Could iconic police motorcycle sidecars be taking their final rides?
By Peter Hermann March 18, 2016
Ian Felenchak, 8, left, and Marley Felenchak, 7, ride in the sidecar of D.C. Police Lt. Robert Glover’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle during the St. Patrick’s Parade in Washington on March 13, 2016. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)
Ever since Franklin Delano Roosevelt was sworn into office, new presidents have made their way from the Capitol to the White House escorted by D.C. police officers riding Harley-Davidsons fitted with sidecars.
But the two-wheeled pod or torpedo-shaped cars — which help stabilize the motorcycles and give a nostalgic nod to the inaugural pageant — could become obsolete. Harley stopped making sidecars five years ago and then built the newest model motorcycles without a way to attach the pods.
D.C. Police Chief Cathy L. Lanier said her agency is working with Harley to come up with a fix. If none can be found, police will ride older-model bikes in the upcoming inauguration. But police in the nation’s capital worry that a tradition dating back to the 1900s — one that they take seriously — will soon be lost.
“When we heard that we were no longer able to use the sidecars, to say the least, officers in the motor unit were very upset,” Lanier said. “These are signature to Metropolitan Police, and I think they represent Harley-Davidson extremely well. They are really kind of unique. They make the unit stand out.”
[A close look at what it takes to be a D.C. police motorcycle officer]
The sidecars, which can run upward of $6,000 apiece, are rarely used to carry passengers. But they do have a practical purpose in a city where police regularly safeguard world leaders and other dignitaries: The extra wheels and weight increase the motorcycles’ stability in snow and ice.
Plus, police and other fans say, the choreographed formations of bikes with sidecars are integral to the inauguration pageantry.
“Inauguration wouldn’t be the same without sidecars,” said Steve Tritt, a police vehicle enthusiast who lives in Florida and collects histories on a website called Policemotorunits.com. He said Harleys, sidecars and new presidents simply go together.
“Harley is looked on as a tradition, and when people see the sidecars coming with the president, it means something,” said Tritt, who spent three years as a police officer in South Carolina but credits his father, a longtime sheriff, with his interest in motorcycles. “That’s the way it always has been. That’s American history.”
Officers from the D.C. and U.S. Park Police ride in the inaugural and other parades. The first record of D.C. police using motorcycles during an inauguration comes from 1933.
Lanier said the department has 55 motorcycles and a stockpile of 65 sidecars, many of them never put on the street. The problem now is finding enough older-model motorcycles with hardware to accommodate the sidecars. She said the most significant issue is that the automatic braking systems on the new motorcycles is not compatible with the brakes on the sidecars.
“We’re going to make what we have work as long as we possibly can,” Lanier said.
The Park Police turned to a husband-and-wife-run company in Seattle called Liberty Motors and bought six custom-made sidecars that replicate the Harley sidecar used during President Kennedy’s inauguration in 1961.
And it’s not just D.C. area police who are searching for substitutes. Pittsburgh’s police force, which started using sidecars in 1909, bought five sidecars when Harley made its last batch, and the force is seeking a company to retrofit the newer motorcycles.
A spokeswoman for Harley-Davidson, Maripat Blankenheim, said she could not comment on specifics of the talks with the District because the company does not publicly discuss new products. But she said “the work and the conversations that are needed are taking place.”
Blankenheim said that her company “agrees with the chief in her suggestion that Harley-Davidson wants to have its bar and shield lead the inaugural parade, and every other parade.”
[History of the D.C. police motorcycle unit]
Milwaukee-based Harley-Davidson stopped sidecar production in 2011, ending a 97-year run, citing declining sales, and promised to support existing warranties and to make repairs. The decision to drop the line touched off anger and angst among sidecar enthusiasts and motorcycle clubs across the country.
Police departments, too, were in a quandary, particularly those in cold-weather regions where sidecars are a must to put motorcycles on the streets year-round.
D.C. and Park Police keep their sidecars on the streets from October or November through St. Patrick’s Day to account for winter weather. In slow-moving parades and some escort situations, the extra wheels also help riders avoid tipping over when their speed is slower than a slow walk.
Police motorcyclists are in many ways like other two-wheeler enthusiasts — a club within a club, steeped in history and proud of the way they can intricately maneuver their 800-pound machines, such as the sharp, slow-speed turn called the “little general.” They participate in competitions, and in the St. Patrick’s Parade in Washington, the District force allows its motorcycle officers to ride with their children in sidecars, one of the rare times those seats are filled.
Children ride in the sidecar of D.C. Police Lt. Robert Glover’s Harley-Davidson motorcycle during the St. Patrick’s Parade in Washington on March 13, 2016. (J. Lawler Duggan/For The Washington Post)
U.S. Park Police will celebrate the motorcycle unit’s 100th anniversary in 2017. The agency patrols public parks such as the Mall, helps escort dignitaries and protects large-scale events. It has 21 motorcycle riders and 30 Harley-Davidson motorcycles, including six recently ordered for January’s inauguration. (The new ones do not take sidecars.)
Lt. Todd Reid, commander of the Park Police motorcycle unit, said he and a representative from D.C. police had checked out a Harley competitor that makes police motorcycles and sidecars. He said that company quoted a price of $68,800, including the cycle and sidecar. Harley sells its police motorcycles, without sidecars, for about $24,000.
Reid, a 28-year member of the force, said his department decided to buy six sidecars from Liberty, which sells them for $9,500, including shipping. “We had to find something after-market that would be safe for our sidecar operations,” he said. “Harley took away all our options.”
Reid said that Liberty has designed a bracket that can fit its sidecars onto the newer Harleys, and he said that Harley has told him that if this is done correctly, the alteration would not void the Harley warranty. Reid said the six new retro-style sidecars from Liberty will lead the inaugural procession for the next president.
Pete Larsen, the founder and president of Liberty Motors, said Harley’s decision in 2011 “left police and others in a lurch.”
But it’s a problem he’s happy to solve.