January 12, 2009
Meet Sergio Morales — 'The Harley Whisperer of Havana'
Long story short: "Mr. Morales is the last mechanic here making his living by fixing them the old-fashioned Cuban way, with homemade parts to preserve a nugget of Americana in the alleys of Havana."
Here's Joshua Robinson's January 8, 2008 New York Times article about this singular man, pictured above in his dining room.
- For a Lone Mechanic, Cuba Is Still Hog Heaven
Sergio Morales’s friends gently rib him about the dirt under his fingernails and the grease that fills every line in his 58-year-old hands. The grease has been there so long, they tell him, that it must predate Fidel Castro’s revolution.
But Mr. Morales has heard all the jokes, and not a single one makes him look up from his work.
He just shifts his cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other as his fingers twist and caress the tools in front of him, granting new life to one of the few Harley-Davidson motorcycles that remain in Cuba. Like Mr. Morales, and possibly the gunk on his hands, they too predate the 1959 revolution.
Mr. Morales is the last mechanic here making his living by fixing them the old-fashioned Cuban way, with homemade parts to preserve a nugget of Americana in the alleys of Havana.
Harleys are believed to have arrived in Cuba as early as the 1920s, according to Martin Jack Rosenblum, the former historian of the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. Durable and powerful, they became standard issue for the military and the police.
But after the revolution — and the United States trade embargo that followed — the supply of Harleys and parts dried up. Soon, most of the bikes fell into disrepair or were smuggled out of Cuba. Today, Mr. Morales said, there are fewer than 100 here. Cared for properly, however, the old Harleys will last seemingly forever.
“These engines are practically immortal,” Mr. Morales said, adding that rebuilding an engine takes him between one and two years, given the need to fashion his own parts.
Mr. Morales’s own love affair with Harleys began in 1972, when he began fooling around with them as a young auto mechanic. Since 1959, they had gained a reputation for being cheap, though hard to keep running. Policemen were given the opportunity to buy their bikes from the department for less than $40 as the pool of roughly 2,000 Harleys at the time of the revolution slowly dwindled. Far more common were the East German MZs.
“At first, we realized we just needed them to get around,” Mr. Morales said of the Harleys. “We couldn’t buy MZs — you had to be a student — and we didn’t have any dough. Then we got to liking them because they were tough bikes. Even without new parts, we figured out how to make the old ones last.”
Picking up tips from a few old mechanics who had once worked for Harley-Davidson in Cuba and fashioning his own spare parts from bits of the cheap Communist-built cars around Cuba, Mr. Morales began to learn his way around Harleys the way others learned musical instruments.
“It must have been the only country in the world where poor people could buy Harleys,” Mr. Morales said.
But the first Harley he bought was not one everybody could afford. He found a 1946 Knucklehead Servicar. Servicars, originally used by repairmen for house calls, were fitted with three wheels and a small box on the back for carrying parts and tools. Mr. Morales had to have it but, because it was in excellent condition, spent not $40 but $1,200, which amounted to six months’ salary for him at the time.
“In Cuba, it’s an entirely different relationship,” Mr. Rosenblum said. “It’s not about the fine art worship of the machine as a rolling sculpture, but a reverence for the bike as something cool and something useful.”
There are so few 1946 Knuckleheads in working condition in the United States today, it is hard to say what one would sell for. Any surviving bikes would most likely be ensconced in a museum, Mr. Rosenblum said. Mr. Morales’s Knucklehead currently sits outside his house on cinder blocks — he was repairing the wheels — providing some shade for a dog. He said it would be back on the road soon, running as well as ever, with the name Super Abuela, or Super Grandmother.
Of course, Super Abuela has had a touch of cosmetic surgery. Mr. Morales once fitted the box with a pair of small benches so that he could transport his family — two in front and six in the back.
“If you did that in the U.S., my God,” Mr. Rosenblum said, laughing, “Collectors would hunt you down and flagellate you.”
Mr. Morales’s personal bike is a 1950 Panhead, christened El Indio, which he bought in 1986 for $1,000 after selling his 1945 Flathead. The bike, which would easily fetch $10,000 in the United States today, still carries nearly all of its original parts. The wheels, though, are borrowed from a Skoda — the Czech automobile. Mr. Morales even fitted the bike with a sidecar, lifting the chassis from a Soviet Ural sidecar and designing a homemade copy of a Harley body.
El Indio lives in Mr. Morales’s dining room. A small grease-splattered room with double doors that open directly into the street, it is where Mr. Morales does most of his work, squatting on a short stool and surrounded by parts, some original, many homemade. He wheels his bikes in and out onto the bumpy gravel outside while his wife steps over and around the nine engines around the room.
“It’s how we’ve been living for 36 years,” she said, shrugging.
On the walls, Mr. Morales has American flags, a few motorcycle association plaques and a large plate that reads, “God created the world in seven days, and on the eighth, he created Harley-Davidson.”
He acquired most of the memorabilia in the last two decades, after the cold war began to thaw out. When information from the West began to trickle in around 1990, Mr. Morales was able to get his hands on a Harley-Davidson repair manual. They were the first instructions on Harley care he had ever seen in writing.
“We learned a lot of important technical things,” Mr. Morales said. “But we had already learned pretty much everything just from doing it.”
The caption of the photo up top, which led the Times story: "Sergio Morales working on the engine of an old Harley-Davidson motorcycle in his dining room, where he does most of his restoration work. 'These engines are practically immortal,' he says."
January 12, 2009 at 12:01 PM | Permalink
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Thanks for showing the world how hard we have to work to maintain the beautiful noise of an old harley davidson running in Havana. Russian and handcrafted parts makes the Havana's Harleys something alive, unique and very special. God bless you.
Posted by: Ray Vega | Mar 1, 2009 1:11:59 AM
buenisimo esto de las motoras.
me encantaria aprender de ustedes
Posted by: wilmar | Jan 25, 2009 10:41:03 AM
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