Small-town Wisconsin, Frank Lloyd Wright and the all-new Harley-Davidson® Low Rider™ S motorcycle
Words: Steven Richards
Photos: Josh Kurpius
In 1985, Wright’s widow, Olgivanna, ordered the architect’s remains to be exhumed from the Unity Chapel in Spring Green, Wisconsin, a kilometre down the road from Taliesin, Wright’s "bungalow of love," where he hosted an architecture school and where his mistress, Martha "Mamah" Borthwick Cheney, and six others were murdered by the house servant in 1914. Wright’s ashes were mixed with Olgivanna’s and are now enshrined at Taliesin West in faraway Arizona, but the bones of his mistress Mamah remain in the Unity Chapel garden, unloved under a cracked and overgrown headstone.
Taking to the road
When we turned to leave the cemetery, we saw our all-new 2020 Harley-Davidson® Low Rider™ S perfectly framed by the chapel’s iron gates, looking menacing against the pastoral background. We left Milwaukee with only necessities, riding west through America’s Dairyland without much of a plan, and found ourselves 240km from home, blindly following country roads that cut through farmland and humble towns with a few thousand residents at most. It’s quiet and contentedly old-fashioned in those parts, and the people who live there much prefer it that way, but we couldn’t keep quiet on the Low Rider S, especially not on those lonesome roads.
Taliesin quickly disappeared from view as we tore north on U.S. Highway 14, also known as the Frank Lloyd Wright Memorial Highway. Promising to be a more capable version of the overnight cult bike that disappeared in 2017 with the rest of the Dyna® line, the second-generation Low Rider S motorcycle has a Milwaukee-Eight® 114 V-twin engine, dual front brakes, and the same inverted forks from the Fat Bob® model, with a steep 28-degree head angle to improve agility. With a monoshock rear suspension and a chassis that’s 90 per cent stiffer than the previous model’s, the Low Rider S should handily outperform its beloved predecessor.
Put to the test
Roadside weeds bowed in our wake, and the exhaust note popped through the offset shotgun pipes as we upshifted and grabbed handfuls of throttle, again and again and again, until barns and cattle and grain silos blurred together. The front end dived quickly and smoothly as we squeezed the brake lever, shifted our weight over the bike’s wide handlebar mounted on four-inch risers, and dipped side to side on the back road.
The surrounding terrain was unexpectedly dramatic, with gently rolling hills giving way to rocky bluffs, thick forests and deep valleys. The surrounding region is known as "Driftless" because the area was untouched by glaciers and glacial deposits, or "drifts," during the last ice age and consequently is more rugged than one would typically expect in the upper Midwest. We entered each corner faster than the last, exploring the bike’s 33.1 degrees of lean angle, and it was already clear that the new Low Rider S is a more communicative, more firmly planted motorcycle than its predecessor.
Thirty minutes up the road we entered the town of Richland Center, the birthplace of Frank Lloyd Wright and home to the incomplete A.D. German Warehouse, another of Wright’s constructions. We were welcomed inside by John Poole, secretary of the A.D. German Warehouse Conservancy, which is raising US$4.5 million (about C$5.95 million) to complete construction of the century-old building. We marvelled at the wooden moulds used to create concrete friezes adorning the façade and followed harrowing staircases up to the second and third floors, where we found giant square panels from the Guggenheim’s 1953 exhibit on Wright, Sixty Years of Living Architecture, each detailing one of the architect’s designs and sadly deteriorating after decades of neglect.
Unfortunately, not long after we left the Warehouse the clouds split open, and soon we were saturated in bone-chilling rainwater. The Milwaukee-Eight engine was starting to cough in the wet, so we slung a leg over the bike’s exposed air filter, hoping to keep it dry on the slow and uncomfortable ride to our cabin in nearby Cashton. The quaint wooden house is perched at the end of a long dirt road, and soon there was mud everywhere and grime on everything, so the motorcycle bathed in the rain while we took a long, hot shower. The weather radar displayed a hellish kaleidoscope of purples, reds, and yellows, so we decided to cozy up on the front porch and watch distant lightning crack, but soon we were staring at the Low Rider S bike, contemplating its attractiveness compared to the original.
Old and new
The new Softail model looks considerably different from the Dyna-based version – as should be expected from a foundationally changed motorcycle – but Harley-Davidson designers captured the attitude and presence of the original Low Rider S. They preserved distinguishing features, like the classic bikini fairing and all-black finishes, and adapted them nicely to fit the lines of the new bike. A drop-down rear fender accentuates its more upright stance, a handsome high-back bucket seat is an inviting cradle and the bold gothic lettering on the bike’s fuel tank is inspired by the original FXS Low Rider from the ’70s.
The first-generation Low Rider S model came only in Black and Bronze, a motif that carries over to the new model, but now Harley-Davidson is offering a second colour: Barracuda Silver, a nod to the ’99 FXDX Super Glide® Sport, the "father" of the Low Rider S. Our internal discourse ended when we decided that while the new bike isn’t quite as visually striking as the first-gen model, which had a style that seduced you from first glance, the 2020 Low Rider S motorcycle is improved in every other way, and as such is just as alluring as the original.
We headed back into the cabin for the night, but a few hours later we were jolted awake by a pounding on the roof, and all night we listened to the blitz from the firmament and had nightmares of the Low Rider S sinking into sopping wet earth. When we stepped out onto the porch with our morning coffee, we were pleased to see the bike still standing in the puddled front yard, which was littered with wind-torn leaves and branches. We listened to Simon & Garfunkel’s So Long Frank Lloyd Wright as we packed up and continued singing the song as we slowly rode down Highway 33: “Architects may come and architects may go and never change your point of view. When I run dry, I stop awhile and think of you.”
Sitting on a ridge above the Kickapoo River Valley, the Wildcat Mountain State Park has a disappointingly short 4km thoroughfare that offers one of the most amusing motorcycle rides in all of the Dairyland; the road dips and climbs and jukes like a California canyon, and there’s even a switchback, a rare bird around there. It’s the type of road that the Low Rider S model was built for, so we focused our eyes as far ahead as possible and succumbed to the playful taunting from our inner child. We were never not on the outside edges of the bucket seat as we dashed through the state park, the bike wiggling only under hard braking. It otherwise stayed planted, silently assuring us we could mob ahead, so we did. It was a short and slightly dangerous ride, but much needed before starting the 275km trek back to Milwaukee.
Just 5km south of Harley-Davidson’s headquarters in downtown Milwaukee, we exited the highway and parked outside of Burnham Block, a remnant of Frank Lloyd Wright’s American System-Built Homes project, through which he hoped to revolutionize housing for those less privileged. While the project fell to pieces – as did many of Wright’s most ambitious undertakings – that cluster of six tiny homes stands as a reminder of how wonderfully imaginative the architect was. We know him better now because of our ride on the 2020 Harley-Davidson Low Rider S motorcycle, which has the same immodest spirit as the original darling did. It’s tamer but not tame, matured but not mature, poised without losing its edge, and it impresses in ways the original simply couldn’t. It looked appropriately at home there, far from the rolling hills of Spring Green, and as we pulled away from Burnham Block we softly sang, “So long, Frank Lloyd Wright.”