to be a Rough Rider revival, in reality, only the superficial qualities of hegemonic masculinity remain. The superficial attempt to latch on to pre-feminist masculinity comes out mainly through style and fashion. The modern metrosexual male is the prime example.
“Metrosexual man wears Davidoff ‘Cool Water’ aftershave (the one with the naked bodybuilder on the beach), Paul Smith jackets (Ryan Giggs wears them), corduroy shirts (Elvis wore them), chinos (Steve McQueen wore them), motorcycle boots (Marlon Brando wore them), Calvin Klein underwear (Marky Mark wears nothing else). Metrosexual man is a commodity fetishist: a collector of fantasies about the male sold to him by advertising.” — Simpson
Although not every man wears these things, what Mark Simpson is really saying is that men have become vain imitators of their really masculine ancestors, like Steve McQueen and Marlon Brando. They are constantly told that the easiest way to imitate their alpha male ancestors is by mimicking their style. The advertising world is telling young men that the best way to be sexy is to invest in the fashion of the retro-manly era. Although they can’t be the chain-smoking, wife beating, alcoholics that many glorified men of that era were, they can certainly look like them and get sexual attention for it.
Another way that men have tried to assert their challenged masculinity is through “menglish”. By adding the word “man” or its many variations to a word traditionally ascribed to the female gender, or by being a portmanteau of words, the new word becomes accessible to men (Paginda 2009). Examples include: man bag (a purse for men), bromance (a friendship between men), man date (an outing for two men), etc. A dictionary of these terms exists online. It began in 1999 when surf journalist Chris Cote began a column called “Significant Surf Slang” in Transworld SURF Magazine. The fact that these terms even exist makes it clear that masculinity has been challenged and men are slowly adopting more and more traditionally feminine tendencies.
What says it all about modern masculinity is a blog called The Art of Manliness. The blog features 6 sections: “A Man’s Life”, “Dress & Grooming”, “Health & Sports”, “Manly Skills”, “Money & Career” and “Relationships & Family”. “A Man’s Life” features essays on philosophical questions about what it means to be a man, tutorial style pieces on typical manly qualities and best of all, a series called “Manvotionals” which features pieces on manly virtue. One such piece is entitled “Manvotional: Theodore Roosevelt on Integrity in Private and Public Life”. Again, we see the veneration for Theodore Roosevelt as an icon and role model for aspiring “manly men”.
It is an obsession with the vintage and retro manliness that stimulates the readers of this site. The “Dress and Grooming” page heavily features vintage photos of men like Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood: idols from the pre-feminist era. It is obvious that guys are still trying to mimic these men, but not so much through attitude as through style, because let’s face it: it is a lot easier to buy a vintage leather jacket than to have integrity and strong morals.
Steve McQueen, Clint Eastwood, Marlon Brando, James Bond and Theodore Roosevelt all have something in else in common: they all ride. Although Teddy rode a horse, the others rode iron ones. The motorcycle is an icon – a trophy – of the Rooseveltian archetype of manliness that helps men assert their masculinity. Sometimes it is even seen as a warhorse on which men can ride into battle against domesticity – female hegemony. James May, a co-host of Top Gear, a hugely popular motoring television show in the UK and the US, sold his motorcycle to pay for a new kitchen, and he loathes himself for it. May insists that the loss of his motorcycle was his emasculation. Losing one’s motorcycle is like being castrated, according to May. His message is “Men of all ages: put down this paper, rise up and buy a motorcycle. Domesticity is for fools” (May 2004). He believes that buying a bike will make you a man.
On The Art of Manliness website, motorcycle expert Chris Hunter says that “motorcycles are one of the pinnacles of manliness”. In this article, he details a suggested strategy for first time motorcycle buyers. He cites Steve McQueen as “a guy we look up to” with a collection of over 100 machines (Hunter 2009). Steve McQueen is all over this website, whether his picture is assuring young men that turtle necks are still cool, or that ripping across some dunes on a Husqvarna is still “man-tastic”.
