There comes a time in the life cycle of even the most the devout Harley fancier when the scales form and a sense of having seen it all dims one’s view of customizing trends and factory styling developments, and a been-there/done-that ennui comes creeping in. And it was a gaggle of just such afflicted old bikers who’d gathered at a barbecue last month being hosted by my old riding partner Michael D. and his new gal, Charly. A tough audience, is what it was, one whose capacity for wide-eyed wonder was atrophied, and it would take something really cool and unexpected to spark that old orange and black enthusiasm.
Not that we had come there expecting to be sparked. We were there merely to party, but during the course of the shindig the door rolled up on the barn and Michael proceeded to show off his latest project, an old Harley he’d been refurbishing for his sweetie. The response to the machine was an unabashed “gee whiz” as the old buzzards gleefully descended on the machine to kick the tires, marvel at the bodywork, and closely inspect the motor and running gear of the 1975 Harley-Davidson Model D… golf cart.
There it was, a shiny three-wheeled example, of Milwaukee’s bastard child, a vehicle marginalized in the annals of Motor Company history, a cultural embarrassment, an uncomfortable bedfellow of the famed freedom machines ridden for generations by rebels without a country club handicap.
That the vehicle has for so long been officially overlooked is sad and it’s also unjust. In fact, the Harley golf cart represents an important chapter of Motor Company industrial history, vestiges of which remain to this day. It was also a pivotal product in Harley-Davidson’s fortunes at a tenuous time. The story goes like this:
In 1962, looking to expand their nascent fiberglass manufacturing capability, Harley-Davidson bought the Tomahawk Boat Company in Tomahawk, Wisconsin, whose founder, Franklin Winter, was a pioneering figure in the development of the fiberglass hulls that had transformed the post-war watercraft industry. The U.S. economy was struggling through a recession in 1962 which, combined with the growing invasion of European and Japanese marques to American shores, was spanking Harley-Davidson’s bottom line.
Some diversification was called for, and the Tomahawk boat works was pressed into service making golf carts. It was Mr. Winter who actually designed the all-fiberglass body of the thing, giving it its signature innovation, a tilt-up rear section that exposed the engine and drivetrain for ease of repair. Both an electric and gas model were introduced in 1963 with the latter using a 246cc two-stroke motor equipped with a dynastart device, making it, in fact, the Motor Company’s first electric start production vehicle.
The venture proved successful, serving to help prop up Milwaukee’s finances in the dicey short term. The carts proved rugged and quick with truly gnarly suspension systems and gained in popularity so swiftly that by 1970 they accounted for nearly a third of the American golf cart market.
The motorboat business Harley had gotten in the Tomahawk bargain didn’t work out so well, however, though Harley continued to produce them badged as “Tomahawk; subsidiary of Harley-Davidson Motor Co.” When they pulled the plug on the operation in 1965, there were eight separate models offered in their sales brochure.
They manufactured the golf carts throughout the AMF years, and it was only after the Bar & Shield buyout by the Gang of Thirteen in 1981 that the golf cart division was spun off to Columbia Parcar.
The place where it all began, the Tomahawk Boat Company factory, was renamed the Tomahawk Operations Facility and remains one of Harley’s principal manufacturing plants to this day, still producing fiberglass and plastic components, including windscreens, fairings and saddlebags.
Earlier this month, Harley-Davidson began beating the drum for their 110th anniversary celebration in 2013. They announced a rally to be held in Rome, Italy, and a “massive” Labor Day bash in Milwaukee which will include an observance of the 30th anniversary of the Harley Owners Group. They’ll be releasing further plans as the months go by, and we can guess that they’ll include the usual big bike parade through the streets of Milwaukee, and we can also surmise that some notice will be taken of Willie G.’s 50th anniversary as a Motor Company employee.
Not mentioned thus far—or even considered, in all likelihood—is any recognition of the 50th anniversary of the Harley golf cart. There’s still time to do the right thing and finally rectify the years of oversight. It’s time to step up and acknowledge the lowly golf cart’s historical importance and own the thing. It wouldn’t have to be anything fancy—maybe a few carts in the big parade. How about it, Harley? Judging by the reaction of a few jaded old bikers at a barbecue, I’d predict the idea would prove a real crowd pleaser.
It’s all right here in the diaries.