The Life Harley-Davidson by Darwin Holmstrom

There is no shortage of books about the history of Harley-Davidson. Most tend to feature a deep dive into the Motor Company’s product history with details ranging from how many Sportsters were built in 1960 to the model and year the jiffy stand was first provided as standard equipment.

Darwin Holsmstrom’s latest book, “The Life Harley-Davidson,” is less about that kind of minutiae and more about the broader history and, even more, the social and cultural impacts of Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

The Life Harley-Davidson by Darwin Holmstrom That is not to say the book doesn’t explain a lot about the historically significant models, when they were introduced, what product improvements they represented and their impact on the Motor Company’s fortunes. The progression from the Silent Gray Fellow to the Milwaukee Eights is there in remarkably concise terms. Those aspects of Harley-Davidson are covered but they don’t form the core of the book. Ironically, that sets this book apart.

Rather, Holmstrom takes a long look at the space of time the company’s history covers and how national and world history interplayed with the history of the company and vice-versa. In a way, the book has a “Harley-Davidson history as told by” feel to it; more a first-person narrative than text-book style history. That is entirely by design.

Motorbooks, the imprint of Quarto Publishing that focuses on motorsports and motorsports people offers a new series of books on “The Life” of which this book is a part. Watch for our review of “The Life Steve McQueen” by Dwight Jon Zimmerman coming soon. As the name suggests, the series seeks to explore the people—the organic—side of things.

“The Life Harley-Davidson” also considers how pop culture influenced the Motor Company and how its products influenced pop culture, its personalities and trends. Including personalities from Elvis, Peter Fonda and Brando to Schwarzenegger, Sonny Barger and Sam Elliott and peppered with quotations from Hunter S. Thompson, Robert Pirsig, Alicia Keys, Vin Diesel and J. R. R. Tolkien among others, the book takes a wide-angle view of what motorcycles mean to people across the social and political spectra.

Covering the gamut from café racers, customs, choppers and bobbers and how those variations on the Harley-Davidson theme relate to the feeling of individual freedom, the book helps explain how Harley-Davidson motorcycles came to have a strong association with both law enforcement and one-percenter biker clubs. Paradoxically, the Harley is at once a symbol of power and authority as well as rebellion and defiance of authority.

The book sheds light on the complicated relationship between Harley-Davidson motorcycles and personal freedom, as each individual rider defines that freedom.

“Ultimately the life Harley-Davidson is about one thing: freedom. It might seem a bit cliched, but it’s also true. It was just as true for Bill Harley and the Davidson boys in 1903 as it is for Norman Reedus today. Nothing equals the sense of freedom you find while riding a motorcycle. When you shift your bike into gear and head out on the open road, you leave everything else behind. On a motorcycle, the worries of everyday life fall away and you exist only in that moment; the universe is reduced to the razor’s edge between you and your bike and the world rushing toward you.” –from the Epilogue.

For additional reading from Darwin Holmstrom, check out our review of:

Rider’s Library—Indian Motorcycle-America’s First Motorcycle Company, Ultimate Motorcycling, Aug. 2016.

Book Data

  • Title: The Life Harley-Davidson
  • Author: Darwin Holmstrom with Foreword by Norman Reedus and Dave Nichols
  • Published: 2017 hardcover, 240 9.0” x 6.5” pages, color and black & white images.
  • Publisher: Motorbooks, Quarto Publishing Group, 400 First Ave. North, Suite 400, Minneapolis, MN 55401 USA
  • ISBN: 978-0-7603-5564-0
  • MSRP: U.S. $30 U.K.; £19.99 $39 CAN