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TROG = DIY Custom Cars, Bikes at Harley-Davidson Museum

Jul. 3, 2017
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In 2012, a new hot rod-custom bike event debuted on the New Jersey shore, but the event, held every year since, has long roots in custom car culture. “The Race of Gentlemen” (affectionately known as “TROG”) honors the mid-century endeavors of backyard mechanics, linking them to the DIY and Maker Faire ethos of today. Like the revival of vinyl LPs, TROG is a pushback against the digitalization of our world. And yes, despite the deliberately retro affectation of “Gentlemen,” women are also getting their hands dirty, building, restoring and racing hot rod cars and custom bikes.

This summer, a Harley-Davidson Museum exhibition, “The Race of Gentlemen,” examines the people as well as the machines they ride. Huge color panels display the varied faces of the driver-builders in portraits by photographer Cory Piehowicz. Most of the faces are young, including Sushi, a Tokyo, Japan resident in a Harley-Davidson cap, and Andy Wood, clad like a circa-1920 Harley rider complete with English racing cap and bowtie. TROG’s principal founder, Mel Stultz, is a bearded artist who makes TROG’s retro-looking signage and props. Tom Row, 79, is a wizened veteran from the post-World War II drag races, a living link to the past TROG seeks to invoke.

Also on display are smaller black-and-white action photos by David Carlo that capture the splatter of sand under bike tires as well as pensive moments in the cockpits of race cars. Videos from TROG show the vehicles and their owners as they race along the Wildwood, N.J., beach at low tide on tightly packed sand. 

Of course, much of the space in the exhibit, spread across the Harley-Davidson Garage, is devoted to the handiwork of the ladies and gentlemen of TROG. As described by the exhibit’s curator, Kristen Jones, the vehicles culled for the exhibit from recent TROGs “are a throwback to a time of ingenuity when people had to figure it out without the resources of the Internet at their fingertips.” 

Most TROG participants work within a set of boundaries, using only pre-1932 auto bodies, no motorcycles built after 1947 and no parts introduced after 1950 or so. Aside from combing scrapyards and warehouses for vintage components, some TROGers make their own parts or seek out boutique companies that fabricate them according to old-time specifications. 

Every vehicle in “The Race of Gentlemen” has its own story. Some were handed down as family heirlooms from previous generations of dragsters and bikers. Some were recovered from scrapheaps and lovingly resuscitated with parts scrounged from here and there. Some were built from scratch and assembled from remnants. A 1942 Harley-Davidson Model WLA, designed for the U.S. military, was assembled from spare parts donated by collectors. Text panels tell those stories. 

Unlike traditional car and motorcycle collectors who paint and polish their vehicles to the bright gleam they wore on the day they rolled from the assembly line, most TROGers prefer to maintain the patina of age. Typical is the exhibit’s 1946 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead with exhaust pipes coated in rust and saddle seat worn from many rides. 

Through a shared love of gritty technology from the Industrial Age, a loose community has been born. The annual gathering in Wildwood has grown rapidly. According to Jones, 15 motorcars and 15 motorcycles participated in the 2008 TROG. This year’s run drew 150 vehicles along with over 25,000 spectators. Mark your calendars for June 2018 if you like, but meanwhile, catch the spirit at Harley-Davidson.

Through Sept. 4 at the Harley-Davidson Museum, 400 W. Canal St. There will be many special events over the summer, including the July 8 “Wild Ones: Vintage Motorcycle Rally” featuring an antique motorcycle ride-in show, slow races, plank rides and stunts. For more information, visit harley-davidson.com.

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