Forbes & Co.: Well-heeled And 2-wheeled

Posted: November 15, 1987

The wind was biting cold and the rain spit against the windshields of the big Harley-Davidsons and Hondas and Suzukis. And as they roared through Lancaster County, the riders were bundled up against the drizzly cold in heavy, waterproof rainsuits.

Out in front of the pack of 23 motorcycles was a guy dressed in an off- white rubber suit, looking more like a technician in some super-clean laboratory than a motorcyclist. He was the leader of this merry band of bikers - not one of whom was a tattooed, longhaired, beer-swilling, hell-raising type.

No, this was a button-down crowd out for a spot of lunch and a few cups of coffee to warm up.

From behind the plexiglass visor of his shiny, burgundy helmet, the leader's eyes gleamed. This was speed! This was freedom! This was the roar of a mighty engine! The leader leaned into a turn toward Brownstown. The water dripped off his helmet, rolling past the gold lettering above the visor that read "Forbes," as in Malcolm of magazine, hot-air-balloon and Liz Taylor fame.

For you see, this is more than a story of speed and horsepower; it is also a story of money. And how there is more and more of it in the motorcycling world.

Malcolm Forbes - with a fortune estimated at close to $1 billion and a collection of more than 75 motorcycles - may represent the high end of the scale, but motorcyclers are becoming more affluent, older and more educated than the stereotypes suggest.

One major reason is the prices of motorcycles themselves. Although a stripped-down street bike can be bought for $2,300, some machines now sell for as much as $15,000. The Motorcycle Industry Council says the upscale riders are a growing segment in an otherwise shrinking market as many bikers find themselves priced out of the fun.

The median income of motorcycle owners, for example, jumped from $17,500 to

$25,900 between 1980 and 1985, the latest figures available, according to Pat Ecker, a research analyst for the council.

"That's a lot higher than inflation," she said.

The median age has risen from 25 to 28, and motorcyclists are more likely to have completed college and gone on to graduate school than they were five years ago.

But we last left Forbes leaning into a turn.

The gold and white Harley-Davidson FLT Tourglide, with twin headlights, AM- FM cassette stereo, rubber-packed engine and Passport radar detector, was shedding water from the rain like a thoroughbred sweats after the Kentucky Derby. It pulled into the parking lot of a small family restaurant. The other members of Forbes' club - called the Capitalist Tools, and decked out in red vests sporting a logo of a cycle held aloft by a hot-air balloon - pulled in behind the panting, five-speed, 70-horsepower beast.

Slow down, squeeze the hand brakes, put your legs down and pull over. The high-pitched whine of the tooled and tuned motor drops to a low, muttering rumble.

It is cold. It is wet. Legs are unsteady from the numbing ride. Yet the Capitalist Tools have just traveled 125 miles from Forbes' Far Hills, N.J., estate - for lunch. What is this fascination with two-wheeled mechanization?

"There is a sense of freedom," says Forbes, who has been riding for the last 20 of his 68 years. "It relates to everything you don't need to worry about in a car, like the weather."

But that is about as specific as he or any other rider can be about the Sensurround thrill of the world flashing by with the view unrestricted by an automobile's tinted windshield, of the speed, of the pulsating, throbbing, roaring motor.

"You never know why - it's sort of like love," says Arnold Mellk, 45, a Lawrenceville, N.J., lawyer who has been riding since his junior year of high school.

"We have primal urges that we can't fulfill legally in society anymore," he says. But he can push the tachometer on his $15,000 Harley-Davidson XR 1000 until the engine is screaming.

"I think," Mellk says, "hearing a well-tuned motorcycle is almost as enjoyable as listening to a nice concerto."

Others of this new breed of bikers talk about the speed and the age-old excitement of leaning into a sweeping turn on a country road, the relaxation it brings from their high-pressured, white-collar jobs.

"When you're in the country you can smell the flowers and the trees," says Britt Palmer, 56, a Center City insurance executive.

