The Motorcycle Culture & Its Influence on Our Everyday Lives
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“Hey, Johnny, What’re you rebelling against?”
“Whaddya got?” (The Wild One, 1953)
The motorcycle is much more than a means of transportation; it is a symbol of freedom, a life that breaks through the norms. To put it briefly, the motorcycle culture implies being one with the bike and living by the road’s unwritten rules. In reality, very few of us can have such a life. But every once in a while, we can all ride those two wheels like there’s no tomorrow.
Why drive a car just like anyone else when you can go motorcycle touring, no strings attached, surprises waiting at every corner? Escaping the rat race, stepping out of our comfort zone, that’s when we truly start living. Decades ago, an idea led to a movement. This eventually grew into a social identity, so deeply rooted into our lives today that you don’t even need to be a biker to relate to the motorcycle culture. So let’s look back at how it all started…
The motorcycle throughout history
History’s first motorcycle is attributed to Sylvester Howard Roper, who invented a two-cylinder-steam-powered bicycle in 1867. In 1885, Gottlieb Daimler introduced the world’s first gas-powered motorcycle, a wooden bike with an engine attached to it. In 1903, William Harley and the Davidson brothers launched the Harley-Davidson Motor Company. By that time, they already had serious competitors – Excelsior Motor Company, Indian Motorcycle Manufacturing Company, Triumph Motorcycles. The first pages in motorcycling history were written.
It was during the world wars that the motorcycle gained ground, being acknowledged as a reliable means of transportation that replaced horses and ensured a more effective communication with the troops. After World War II, veterans found comfort in motorcycles, a way to reconnect with the adrenaline rush they had experienced on the battlefield. And so, the first motorcycle clubs were born.
In 1939, E. Paul du Pont invested in the Indian Motorcycle Co, which joined with Harley Davidson to sponsor the American Motorcycle Association (AMA). Through organized races, they brought motorbikes into the spotlight. Those who participated in these competitions usually belonged to the working class and these weekend escapes helped them sprinkle some adventure in their lives. Motorcycling was considered a peaceful pastime activity.
IMAGE: BARNEY PETERSON/SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE/SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE/CORBIS
That was until the notorious Hollister Riot, which cast a dark cloud over the motorcycle community on July 4, 1947. On that day, some 500 non-affiliate bikers disrupted the AMA-sponsored Gypsy Tour in Hollister, California. By today’s standards, the damage was minimal, but the events drastically changed the public’s perception – outlaw and biker became synonymous.
The One Percenters
Outlaws MC - Photo credit Birminghammail.co.uk
After WWII, motorcycle gangs that were not accepted by the AMA actually took joy in their denial. In response to the Hollister Riot, the AMA stated that 99% of riders were law-abiding citizens. It was the perfect opportunity for these brotherhoods to create their own identity. They became the One Percenters, outlaw riders. They considered themselves the one percent of motorcyclists that did not follow the law and lived by their own rules. To show the distinction, they wore a diamond-shaped one-percent patch on their denim vests.
Commonly known as the Big Four, here are the most notorious and recognizable outlaw motorcycle clubs of the One Percenters:
Hell's Angels Motorcycle Club - Photo credit BikerNewsNetwork.com
Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club, the most infamous bike gang to emerge after the Hollister Riot. It was founded in 1948 in California and today they are present throughout the US, as well as in Canada, Australia and Europe.
Pagans MC Members - Photo credit OnePercenterBikers.com
Pagans Motorcycle Club was founded in 1959 in Maryland, and will forever remain known for fighting with Hell’s Angels over territory. Today, they are still recognized as an outlaw motorcycle gang by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), having ties to organized crime and drug trafficking.
The Outlaws Motorcycle Club was founded in 1935 in Illinois, but it wasn’t until 1963 that it officially became a member of the One Percenters brotherhood, when it became the first outlaw motorcycle club east of the Mississippi.
Bandidos Motorcycle Club - Photo credit KansasCity.com
Bandidos Motorcycle Club was founded in 1966 in Texas. Also known as the Bandidos Nation, they accept worldwide memberships and have a motto that goes like this: "We are the people your parents warned you about."
