Rebel Bikers?

People Culture

Leather jacket and jeans. The motorcycle rider’s default setting. Motorcyclists have been wearing leathers since their machines developed enough power to bother a rice pudding’s epidermis.

The cowhide and denim combo became a global ‘rebel’ uniform, however, after the release of the 1954 film The Wild One. Despite the image being close to 60-years-old it remains the basis of a myriad of fashion shoots, major label collections, motorcycle ad campaigns — not to mention a million middle-aged fantasies.

It is ‘Johnny’, a 29-year-old Marlon Brando’s sullen anti-hero, who should be credited with setting the template of Levi’s and Schott Perfecto lancer front leather jacket. This character is reputedly based on Shell Thuet, a real life, polymathic motorcycle hero.

But Thuett was a doer rather than a nihilistic pout in a camp cap. As a member of the 13 Rebels Motorcycle Club he raced bikes, tuned them and went on to make competition chassis for some of best West Coast riders of the 60s and 70s including Kenny Roberts.

And just as Thuet is the real thing, the disturbance in the movie is based on the real Hollister ‘riot’.

But the term ‘riot’ is something of a stretch.

It all took place on Independence Day, 1947. There was a race and rally nearby and the town of Hollister, inland in Central California, filled up with motorcyclists, the vast majority being World War II veterans.

There was a lot of drinking, a few minor scuffles and some illegal drag racing down the small town’s high street.

Jim Cameron, one of the Boozefighters, the most famous of the early patch clubs, rode his bike into a boozer and leant it against the bar.

The bar owner asked Cameron to lean his Indian on a wall so there was room for people to drink. He moved it. There was no major threat to the fabric of American life and the hoo-ha would’ve been pretty much forgotten except for the posed photo of an unwitting chunky drunk, sat on a stripped Harley with a beer in each paw and a puddle of empty bottles surrounding him.

A local eyewitness remembers the photographer positioned the bottles by the bike himself. The photo ran in Life Magazine and post-war middle class America panicked about this new ‘threat’ to law and order.

In the wake of the disturbance even the most law-abiding riders and racers became feared, demonized against the backdrop of the post war American boom.

A year later, another race meeting in nearby Riverside prompted the headline “Riverside Again Raided by Gang: One dead, 54 arrested as motorcyclists stage riot…”

Bike riders became thereby exactly the bogeymen a post-war press needed to help sell papers. But the story was so exaggerated that the local Undersheriff wrote an open letter to put the record straight.

“It was convenient to omit, for the sake of sensationalism, that this one person killed in all of Riverside County on that weekend was nearly 100 miles from Riverside at the time he ran into a bridge abutment on the highway and was killed… at the time he ran into the abutment, according to authentic reports, he was not going to or from the Rally in Riverside.”

Undersheriff Abbott also wanted to let the world know Sheriff Rayburn did not get his trousers torn off in the riots. How the reporters managed to invent that ‘fact’ is astonishing.

There were arrests at Riverside for drunkenness and driving offences. A park warden got a punch in the face when he woke a rider to tell him he could sleep in the park.

It was about as wild as any decent-sized contemporary market town on a Saturday night. Nevertheless the die was cast. Bikers had become dangerous scum.

Clubs like the Boozefighters had already at this time been referred to as ‘outlaws’ by the American Motorcyclist Association, the AMA, simply because they organized race meets that weren’t sanctioned by the AMA, not because – like the hardcore ‘outlaw’ patch clubs that followed – they earned money from drugs and vice. But the outlaw tag was deemed appropriate and stuck anyway.

In 1954, The Wild One, a film described by the New York Times of the day as “A picture that tries to grasp an idea, even though the reach falls short,” gave rebels, both real and the weekend variety, a dress code, while those who just wanted to ride or race were tarred with the same brush.

After The Wild One and a dozen Corman-esque exploitation flicks, everyone in America who rode a bike and wasn’t a cop was regarded as a Hell’s Angel.

This, incredibly, even stretched to professional racers hauling their immaculately prepared bikes thousands of miles across country from one race to the next.

Steve McQueen, a lover of motorcycle racing and genuine Hollywood rebel, wasn’t impressed with the image motorcycle had been lumped with. “Brando’s movie, The Wild One, set motorcycle racing back about 200 years,” he said in the mid-1960s.

These days dentists and bank managers dress up like Johnny to channel some 60-year-old rebellion while the very companies whose sales were affected badly by the outlaw image of biking are now relying on it to shift units.

In reality, if you want to look like a 21st century outlaw biker, not a mid-20th century one, you need to forget the £500 leather jacket, blue jeans, engineer boots and American V-twin. Instead, get yourself a Japanese 450cc supermoto, strip the stickers off it so no one has a clue what it is and can’t give an accurate description to the Feds (these bikes all look identical).

Get down to the outlet shop for pair of trackie bottoms and trainers. Finish the look off with a black ski jacket and a motocross lid. Keep your number plate in one anorak pocket and lurk around outside expensive jewelers with half a brick in your other pocket.

That’ll really freak out the squares.