"You come out of your cocoon," says Philip Evans, 41, a Cranbury, N.J., builder and developer.

"When you're riding you're with yourself and your thoughts," says Victor Kirson, 47, a Bensalem dentist.

"It's a unique way to escape everyday pressure. You have to concentrate solely on what you're doing or you're going to get wiped out by somebody," says Brian Bentley, owner of Brian's Harley-Davidson in Langhorne. He has even taken to touting his motorcycles at Rotary Club meetings.

Many of these riders, like Mellk and the others, have been riding since their freewheeling youth. Now they are the establishment - the lawyers, the doctors, the business people of today. They have short haircuts and wear pinstripe suits, and they have not given up their passion.

Where 20 years ago they may have been able to afford a used Honda with an old engine, they can now drop $10,000 for the super big Harley-Davidson, the Mercedes-Benz of motorcycles - so elaborate that it now even offers an optional intercom for helmets so that driver can talk to passenger.

The Big Chill goes internal combustion.

Among them is Steven L. Kane, a Westfield, N.J., dentist and member of the national Motorcycling Doctors Association. "It's not like you ride around in a Mercedes convertible and everybody hates you," he says. On a cycle, ''little old ladies look at you and say, 'Isn't he cute?' "

Kane, 35, began riding when he was a student at the Temple University School of Dentistry. He couldn't afford a car, so he bought a bike and is now on his fourth, a white Honda Aspencade with fuel-injection engine, citizens- band radio and air shocks.

It is his main mode of transportation except in bitter cold. He clamps on his helmet, and in tweed sportcoat and wool slacks he roars away with his tie fluttering in the breeze.

He can even do the grocery shopping on it. "Ninety-nine percent of the bikes can hold what a BMW can," Kane says. Into the back luggage carriers and travel bags go seven or eight bags of groceries.

There is a perception of motorcyclers as thrill-seekers. Indeed, it is exciting to be exposed to the elements and free of the entombed feeling of an automobile. It is a little like Peter Fonda in the movie Easy Rider, cruising the road, at peace with the world.

But these bikers also are into comfort. Their bikes have strong windshields and padded seats. The air shocks make the ride as smooth as a luxury Cadillac's.

These are not the type of riders who want to spend time picking bugs from their teeth.

Nor are they the type to go looking for accidents.

As they grow older many bikers naturally have families. Wives often join husbands; children often are taught to ride, too.

But there also is resistance by some wives, the male riders say.

Victor Kirson says his riding is "not discussed" with his wife. And, as for his two teenage daughters, there is "no way in hell" they'll be riding.

"I trust myself and not them," says the protective father.

There is reason for concern. Serious motorcycle accidents are no surprise.

Forbes, for one, took a spill in some loose gravel a few years back and spent several days in the hospital with a concussion and broken ribs.

But the new breed of biker tries to be a safe one. The bikers wear heavy leather gloves and boots, and strong helmets that wrap around their chins, leaving only a hole for their eyes.

That is for safety. And because they can afford it, they also just like buying the leather jackets and pants, some complete with fringe. The biker as conspicuous consumer.

For when one buys a motorcycle, it is more than just a purchase of a machine with two wheels.

It is buying into a fraternity. Bikers wave at one another on the road, flick their headlights, shout greetings as they cruise by.

And the biker feels an intimacy with his fellow travelers on the roadway.

As the Capitalist Tools traveled that rainy Sunday afternoon, families in mini-vans and station wagons pulled alongside to wave and smile.

When Philip Evans was touring the West on his Harley-Davidson not long ago, he rode alongside horses on Arizona's open ranges.

"They'd gallop alongside of me," he says. "I don't know how to explain it. It's neat."

His voice trails off.

Talking about a ride is nothing like feeling it.

"If it's a bit raw out there, you didn't back out. You rode. You feel like you're not over the hill yet," says Kirson. "You have to be 47 to appreciate that."

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