The Birth of Bikers, Part Two

November 25, 2022 7 min read

The Birth of Bikers, Part Two

"What are you rebelling against?"

"Whaddaya got?"

—Marlon Brando as Johnny, The Wild One

Last month we told you how servicemen returning from World war II, out to find a few thrills on two wheels, began what would become the biker lifestyle. But then something happened that put bikers in the limelight. It created the impression that anyone on two wheels is a rebel… and outlaw.

What happened in Hollister lives in the annals of motorcycling history, like some festering sore. An incident occurred which single-handedly created an unwholesome image for both Harley-Davidson and motorcyclists in general. There's no doubt that the image of the leather-clad hellion blasting down the road on a loud Harley, out to rape America's daughters was invented due to some mildly anti-social activities which took place at an AMA Gypsy Tour on July 4th, 1947, in Hollister, California.  Much has been written about this "occurrence" though little that the media of the day reported on regarding the Hollister Riot was actually true.

The city fathers in Hollister had put on motorcycle races long before the alleged riot and never had any problems with rowdy riders. As the short version of the story goes, WW II servicemen and flyers returned from the war changed men. They were ready to raise a little hell and some of them had a passion for the white knuckle thrills that could be found by riding big chopped Harley-Davidsons (known then and now as Hogs).

These guys would strip everything they could off of Harley dressers to make the bikes lighter. Off went the windshields, saddlebags and front fenders. They would cut off, or "bob" the back fender and these custom "bobbers" became the forerunners to the "choppers" of the '60's and '70's.

These AMA-dubbed "outlaws" were guys from clubs like the Boozefighters, Galloping Gooses, Jackrabbits and the 13 Rebels. Out of the nearly 3,000 riders that came to watch the races and be part of the rally, the "outlaw" riders only amounted to a handful. The misdemeanors that supposedly took place over the course of the weekend were pretty much of the "public intoxication" or "drunk and disorderly" variety, with one guy sited for trying to urinate into the radiator of his truck. There was racing in the streets, whooping, hollering and plenty of drinking, but not anything more outrageous than you'd see at a college frat party. About the worst thing that happened was that somebody stole a cop's hat. According to original Boozefighter Gil Armas, someone opened the front door to Johnny's Bar on the main street and said, "Come on in!" Gil rode his bike right up the curb, into the bar and propped it up against the bar to order a drink (an act which would later be immortalized in the Stanley Kramer film The Wild One).

So how did this weekend of innocent shenanigans transform into a riot and turn these fun-loving patriots on wheels into demon bikers from Hell?  Ahh, you have the media to thank for that. San Francisco Chronicle photographer Barney Peterson was at the rally looking for a story but needed a catchy image to get his editor's attention. He got an idea and pushed a bunch of empty beer bottles over to a Harley that was parked at the curb. He then carefully art directed them to get the effect of a drunken orgy and enlisted the help of a rather large inebriated fellow named Eddie Davenport who just happened to be strolling down the sidewalk to pose on the bike. It wasn't even his bike!

The picture and sensationalized story that blew the events at the rally all out of proportion appeared in the July 1947 issue of Life magazine and the die was cast. Bikers were the new evil that America was searching for after the demise of Hitler and before the fictitious threat of invasion from space or attack by radioactive mutant insects. Almost overnight, motorcyclists became crazed blood-thirsty bikers to the public at large. Lock your doors, guard your daughters, outlaw bikers on loud, nasty motorcycles were coming to raid your town!

To combat this new surly image, the AMA issued a now famous press release explaining that the "rough" element of motorcycling public amounted to only "one percent" of the total riding community. They insinuated that most motorcyclists were good, clean, God-fearing Americans with jobs and families. Naturally, "outlaw clubs" that were sprouting up across the country liked the idea of being the one percent that your momma warned you about and the term "one percenter" was born. Being a one percenter became a proud badge of honor to all those bikers that felt disenfranchised by society. The loners and outsiders now had a name and standard they could identify with.

Writer Frank Rooney created a wildly overblown fictional take-off based loosely on the Hollister Riot called Cycle Raid which was printed in Harper's magazine in 1951. Always ready to cash in on a trend, Hollywood movie makers saw an incredible new villain in the black leather boogeymen portrayed in newspapers and magazines. Producer Stanley Kramer used Rooney's fictional account of motorized mayhem along with the events at Hollister as the basis for his 1954 film The Wild One starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. The film would give the tired old western genre one more twist with motorcycles taking the place of horses.

