Ever wonder how the whole biker lifestyle got its start? Well, it began with servicemen returning from World War II who bonded together over the love of motorcycles. You see, by 1934 out of nearly 300 American Motorcycle Companies that were created from around 1900, only two remained in business, Harley-Davidson and Indian. At the depth of the Great Depression, Harley-Davidson pulled out all the stops to stay alive. Luckily they continued to sell motorcycles to the police departments across the country.
Over at the Indian camp, the new President, Mr. du Pont was fighting to survive and doing an amazing job. In fact, each year after 1929 saw the deficit at Indian reduced by as much as half. In 1934, the AMA created a new Class C in racing for 750cc, or 45 cubic inch side valve engines. This quickly gave birth to the Indian Sport Scout and the Harley RLDR. In 1935, Harley had Joe Petrali on the Factory Team and Smokin’ Joe won all of the national titles that year.
Another major victory for Harley-Davidson loomed over the darkening horizon; the specter of World War II. Since the late Thirties, the U.S. government had been giving Indian and Harley ever-growing orders for military motorcycles. These bikes were for war preparedness at home and to supply our Allies with bikes since the British Motorcycle Industry had been all but destroyed by the German air campaign.
As America entered the war, so did Harley-Davidson, and they entered it in a big way. In 1941 literally all of Harley’s motorcycle production went to the war effort. When WWII ended in 1945, motorcyclists stateside wanted a new Harley to replace the one that carried them through the war years and returning G.I.s were aching to buy a civilian model of the bike that saved their asses time and time again in Europe. This created a loyalty to Harley-Davidson that Indian couldn’t touch. It also gave birth to more than a little rivalry between Indian and Harley riders. By 1945 Indian was only producing its Chief model.
Remember that this was a time when motorcycle clubs were fairly clean-living groups who rode wearing dapper ties and snappy caps. In fact, you could be fined for forgetting to wear your tie to a field meet. The Detroit Hell’s Angels even won the AMA Award for Safety. These forerunners are no relation to today’s “Hells Angels” (note that the notorious bike club we are all familiar with does not use an apostrophe in their name). The one percenters of Hollywood biker movie fame weren’t on the scene…yet.
As Indian fought valiantly with their new Arrow and Scout models in 1948, not even the fact that they had such Indian-riding celebrities as Jane Russell and Roy Rogers could help them when Harley came out with it’s new 74 cubic inch Panhead motor. The innovative design featured hydraulic valve lifters and aluminum heads.
In the summer of 1946, a handful of American War Veterans and their friends were sitting in the All American Bar in South Central Los Angeles, California. The place was an old gas station with a bar attached in back. It was tiny and kind of a dive. Most of the guys hanging out had two things in common; they had been through the war and they loved to race around on motorcycles. The “Big A”, as patrons called the place, was a destination for bikers and if you weren’t a Vet or into bikes you had no business there.
Some of these guys had been riding motorcycle together since 1939, calling themselves The Characters. Well, Wino Willie Forkner, J.D. and his brother Jim Cameron, Jack Lilly and a few others were havin’ several cold ones and trying to come up with a name for their group of riders. Willie had been thrown out of another motorcycle club for getting drunk and sneaking into an AMA sanctioned race, causing a scene.
As the legend goes, one of the bar’s patrons, one Walt Porter, was sitting very drunk with his head on the bar, half-listening to all the talk about names for a new bike club. He is said to have raised up his head and uttered, “You might as well call yourselves the Boozefighters, ’cause all you ever do is sit around the bar and fight that booze.” The name stuck and the Boozefighters were born. Certainly many motorcycle clubs had come before, but the original Boozefighters and those clubs that came after them marked a change in the evolution of motorcycling because they became associated with the term “outlaw biker”.
When you think of the image of an outlaw biker, most in the straight world think of a gorilla stuffed into a leather jacket holding a length of motorcycle chain as a weapon or a Wild West gunslinger when they hear the word “outlaw”. The fact is, the term “outlaw” referred to the fact that outlaw bikers were those who did not race at AMA sanctioned field meets. Simple as that. They were outside the convention of the AMA’s rules and regulations and therefore, “bad boys”.
Returning WW II servicemen didn’t talk much about the horrors they had witnessed in Europe because a man (and a biker) was taught to hold their mud back then. There was no sniveling allowed. Vets kept their demons to themselves, and managed to keep their anger on a sort leash most of the time.
It was easy for a Vet to feel like he didn’t fit into the sanitary, Disneyesque world of post-war America. Many felt a lot more at home in the company of other “like-minded” brothers. For the Vets in the Boozefighters and other motorcycle clubs such as the Sharks and the Yellow Jackets (the racing arm of the Boozefighters), riding and racing motorcycles and raising a little hell was fun and fun was what they were about. When you think of the media’s portrait of an outlaw biker, you might imagine a group of organized thugs in leather; sort of a chopper riding Mafia that deals in drugs, guns and prostitutes. The motorcycle clubs of the 1940’s and ’50’s were the opposite of that image. These were fun-loving guys who were out to taste a little of the freedom they had fought so hard to win during the war.
For instance, in his excellent book on the Boozefighters (The Original Wild Ones, published by Motorbooks), author and biker Bill Hayes mentions a letter dated September 18th, 1946 from Benny “Kokomo” Mitchell, the president of the San Francisco chapter of the Boozefighters, to the Los Angeles chapter. The letter was a request for four club sweaters for new members that had successfully passed the seven “tests” required of a prospect (a prospective member on probation) who wished to become a righteous full-fledged member of the club. These seven tests were as follows:
- Get drunk at a race meet or cycle dance.
- Throw a lemon pie in each other’s faces.
- Bring out a douche bag where it will embarrass all the women (then drink wine out of it).
- Get down and lay on the dance floor.
- Wash your socks in a coffee urn.
- Eat live goldfish.
- Then, when blind drunk, trust me (Kokomo) to shoot beer bottles off of your heads with my .22.
Obviously, these were guys with a great sense of humor and more than their fair share of mischief, but criminals out to take over small towns for a weekend of violent debauchery? No. The original Wild Ones were wild at heart but not out to become the next incarnation of the Vikings of old. As stated, many had served their country proudly in the war. Wino Willie Forkner had been a gunner on a B-52. Dink Burns lost both his legs as his ship went down. Jim Hunter shot down a German dive bomber. Jim Cameron spent his Army time in the Pacific Theater. Johnny Davis received a battlefield promotion to 2nd Lieutenant for heroic action under fire. Red Dog survived Midway. On and on the list goes, but honored veterans or not, the world was about to case a wary eye on these Boozefighters and any other club that attended the birth of the outlaw biker legend known as “The Hollister Riot”.
To be continued…