July 2006

“Born to be Wild”:  A Post-World War II History of Motorcyclists in the United States

Randy D. McBee
Texas Tech University

This course explores the history of motorcyclists and motorcycle culture from the end of World War II to the present, and its connections to the larger economic, social, and political changes of the period.  The period since the end of World War II is one of the most tumultuous and hopeful periods in American history.  Motorcyclists are not only a conspicuous part of that past but have often played an important role in shaping it. 

The readings for the course include a number of secondary sources about U.S. history as well as primary sources about motorcycling and motorcyclists.  This will allow students—both riders and non-riders—a chance to evaluate the history of motorcycling from as many different perspectives as possible.


Week 1—World War II

Because so much of the post-World War II history of motorcyclists links the sport’s growing popularity with veterans, it only makes sense to begin any class on motorcycling with some background on World War II. Gerald Linderman’s The World Within War is the absolutely best read on the history of World War II.  It explores the day-to-day experiences of soldiers, the larger social history of combat, and the struggles men faced on the battlefield and as they returned home to their families and friends.  These different experiences help explain the growth of cycling in the post-war period and the reasons for it. 


Linderman,Gerald.  The World Within War: America’s Combat Experience in World War II.  Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1999.


Week 2—Hollister/Riverside

The Hollister rally in 1947 and a subsequent event at Riverside, California one year later are crucial starting points for any discussion about the national (and often negative) attention cyclists began to attract after WWII.  The documents for this week’s reading include mainstream newspaper coverage of the “Gypsy” tours as well as articles that appeared in American Motorcycling (the official publication of the American Motorcycling Association) and The Motorcyclist.  While these accounts differ from the typical descriptions that appeared in the non-riding media, these publications are just as guilty for singling out what they referred to as a “small minority” or “lunatic fringe” to explain why the rallies degenerated into what the mainstream press often referred to as a “riot.”


“4000 Touring Cyclists Wreak Havoc in Hollister,” San Francisco Chronicle, July 6, 1947.

“All Right! Riders, Clubs, Dealers, Importers, and Factories.  Let’s face it!”  The Motorcyclist, August 1947.

“Let’s Take Inventory,” American Motorcycling, August 1947.

“Motorcyclists Put Town In An Uproar,” The New York Times, July 7, 1947.

“Cyclists Rule Town; 28 Held in Disorders,” The New York Times, July 5, 1948.

“Regardless of What You Have Read Or Heard, Here’s The Truth About Riverside,” The Motorcyclist, July 1948.


Week 3—The Cold War

Both the Hollister and Riverside rallies took place as the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union was heating up.  As fears about Communism hit home, Americans became increasingly concerned about scrutinizing their own behavior and their neighbors’.  This week’s readings explore the larger connection between the Cold War and the increasing fears about cyclists.  James Gilbert’s A Cycle of Outrage is a history of juvenile delinquency, which was often linked to cyclists during this period, and Elaine Tyler May’s Homeward Bound considers the Cold War’s impact on the home front.  May’s book pays particular attention to how gender shaped national politics, suburbanization, consumption, and what Americans considered proper and acceptable roles for men and women.  It is essential reading for understanding how the image of the “outlaw” cyclist took shape and how the rough/respectable divide became more acute among motorcyclists during the post-WWII period.


Gilbert, James. Cycle of Outrage: America’s Reaction to the Juvenile Delinquent in the 1950s.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1988.

May, Elaine Tyler.  Homeward Bound: American Families in the Cold War Era.  New York: Basic Books, 1990.


Week 4—Rebellions of the 1950s

While motorcyclists attracted their fair share of negative attention in the 1940s and 1950s, this time period witnessed a number of other rebellions and different challenges to the status quo.  Rock’n’Roll, the Civil Rights Movement, and the publication of Playboy magazine challenged the fundamental organization of American society and quickly attracted a significant amount of opposition. These movements alone merit significant discussion but against the backdrop of the rise of motorcycling, they afford considerable insight into the fears surrounding motorcyclists and into the problems Americans from all walks of life were facing.  How did the supposed threat of these movements differ from the fears surrounding motorcyclists?  How did such differences shape perceptions about motorcycling?  What do these different rebellions tell us about American society in the post-war period?


Ehrenreich, Barbara. The Hearts of Men:  American Dreams and the Flight from Commitment.  New York: Anchor, 1987.

Bertrand, Michael.  Race, Rock, and Elvis.  Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2005. 

Tyson, Timothy. Radio Free Dixie:  Robert F. Williams and the Roots of Black Power. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2001.


