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Chrome, Sweet Chrome : O.C.'s Generation X Buying Into Adventure, Escapism of Motorcycles--and Price Is Right

August 11, 1995|MARK CHALON SMITH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Marlon Brando was a geek and Peter Fonda was dumb. But the bikes, now the bikes were cool.

That's what Franklin Perez thinks. At least that's what he's saying, perched low on his Norton motorcycle rumbling near the Seal Beach pier. Perez, the sun glinting off his wraparound shades and the bike's chrome, frowned while recalling Brando in "The Wild One" and Fonda in "Easy Rider," two of the best-known biker flicks ever.

"He [Brando] had that silly little hat, and all he did was mumble," Perez said, sneering. "The other guy [Fonda] was smoking [pot] the entire time. I'd have to say that except for what they were riding, they didn't have it together."

The movies may be credited with infecting whole generations with hog-lust, but that might not count for much these days. What was hip then can turn to drip now. The constant is a fascination with two wheels hooked to a powerful engine and the notion that a jolt of freedom can be found in the mix.

People in their 20s are still buying in.

Statistics compiled by the Irvine-based Motorcycle Industry Council show that so-called Generation Xers (let's say loosely those from 18 to 29) now make up nearly one-third of the nation's riders.

Don J. Brown, an industry consultant who helped with the survey, said the new interest in bikes is linked to lifestyle.

"Not only can you get where you need to go on a motorcycle, you can get there feeling a sense of adventure and escape from day-to-day demands," he said.

Perez, who bought his rebuilt 750cc Norton a little more than a year ago, fits the mold. He always envied the guys he saw straddling them, whether looking tough outside a biker bar or cruising Pacific Coast Highway. Perez didn't have enough money to buy a new one, but when a friend decided to sell his after getting married, Perez didn't hesitate.

"How can you not look great on a bike?" he asked. "I mean, everybody looks great on one. I'm into image and all that, and they're just fun to be on. It was an easy decision for me."

Perez and many other Gen Xers say cycles fit their world as easy as a downshift in a soft turn. They're relatively cheap--usually less than a new or comparably used car--and, more important, reflect something of the lawlessness some folks like to emulate.

These younger cyclists may actually hold down responsible jobs, have families and be nice to their mothers, but a bike and a little leather can go a long way in finding a personal identity.

"I'm a sweet guy, even my girlfriend says so, but I feel kind of rough when I'm tooling around," Perez said while stroking his short black ponytail. "The best time is at dusk . . . I wear my shades and just enjoy all the stares."

Unlike Perez, Erik Greeley is no newcomer to motorcycles. He's been around them since he was 10, when his father, then a rider in the cycle-racing circuit, took him on tour. Greeley, now 24 and living in Costa Mesa with a wife and two kids, could hang out with the pit crew, enjoying the biking vibes.

Over the years, he's had both big and small bikes, ones with monster thrust and those that just squeak by. These days, Greeley rides a little 200cc Kawasaki, a type he concedes is more for jaunts to the beach or just buzzing around town. But size, he said, doesn't diminish the thrill.

Besides, he added, a bike doesn't have to be flashy, an opinion not necessarily shared by many new riders who opt for pure style. While he doesn't exactly disapprove of the trend toward larger, stud-models wrapped in chrome, he wonders if the quest for an awesome image has become the main goal.

"There's really a move toward Harleys because people want to have a bike that's beefy and powerful," Greeley said. "I guess it's a status symbol, it's become sort of a cliche. These guys are into the way they come across . . . they have every chick in town checking them out.

"It's definitely a macho statement. I don't look down on them or their Harleys. But sometimes it's, like, dude, get a clue."

To that, Perez just chuckles and answers, "Why not?" He met his girlfriend, Cecilia Huerta, while at a Long Beach nightclub frequented by bikers. Perez said he was outside talking with friends when she came over and asked him about his Norton.

"She was into my wheels. If she wasn't into them, she probably wouldn't have come over."

Huerta, who was with Perez at Seal Beach and stood quietly while he talked about his cycle, shook her head when asked whether she or her female friends had ever owned bikes or were thinking about getting one. Riding on the back with Perez apparently was fun enough.

"I drive a Honda to get around," said Huerta, a 21-year-old Lakewood resident with waist-long hair, dyed crayon-red. "I like the speed [of a motorcycle], but it's really a guy thing."

For the most part, that seems to be true, especially if you go by the Motorcycle Industry Council's figures. Only 8% of all riders in America are women, although that's a leap from the meager 1% in 1960.

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