Brando rode a Harley in real life along with such contemporaries as Lee Marvin, Clark Gable, Robert Young, Errol Flynn, and Elvis Presley, but in the movie, Brando's character Johnny putts around on a Triumph while bad boy Lee Marvin gets the chopped Harley bobber. Though Brando's role of Johnny was the anti-heroic star of this picture, all the real bikers who came to check out the movie in theaters across the country felt a lot closer to Marvin's character of Chino.

While Johnny and his crew of miscreants, known as the Black Rebels, wore fairly clean leathers, black jeans and boots, Chino and his club, the Beetles, roared into town like a drunken mob, on oily, rusty Harleys, dressed like escaped convicts. Interestingly, according to an ancient interview with the late John Lennon, Chino's rowdy motorcycle club's name was the inspiration for the name of The Beatles. The current rock band Black Rebels Motorcycle Club was also, of course, inspired by the film.

From the first roar of motorcycle engines and squeal of rubber on highway over the opening credits, you just know that you are in for a good time. Johnny and his boys are riding into town having stolen a trophy from the local motorcycle race. The actual bike trophy seen strapped to Brando's handlebars now resides over the mantle in rebel rocker and biker Billy Idol's Hollywood home.

Of course, for straight America in 1954 when the picture came out, an evening at the movies was more likely spent viewing a light comedy starring Fred McMurray than watching Marlon Brando slur his lines and tear up an innocent town in rebellious juvenile angst. The 79-minute film broke all the traditional Hollywood rules and scared the bejesus out of a lot of people who had a hard time distinguishing between celluloid fantasy and reality. This was really the first biker film and it frightened people enough to ban the picture in England for over 14 years even though it features no foul language, little violence and only the vaguest suggestion of sex. What bothered straight society was that the hero of the piece wasn't a hero at all.  The thought of a generation of young men being so conflicted and violent, freaked people right out. Youthful rebellion was not generally something to air like dirty laundry in front of a movie audience at the time.

The movie also had an effect that its producers could not have expected; it created more bikers with attitude in the real world who emulated the characters of Johnny, Chino and their brothers.

At the time the film came out in 1954, motorcyclists either loved it and identified with the bikers portrayed, or they hated the insinuation that all bikers were leather-clad monsters out to sack small towns. Some theaters and drive-ins even considered pulling the release of the film, worried that it might inspire local teens to get rowdy and imitate the on-screen antics of the Black Rebels and Beetles. In fact, newspapers began calling teenage delinquents "Brandos" and police began to harass bikers in an effort to squash any possible biker gang uprisings.

In researching real bikers during pre-production of the picture, Wino Willie was signed up to be an on-set consultant. He apparently got a little drunk the night before though and couldn't make it to the set during filming.  Willie was known for spouting a lot of colorful language and with all the odd be-bop jazz slang in the movie, I always wondered if the writers simply inserted a "daddy-o" every time Willie would have said "sum-bitch".

The lasting effect of The Wild One could be seen in two distinct ways.  It offered a text book of behavior and dress for riders of the day who wanted to emulate Brando's swagger and also firmly planted the idea in straight America's collective mind that bikers were rebels. Both effects would be with us for a long time to come.

Yes, returning servicemen who fought for American's freedom in the muddy trenches during World War II had come home in search of a little bit of the freedom they fought so hard to win. They found camaraderie in other Vets who understood what they were all about. They felt like outsiders as the country entered the squeaky clean 1950's and their roar of defiance was heard from the straight pipes of their bobbed Harley-Davidsons. But they were not hell-spawned demons on a mission to pillage and burn small town America, nor some two-wheeled Mafia out to take over organized crime.

Interestingly, one of the earliest bike clubs was founded in the 1920's by a group of movie stunt men that became known as the 13 Rebels. The Yellow Jackets and Orange County Motorcycle Club also rode around southern California long before the Boozefighters appeared. Other early SoCal clubs included the Rams, Checkers, North Hollywood Crotch Cannibals (there's a happy group) and the Galloping Gooses. In 1949, just two years after the Boozefighters made the scene, a close knit group of bikers out in San Bernadino started up the Hells Angels.

But even in the wake of the "media-induced hysteria" caused by Hollister and The Wild One, the Boozefighters and other motorcycle clubs that burned rubber on the highways were still basically “drinking clubs with motorcycle problems.” They were fairly tame at the time when compared with what would soon follow. Rebellion and discontent were about to give birth to a very American breed of motorized mavericks.

Luckily today you can swing a leg over your bike and roar off down the road with the sound of Steppenwolf’s “Born to be Wild” ringing in your ears thanks to your Steel Horse Audio motorcycle stereo! If you don’t have a stereo on your scoot, order one today right here at Steel Horse Audio. And get yer motor runnin’.

To be continued…