Week 5— The Wild One

The Wild One is the 1950s’ film most identified with the rise of the “outlaw” cyclist and for perpetuating stereotypical images about motorcyclists.  We will view the film and read reviews of it, comparing the film with earlier descriptions about the rallies at Hollister and Riverside to consider the changing image of cyclists during the period from the late 1940s to the mid-1950s.  Other readings for the week include a number of magazine and newspaper articles that appeared during this time.  Motorcyclists did not always appear as menacing as the film and the mainstream media tried to make them appear after these initial rallies.  What do these competing images of motorcyclists tell us about the non-riding public during this time and what were the problems the non-riding public identified with motorcyclists?


“‘The Wild One,’ Starring Marlon Brando as a Motorcyclist, Is on View at Palace,” The New York Times, December 31, 1953.

“New Films,” Newsweek, December 14, 1953.

The Wild One,” Time, January 18, 1954.

The Wild One,” The Catholic World, January 1954.

“Too Beastly?” The New Statesman and Nation, April 9, 1955.

General Articles about Motorcyclists
“Life Goes Motorcycling,” Life, 23 (August 11, 1947).

“Craftsmen on Wheels,” Popular Science, 152 (January 1948).

“One Motorcycle is Worth Six Cars in Traffic Control,” American City, 66 (August 1951).

“Runaway Motorcycle Slams Into a Carolina Crowd,” Life, 36 (May 3, 1954).

“Most Unpopular Men on the Road,” Saturday Evening Post, September 25, 1954.

“How They’ve Halted Delinquency on Wheels,” Popular Science,166 (March 1955).

“Effective Police Motorcycle Enforcement in Alton, Ill.,” American City, 72 (February 1957).


Week 6—Consumption/Suburbanization 

The expansion of the U.S. economy and enormous suburban growth also prominently defined the post-WWII period.  Understanding the nature of this growth helps shed light on the three major changes in motorcycling that are identified with the 1960s:  the image of an outlaw cyclist who is much more violent and routinely linked to drugs than his predecessor from previous decades; the rise of the respectable middle-class cyclist who is generally linked to the influx of Japanese-made Hondas; and the dramatic increase in the number of registered motorcycles.


Jackson, Kenneth. Crabgrass Frontier:  The Suburbanization of the United States.  New York: Oxford University Press, 1987.

Avila, Eric.  Popular Culture in the Age of White Flight:  Fear and Fantasy in Suburban Los Angeles.  Berkeley: University of California Press, 2006.

Cohen, Lizabeth.  A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America.  New York: Vintage, 2003.


Week 7—The “Outlaw” Clubs

It seems only appropriate that a course on motorcycling would have at least an entire week set aside for the Hells Angels, and much of the reading for this week focuses on that most notorious of outlaw clubs.  But by the 1960s and 1970s, many more outlaw clubs were attracting attention, and the press was filled with stories about them.  The readings for the week offer mainstream press accounts of these different clubs as well as articles from motorcycle publications and from motorcyclists themselves.  The goal of the reading is to get beyond the sensationalized headlines that have routinely shaped public conceptions about motorcyclists and to compare images of cyclists from the immediate post-war period to the riders of the 1960s and 1970s.  Stories of outlaw clubs often link them to a broader counter culture that was attracting national attention by the 1960s, but images of cyclists were also extraordinarily violent.  We will consider how these different images compare, and explore the connections between motorcyclists and the political and cultural movements of the period.


Thompson, Hunter. Hell’s Angels:  A Strange and Terrible Saga.  New York: Ballantine Books, 1996.

Barger, Sonny, Keith Zimmerman, and Kent Zimmerman. Hell’s Angels: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club.  New York: Harper Paperbacks, 2001.

Roundtable: “Hunter Thompson’s Hell’s Angels.” International Journal of Motorcycle Studies (July 2005). http://ijms.nova.edu/July2005/

 Musto, David.  The American Disease:  The Origins of Narcotic Control.  3rd edition. New York: Oxford University Press, 1999.

“Reign of Terror Jails 92 Cyclists,” San Francisco Examiner, August 22, 1960.

“Come to the Riot.  See Weir Beach Burn,” Life 59 (July 2, 1965).

“8 Charged in Jail Death As Gang Vows Revenge,” Dallas Morning News, August 14, 1969.

“Bikers Found Guilty on 2 of 4 Counts,” Dallas Times Herald, May 10, 1978.

Week 8—The Rise of the Middle-Class Cyclist/The Influx of Japanese-Manufactured Motorcycles

The other significant event in the history of motorcycling from the 1960s was the development of a middle-class cyclist.  In the United States the first Hondas were sold off the back of a pickup in Los Angeles in 1959.  Within a few years thousands of American men and women were joining in on the craze, and by the mid 1970s the number of registered motorcycles had reached the five million mark, up from around 250,000 after WWII.  This week’s readings explore the larger economic issues that gave rise to this  new rider, how he compared to or differed from riders from previous decades and from the “outlaws” who were also attracting attention during this time, and to the competing ideas about what it meant to be a “real” motorcyclist.