The One Percenters have been portrayed in a negative light by the media ever since they first emerged. Outlaw motorcycle club members were thought to have criminal records and were considered intimidating and violent tattooed rebels that scared locals and caused havoc during their club gatherings and trips. While part of this may be true, not all One Percenters were the hoodlums the media portrayed them to be.
The 1950s saw the birth of the motorcycle culture. The 1960s saw its peak, when the motorcycle became a symbol of cultural identity. Ironically, the One Percenters are credited for creating the stereotype of the biker, yet we must admit the other 99% played a huge role in the development and evolution of motorcycle culture too.
Motorcycle culture in the media
The Hollister Riot caught Hollywood’s attention and sparked the imagination of writers. In 1951, Frank Rooney’s short narrative, The Cyclists’ Raid, published in Harper’s magazine, told the story of a fictional violent bike gang. Soon after, the 1953 movie The Wild One starring Marlon Brando, based on the events as well as on Rooney’s story, is about two motorcycle gangs that terrorize a small town. Marlon Brando became the image of the motorcycle outlaw, the American anti-hero.
The 1969 movie Easy Rider starring Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson as bikers traveling from Los Angeles to New Orleans became one of the most iconic counter-culture movies ever made. However, the movie would probably not have had the same impact without its opening soundtrack – Steppenwolf’s Born to be Wild.
The 1971 documentary On Any Sunday featuring Steve McQueen is considered the best motorcycle sport documentary ever made. Sons of Anarchy (2008), follows the lives of the members of an outlaw motorcycle club operating in a fictional town in California; it is the most recognizable TV series centered around motorcycles.
We cannot talk about motorcycle-inspired music without mentioning Meat Loaf. His 1977 album, Bat Out of Hell, brought motorcycle sound effects into the spotlight, a revolutionary idea that continues to inspire numerous rock bands.
There are all-time classic movies, documentaries, TV series and songs that make you jump to your feet, dust your bike, and get out and ride your motorcycle straight into the unknown. Just as Che Guevara did in 1952, when he embarked on a nine-month motorcycle tour through western South America on his Norton 500 nicknamed La Poderosa (the Mighty One). His epic journey was adapted for the screen in the 2004 movie The Motorcycle Diaries.
The first motorcycle leather jacket with a zipper was produced in 1928 by Irving Schott. He called it the Perfecto. In 1953, Marlon Brando’s character in the movie The Wild One wore a Perfecto leather jacket, thus sealing its fate as part of the outlaw motorcyclists’ outfit. Decades later, the leather jacket continues to stir emotions just by looking at it, the symbol of a whole culture in a single piece of wardrobe both bikers and non-bikers wear with pride. You don’t have to be a motorcyclist to appreciate a cool leather jacket, a trashy denim vest and high boots. This bald and edgy look has become a fashion statement anyone can relate to.
Celebrities like James Dean, Bruce Springsteen, The Ramones, Michael Jackson with his red leather jacket in Thriller, all contributed to the popularity of motorcycle fashion, paving its way from the highway to the runway. Designers like Yves Saint Laurent, Stefano Pilati, Gianni Versace, Claude Montana and Jean Paul Gaultier found inspiration in the Perfecto.
James Dean wearing the Perfecto leather jacket
Contrary to popular belief, outlaw bikers preferred to wear a denim vest instead of leather. This was a symbol of power, as it didn’t offer protection in case of a crash. These rebels could easily be identified by their trashy look, Levi jeans and denim vests with the club’s emblem on the back. The dirtier the bikers, the cleaner and better groomed their bikes.
The motorcyclists’ creeds ‘Ride or die’ and ‘Live to ride, ride to live’ are hard to live by in reality. Most of us are tied to something or someone in one way or another. But that doesn’t mean there’s no “wild one” hiding deep within ourselves, waiting to break free, even if only for a few days on an epic adventure motorcycle tour.
No matter what your reasons for riding may be, you cannot argue that there’s a certain unmatched feeling those two wheels offer. So head out on a life-changing motorcycle tour and reconnect with your “wild self.”