Joe McRae has had many motorcycles over the years, but nothing comes close to his bright red Harley-Davidson. Part of a special line of bikes exclusively for firefighters, his Road King represents a tribute to the 343 firefighters who died in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, he said.
“It’s not just a motorcycle. Most people don’t understand that,” said McRae, a fire captain for 25 years in Orem, Utah. “It’s not a bike. It’s an emotional thing. It represents more than just a motorcycle. It represents the brotherhood.”
Harley-Davidson spokesman Mike Morgan said calls starting coming in just after the terrorist attacks in 2001. The iconic motorcycle maker had made a special edition of dark blue and black bikes for police and other law enforcement officials since 1987, callers asked, so why not release a special edition for firefighters?
Five years later, the Milwaukee-based company still sells the bikes. They’re now offered in four models instead of the original three. Firefighters wishing to buy them must show official identification at dealerships.
“It’s really designed as a salute to firefighters in general,” Morgan said. “They’re out there every day and they’re doing what they do and making heroic efforts. But obviously that was particularly evident on 9/11 in New York and Washington and certainly highlighted their sacrifice.”
Harley wasn’t sure how many years it would offer the bikes when they were first announced in January 2002. It won’t release sales figures but Morgan said there’s a reason Harley continues to manufacture them five years after the attacks.
“They’re popular. There’s demand for them,” he said.
The new 2007 lineup, already at many dealers, includes four models each of the firefighters and peace officer editions, plus a new “Patriot” edition for anyone who has served in the military. A dozen models in black with red and blue pinstripes can be outfitted with each military division’s emblems.
After the attacks, Harley-Davidson donated 37 police bikes to the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey, Morgan said, and that may have prompted people to request tributes for firefighters.
The original news release announcing the sale of the bikes did not mention the terrorist attacks. But firefighters have come to identify the red bikes with double gold pinstripes as moving memorials to the firefighters who died.
Kevin Sherwood, a firefighter in Grass Lake, Mich., said on the first anniversary of the attacks, he rode his special edition bike to Ground Zero with hundreds of other firefighters. About 40 red ones stood out, he said.
“When you go to different places you get people who recognize it’s a fire bike and it gives you a lot of pride,” Sherwood said. “You feel more of a connection with the people who died.”
In all, Sherwood, 36, figures he knows at least five people who own the firefighter’s bike. Dealers set the prices on the bikes but he figures his Road King, which cost about $18,000, cost about $1,000 less than the price of the regular version of that model. Dealers can choose to offer discounts to firefighters.
Though the bike has a logo with “Special Edition Firefighter’s Bike” on the gas tank, McRae said he wanted to highlight the bike’s uniqueness more. So he started making accessories, such as an emblem featuring a Maltese cross – firefighting’s symbol – with flames and Harley-Davidson decorations.
He figured other firefighters would want to deck out their bikes, too, and set up a Web site, http://www.firemanjoes.com.
He figured right. He sold 800 of the emblems, for $85 a piece, with some proceeds going to efforts to help firefighters.
One of his top selling pieces is a memorial emblem that lists the names of the firefighters who died on Sept. 11. He said he has sold 500 of the emblems, which can be affixed to many models. People often see the memorial on his bike and cry, he said.
“The brotherhood is unlike any other profession. Most people can’t understand the tightness between firefighters,” he said.
Firefighters don’t see the sale of these bikes as capitalizing on the terrorist attacks, said McRae, 49. They appreciate Harley-Davidson’s efforts, which bring firefighters even closer together, he said.
“I don’t even know if Harley-Davidson understands what they’ve created,” he said.