Barnum, Merritt H. “New Image in Motorcycling:  The Score in Clothes For Men,” American Motorcycling, August 1963.

“Varoom at the Top:  The Madison Avenue Motorcycle Club,” Esquire, 64 (November 1965).

“Cycles in Social Revolution,” San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle, June 19, 1966.

“New Breed of Motorcycle Buff Is Businessman 5 Days a Week,” The New York Times, June 16, 1969.

“A Sport for the Energy Crisis,” Motor Trend, 26 (April 1974).


Week 9—Women and Motorcycling

Women have been part of motorcycling since its beginning.  But the growing interest in the middle-class cyclist included a much broader discussion of women than in preceding decades, and it was during this time that motorcycle manufacturers began to target them specifically.  The readings attempt to make sense of this change, relate it to the feminist movement of the 1960s and 1970s, and to compare changing conceptions of women and motorcycling to the current (and growing) discussion about women riders. 


Pierson, Melissa Holbrook.  The Perfect Vehicle:  What It Is About Motorcycles.  New York: W.W. Norton and Company, 1998.

“Bike-ographies” (of Dot Robinson), American Motorcycling, May 1950

“Blonde On Motorcycle Is Secretary, Mother of Two,” American Motorcycling, April 1965.

“So Much Depends Upon A Red Tent,” Sports Illustrated, February 1975.

“Me & My Motorcycle,” Mademoiselle, 90 (1984).


Week 10—Regulating the Motorcyclist and the Helmet Issue 

As the number of registered motorcycles increased throughout the 1960s and as the number of middle-class men and women began taking up the sport, growing concerns about motorcycle safety began to emerge along with the push to regulate motorcycling.  In 1966 the Federal Government was successful in passing legislation that empowered the Department of Transportation to withhold federal funds for highway construction from states that did not have a helmet law.  Comparisons to the growing discussion about automobile safety offer insight the growing debate about helmets, but it was the issue of class that was particularly prominent.  Motorcyclists had long discussed the issue of safety but it did not become a national issue until the number of registered motorcycles began to expand dramatically, and most important of all, more middle-class men and women began to ride them. 


“Safety Figures Break Records,” American Motorcycling, February 1950.

“Danger Rides Two Wheels,” Parents Magazine, September 1963.

“How to Avoid Killing Yourself,” Esquire, 64 (November 1965).

“Tips for your Home and Family,”  “Death by Motorcycle,” Today’s Health, October 1966.

“Twice the Fun and Twice the Risk,” San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, California Living, December 11, 1966.

“Your Youngster and the Motorcycle,” Today’s Health, May 1967.

“Tougher Laws—Fewer Cycle Accidents,” U.S. News and World Report,” 65 (July 5, 1968).

“Motorcycling:  A Hazardous Two-Wheel Ride,” Today’s Health, July-August 1975.


Week 11—The Rise of the New Right

While the 1960s is generally identified with a number of liberation movements (feminism, civil rights, Black Power, gay liberation), it was also a decade when a conservative political shift developed.  That shift, often linked to what Richard Nixon referred to as the “silent majority,” slowly gained ground over the next decade and a half, coalesced into what became known as the New Right, and elected Ronald Reagan as president in 1980.  Along the way the United States’ economy began to contract.  Before it was over the Sunbelt South had experienced significant growth and the United States’ manufacturing base had collapsed, profoundly shaping workers’ experiences, the future of the U.S. economy, as well as the larger image of motorcyclists and the debate over their rights.


Bluestone, Barry and Bennett Harrison. The Deindustrialization of America:  Plant Closings, Community Abandonment, and the Dismantling of Basic Industry. New York:  Basic Books, 1982.

Lassiter, Matt. The Silent Majority:  Suburban Politics in the Sunbelt South.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2005.

McGirr, Lisa.  Suburban Warriors:  The Origins of the New American Right.  Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton University Press, 2002.


Week 12—Motorcycle Rights Movement

A motorcycle rights movement began as soon as local, state, and federal governments started to infringe upon motorcyclists’ rights.  The focus for this week, however, is the development of a national movement in opposition to helmet laws that led ultimately to the end of the Federal Government’s power to regulate the helmet issue and the increasing struggle to eliminate helmet laws at the state level.  The readings explore the various strategies motorcycle rights advocates adopted as they initially struggled to develop a mass movement, the relationship of the motorcycle rights movement to the larger conservative political shift that was also developing at this time, and the extent to which ideas about freedom and nationalism shaped images of motorcycling.


“Cyclists Go to Capitol for Helmet Protest,” Dallas Morning News, August 16, 1968.

