The legend of Cuba's lost Harley-Davidsons

Harlistas with circa-1952 FL Hydra-Glide with side shifter.
   PHILLIPPE DIEDERICH was one of the first — perhaps the first — to chronicle Cuba's Harlista movement.
   It was in March 1997, in the Miami New Times, that the Florida-based writer and photographer told of the island's Harley-Davidson owners and their singular devotion to the rumbling old machines.
   Diederich wrote about the late mechanic José Lorenzo Cortez — nickname: Pepe Milésima — whose skills kept the big bikes going for decades after the Revolution, and Sergio Morales, the one-time apprentice to Cortez who would inherit his teacher's role as high priest to the island's Harleys.
   He told how the Harlistas make crank pins out of Russian pressure bearings, craft perfect reproductions of Harley exhaust systems and retro-fit sorely needed rear shock absorbers to Hydra-Glides. Every Harley-Davidson in Cuba today is said to be 25-per-cent Cuban-made.
   And in this fascinating account, Diederich offered one especially intriguing morsel. Legend holds, he wrote, that Castro's government, shortly after taking power, ordered a huge hole to be dug in the ground at some secret location.
   "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 ... "
   A fine and tragic story that couldn't (could it?) be true. And yet, in a land where Ernest Hemingway's 1955 Chrysler New Yorker DeLuxe convertible can mysteriously surface five decades after dropping from sight, isn't it possible to dream of some vast store of old Harleys, not piled into a hole but lined in dust-covered rows in some forgotten warehouse, ready for a thunderous awakening?
   The Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwings could be parked nearby. And that 1957 Cadillac Eldorado Brougham. And, this I do believe, the younger Batista's 1956 Chevrolet Corvette.

Panhead could be from 1955 or 1956, with adapted rear shocks.

Green machine is a mid-50s FL Hydra-Glide with side shifter.

Photos by Stefanie Gassé. Used by permission.

Phillippe Diederich's account, Communism and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, is available as an ebook. Go to his website and follow the links.

See also:

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