People still believe that motorcycles are manly, even if fewer and fewer men are riding them. Men who still subscribe to the old archetypes of manliness are often drawn to motorcycles. In a video produced by a company called Wilderness Collective, young men who style themselves after their heroes from the glory days of manhood go on a motorcycle camping trip through Yosemite National Park. They are depicted as bearded, gritty, dirty dudes, smoking cigars (not cigarettes because everyone knows those will kill you) on the mountain. However, these guys are given the same gear to wear and they all use their tech-gadgets to navigate and blog and take pictures. Also, they drink gin and tonics (a gentleman’s drink, but not the stuff of lumberjacks). The men in this video are models of the middle of the transition of the biker image.
Bikers have changed from Hell’s Angels and their wannabes to weekend hobbyists and commuters. Recently, the oxford English dictionary changed its definition of the word “biker” from “A motorcyclist, especially one who is a member of a gang: a long-haired biker in dirty denims” to “A motorcyclist, especially one who is a member of a gang or group: a biker was involved in a collision with a car”. They dropped the long-haired dirty denim part because of complaints made by motorcyclists and a poll of 524 bikers that demonstrated a significant change in the “biker”. Now, 65% spend their rides alone as opposed to in a gang, fewer than 10% have long hair, and 42% are free of tattoos, piercings, facial hair, and gang markings (Oxford English Dictionary Drops Dirty Biker Definition 2013). The image of the biker is changing dramatically from the leather-clad troublemakers from the ‘60s to clean-cut middle class hobbyists.
Some fear that computer technology will take the place of motorcycles as the carnal craving satisfier, but the computer geek needs to be abandoned as a potential customer. A New York Times opinion piece from 2011 claimed that the iPhone and iPad are replacing motorcycles. They fulfill the new generation’s need for fast, sleek technology but in a different way. Their need for speed is not satisfied by the wind in their hair, but by RAM and Internet speed. But this isn’t the case for all young men (Seidel 2011). A different group, the new metrosexual men, have a craving too: a craving for retro, vintage, manly stuff.
Triumph capitalizes on the icons provided by popular culture, specifically Hollywood. Steve McQueen, one of the most glorified motorcyclists, actors, and men of all time, is one of the figureheads of Triumph Motorcycles. Steve McQueen has been venerated by motorcyclists as one of the most skilled racers ever. An article published in Cycle World Magazine in 1964 profiles McQueen’s custom Triumph Bonneville (The Selvedge Yard 2012). The Bonneville has since become an icon in and of itself. Because of Steve McQueen’s brand preference, Triumph profited tremendously.
Another famous Triumph rider is Marlon Brando. Brando, like McQueen, is also a symbol of old-school masculinity. His character in the movie “The Wild One” is arguably the reason that anyone thinks that motorcycles are a symbol of hegemonic masculinity. Johnny is a rambling drifter with a stick-it-to-the-man attitude that emanates from his leather jacket, his intimidating snarls, and most of all his Triumph Thunderbird.
Brando and McQueen, although the most popular Triumph models, are not the only ones that have helped the Triumph brand. Clint Eastwood, another hero of manliness, rode a Bonneville, as well as Bob Dylan, a folk-hero and God to many young metrosexual men of our era. Evel Knievel flew his Bonneville over the fountains at Caesar’s Palace. All of these guys cultivated an image for Triumph that the Telegraph describes eloquently: “In the Fifties and Sixties the Triumph motorcycle was the ultimate symbol of cool, outshining even Harley-Davidson as the postwar epitome of style, freedom and rebellion” (Oliver 2009). Triumph’s brand identity snowballed into a hugely successful standard, but nearly met its demise in the late 1970s.
Although the company almost failed due to “recessions, a disastrous fire and the worst industrial practices of Seventies Britain”, they were able to get back on their feet thanks to key marketing strategies that included a rebirth of the image that they so easily cultivated in the 1960s. With the investment of millionaire John Bloor, the company was totally revamped and production of bikes quickly took off. The new line of bikes could compete with precise Japanese engineering while remaining true to the Triumph brand. They came out with three bikes, The Thruxton, The Scrambler, and The Bonneville. “The Thruxton is pure Sixties cafe racer; the Scrambler, with its full-length chrome pipes, looks just like the bikes McQueen rode through the dunes; and the reborn Bonneville looks just like it did in the Seventies, but with some very modern engineering” (Oliver 2009). The designs were completely retro-focused. Triumph knew that they could be successful with a retro design because vintage is all the rage. The new wave of metrosexual men who are all about finding the coolest, vintage, manly looking stuff could find exactly what they were looking for in Triumph’s motorcycles.