“Make Motorcyclists Wear Helmets,” U.S. News and World Report 83 (July 18, 1977).

Youngblood, Ed. “Looking Toward November,” American Motorcyclist, November 1980.

Dunlop, Becky Norton.  “Turning the Tide,” American Motorcyclist, November 1980.

“Don’t Shoot the Easy Rider,” National Review 32 (October 31, 1980).


Week 13—The Motorcycle Daredevil

Who can forget the motorcycle daredevils who began showing up on the national scene in increasing numbers in the late 1960s and especially the early 1970s?   The most popular was Evel Knievel, but there were dozens of others and audiences across the country and the world were captivated by their spectacular jumps and other stunts.  The readings for this week attempt to explain this growing phenomenon and the reasons for it by situating the daredevil against the changes taking shape within motorcycling and the nation as a whole.  Evel Knievel was known best for his jumps but he had a longstanding feud with “outlaw” cyclists, and his diatribes against hippies, immigrants, Native Americans and many others also position him as a force for conservatism amidst dramatic social, cultural, and political change.


“He’s Not a Bird, He’s Not a Plane, Sports Illustrated, February 5, 1968.

“Knievel:  He Breaks, But He’s Bold,” Chicago Tribune, February 11, 1972.

“Evel Knievel:  Eat, Drink and Pray,” Dallas Morning News, January 21, 1973.

“Evel:  High Noon for a Gunfighter,” Los Angeles Times, February 9, 1973.

Mandich, Steve. Evel Incarnate:  The Life and Legend of Evel Knievel. London: Sidgwick and Jackson Ltd, 2001.


Week 14—Harley-Davidson

This week’s focus is on Harley-Davidson and the transformations the company experienced throughout the 1970s and 1980s.  Obviously, Harley-Davidson plays an important part of any history of motorcycling during the fifty years since the end of World War II, and discussions about Harleys frequently show up in the other readings for this course.  But it was during the mid-1970s when Harley-Davidson’s fortunes began to change dramatically.  In the early 1970s Harley-Davidson’s share of the U.S. market was less than four percent.  By the last half of the 1970s it had doubled to over seven percent and would continue to rise over the next two decades.   Today, it stands at about 25 percent, just ahead of Honda, which has dominated the market for nearly forty years after first appearing in the early 1960s.


“Macho Machine,” San Francisco Examiner, August 19, 1977.

“The Motorcycle Wars Roar Wide Open:  Hard Times for Harley-Davidson, the American Giant,” San Francisco Examiner, June 26, 1983.

“Harley Davidson Roars Back,” The New York Times, October 3, 1985.

“Trying to Shield Injured American Industries,” The New York Times, January 18, 1987.

“How Harley Outfoxed Japan With Exports,” The New York Times, August 12, 1990.


Week 15--Economic Nationalism

Harley-Davidson’s changing fortunes in the past two decades no doubt benefited from the increasingly strident economic nationalism that was showing up in a number of “buy American” campaigns.  Dana Frank’s Buy American offers a detailed look at the history of U.S. economic nationalism.  Although she ignores motorcycling, her work provides the opportunity for useful comparisons between motorcycling, auto manufacturing, and other “buy American” campaigns.  A discussion of economic nationalism also invokes a number of contemporary topics including immigration, globalization, free trade, and unionization.


Frank, Dana. Buy American:  The Untold Story of Economic Nationalism.  New York: Beacon Press, 2000.


Week 16—The Rich Urban Biker

While the middle-class cyclist first appeared in the 1960s, during the 1980s and 1990s a new version emerged.  This cyclist also came from the ranks of white-collar or professional employment, but he was no longer linked to the Japanese-made motorcycles that had initially attracted him to the sport.  In fact, this new rich urban biker (RUB) was becoming increasingly identified with Harley-Davidson and the growing success the company was experiencing.  The week’s readings compare the RUB to other motorcyclists, gauge his influence on motorcycle culture, and explore the much larger issue of the commercialization of motorcycling.  Was it simply coincidence that the white-collar and professional rider emerged out of the preceding chaos of the political and social movements and the development of a conservative political shift?  And to what extent did the rise of the RUB reflect the broader economic changes that led to the collapse of the U.S.’s manufacturing base?


“Bikers Bring Dollars, Not Debris, To Resort,” The New York Times, June 8, 1987.

“Bikers Flash Chrome, and Gold Card,” The New York Times, March 8, 1998.

“Engines Roaring; Pagers Beeping:  Middle Class Leads a Renewed Romance with Biker Culture,” The New York Times, July 12, 1998.

“Thunder Boomers:  Motorcycles Ride Wave of Middle-Aged Prosperity,” Houston Chronicle, Sunday August 5, 2001.