By Julie Shapiro
LOWER MANHATTAN — The NYPD's once-glamorous motorcycle squad is getting a close-up just in time for its 100th birthday.
A new exhibit at the New York City Police Museum, called "The NYPD Motorcycle Squad: A Century of Service to New York City," traces the squad's origins, including its prestigious heyday as one of the city's toughest units in the 1950s and '60s.
"We wanted to show that [the motorcycle squad] is not just something that comes out at parade time," said Joshua Ruff, who curated the exhibit. "They're an important part of New York City life."
The exhibit features many photographs and squad uniforms from the past 100 years, along with four vintage motorcycles. The oldest is a 1948 Indian Motorcycle, which is red and emblazoned with the initials "P.D.N.Y.C."
The Police Department switched to Harleys in 1957, and the blue and white 2000 Harley Davidson on display is very close to what NYPD officers ride today, Ruff said.
Much of the exhibit focuses on the 1950s and '60s, when motorcycles were the preferred mode of transport for officers enforcing traffic rules on the city's highways. Motorcycle squad officers were also responsible for safely escorting visiting presidents and foreign leaders.
The squad's intensive training program was notoriously competitive and often weeded out more than half of the officers who had been accepted, earning those who survived an envied reputation, Ruff said.
In addition to learning all the rules of the road and the intricacies of operating and maintaining a motorcycle, the officers also had to perfect dangerous maneuvers like hairpin turns.
"They were really proud of it," Ruff said of those who gained admission to the unit. "But their loved ones were not so excited."
Riding a police motorcycle was an extremely dangerous job, mainly because of the myriad accidents that could occur while chasing speeding vehicles on the highway. One year in the 1950s, nearly 100 motorcycle-riding officers — or almost a quarter of the unit — landed in the hospital.
On an eight-minute documentary that is part of the exhibit, retired motorcycle cop Bob Leon recalled his back wheel blowing out while he was racing along FDR Drive.
"I ended up almost underneath a checkered cab," Leon said in the video. "[I was] pounding on the side of the cab [until] the guy finally heard me."
Leon escaped unhurt in that incident, but his near-fatal accident in 1959 required a full year of recovery.
The first police motorcycle hit the city's streets in 1905, when the bicycle squad proved unable to keep up with burgeoning automobile traffic. By 1911, there were enough officers to organize the first official unit.
In 1973, the NYPD combined the motorcycle squad with the Highway Patrol unit and began using cars, not motorcycles, to monitor the highways.
The motorcycle squad took on a lower profile, but the officers have still escorted every visiting president since Woodrow Wilson and provide security for major events, Ruff said.
"The NYPD Motorcycle Squad: A Century of Service to New York City" runs through Jan. 9, 2012 at the New York City Police Museum, 100 Old Slip, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday to Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. Admission is $8 for adults, $5 for seniors, students and children.