A huge boost for Triumph was the adoption of a new figurehead: Tom Cruise. In 2000, Cruise chose to ride Triumph for a motorcycle duel scene in his movie Mission Impossible: 2. The year after, Triumph turned its first profit, producing 31,000 machines (Oliver 2009). By adding Cruise to the roster, Triumph had another in with the metrosexual crowd. Cruise is a clean cut, tailored suit, kind of guy– a metrosexual. By putting one of them on the same list as the gods (McQueen, Brando, Eastwood and Dylan), Triumph was able to compel them even more.
Another key strategy that Triumph has had great success with is the special edition motorcycle. Although not unique to Triumph, the company puts out limited edition anniversary bikes every 5 years for models like the Triple, Bonneville, Tiger, Thunderbird, etc. In 2012, two special edition bikes were released, The Steve McQueen edition Bonneville (complete with green khaki paint) and the 110th anniversary Bonneville (celebrating 110 years of Triumph). These bikes are very close replicas with modern engineering twists. An article in Cycle World from 2012 says “Words can’t fully describe the Matte Khaki Green paint and period-cool aura that surround this bike like a blatant attempt to cash in on a piece of authentic British Americana.” Obviously, Triumph knows exactly how to cater to the obsession with its classic models.
Triumph is also very fashion conscious. In Mark Simpson’s quote, he mentions Paul Smith, a British fashion designer. It just so happens that Paul Smith designed a whole line of clothing based on the Triumph Bonneville T100. In fact, he had so much success with this partnership that Triumph commissioned Smith to design a line of vintage looking Bonnies, which were sold as collector’s items (Paul Smith & Triumph 2007). This kind of business is exactly the kind of business that makes Triumph so successful in their niche. They know exactly why their bikes are desired and by whom. They consistently hit the bull’s eye when targeting the “commodity fetishist” metrosexual men of our era.
Triumph’s consciousness of their brand image was made completely clear in an advertisement that they placed in a special edition of Newsweek magazine. The issue was dedicated to Mad Men, a TV show about a 1950s advertising firm and the lifestyles associated with upper middle class white America at the time. The styles in Mad Men are considered vintage and retro, and the male characters are models of the style that many metrosexuals try to emulate. The ad that Triumph placed featured a Bonneville with the slogan “The bike every bad boy should own” and a large black and white portrait of Steve McQueen in a Triumph tee shirt wiping his dirty, sweaty face with a rag. The ad won a reader decided contest among several other large firms (Backus 2012). This further supports that Triumph is the image of retro, vintage, manly, and cool.
Other companies have not been so successful in this venture – namely, Harley Davidson. In 2011, the Marlon Brando Estate sued Harley for using the Brando name on a model of riding boot without permission. The Estate sought financial damages for all the profits made from the Brando Boots and settled (Barrett 2011). This supports that through securing the permissions for use of the brand endorsers’ names and images, Triumph has been most able to successfully exploit their status as figureheads of masculinity and male fashion.
Norman Reedus aboard his Hammarhead Jack Pine.
Triumph has grown into a hugely successful company, producing more bikes than they ever have before, and it is all thanks to the image that they have cultivated for 110 years. With the help of Hollywood icons and millionaire investors, their motorcycles have become the commodity that every man needs, and every metrosexual wants. In order to hang on to or imitate the superficial qualities that remain of the idols of hegemonic masculinity, the new generation looks for the pinnacle of manliness: the motorcycle. Many companies could learn from Triumph’s strategy, and benefit in a similar way. But, they need to recognize that men have changed, and that there is a huge market of them that crave the masculinity of motorcycles. My advice to motorcycle companies is this: make your motorcycles trendy as hell.