Excerpt: Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, by Randy D. McBee

mcbee_bornIn 1947, 4,000 motorcycle hobbyists converged on Hollister, California. As images of dissolute bikers graced the pages of newspapers and magazines, the three-day gathering sparked the growth of a new subculture while also touching off national alarm. In the years that followed, the stereotypical leather-clad biker emerged in the American consciousness as a menace to law-abiding motorists and small towns. Yet a few short decades later, the motorcyclist, once menacing, became mainstream. To understand this shift, Randy D. McBee narrates the evolution of motorcycle culture since World War II.

In the following excerpt from Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist (pp. 91-96), McBee talks about the birth of the Honda motorcycle, and how motorcycling transcended race, class, and gender.


“Vroom-vroom is now an established middle-class noise,” claimed a 1965 Esquire article about the Madison Avenue Motorcycle Club (MAMC). The author described the club as one “peopled by respectable professional men who prefer two wheels to four, and it is just one manifestation of a growing sophistication of the motorcycle.” The club was initially established in 1960, a year in which only 45,000 motorcycles were sold nationwide, by a group of “serious” bike-riding New York executives and professional men. Five years later, Americans were expected to purchase as many as 450,000 cycles by the year’s end. Most of these new owners were casual participants in the subculture, or what the author characterized as “fair-weather riders” and “not the hard-core devotees.” The picture accompanying the story showed a dozen men riding in a pack, some of them wearing sunglasses, a significant majority of them wearing helmets, and all of them in suit and tie. “Grey worsted suits in the saddle and an attaché case on the luggage carrier,” the author explained, “are not the rare sight today that they were a few years ago.”[1]

Stories such as this one about middle-class riders making motorcycling respectable were common in the early 1960s. Their arrival both coincided with and was the product of the introduction of the Japanese Honda into the American marketplace. Yet despite the enthusiasm that greeted the middle-class rider, ambivalence and frustration also surrounded him. These were serious riders, or so they claimed, yet their critics found it all too easy to dismiss them as “casual” motorcyclists. If anything, their struggle to overcome this claim made their impact on motorcycling more conspicuous than it might have been otherwise, and it brought the issue of class to the fore.

To be sure, there were plenty of middle-class and professional riders who did not wear a suit and tie. But just as many (if not more) did, and the image of the middle-class rider (and his Japanese-made bike) remained a conspicuous and influential issue in motorcycling in the decades to come. The trademark suit and tie was accompanied by the assumption that their bikes required little if any maintenance and that the act of buying a bike was more important than building one.

Historians have noted that these postwar years represented a period in which consumption became intimately linked to citizenship and social belonging. The middle-class rider embodied these basic ideas even as he revealed the weaknesses surrounding them. He struggled to deal with the stigma associated with the “biker” who not only had fewer resources to support his preoccupation but also promoted the idea that class consumption was more important to motorcycle culture than mass consumption.[2] In other words, the economic circumstances facing riders affected their relationship to motorcycling, and the overwhelmingly working-class constituency had more invested in its bikes than that which could be derived through the simple act of buying one.

These debates about class and consumption critically shaped what it meant to be a rider in the 1960s and 1970s. They aggravated an increasingly bitter fight about brand loyalty that gave rise to the slogan “You ain’t shit if you don’t ride a Harley” and formed the basis for a growing divide among riders that would influence the fight over the government’s regulation of motorcyclists (through the helmet issue) and lead to a divide that is still visible today.


The growth in the number of street bikes during the 1960s and 1970s was nothing short of astounding. In 1945 there had been 198,000 registered motorcycles in the United States, and by 1950 that number more than doubled, to 454,000. Over the next decade (1950–60), this number would grow at a much more modest pace—from 454,000 to 575,000. But between 1960 and 1965 the number of registered motorcycles soared from 575,000 to 1,382,000. By 1971 the number had surpassed the 3 million mark, and as of 1974 Americans had registered a total of 5 million motorcycles for use on the country’s roads and highways.[3]

The introduction of the Japanese-made Honda motorcycle is the main reason for this unprecedented uptick. The first Hondas were sold out of the back of a pickup truck in Los Angeles in 1959, and during the company’s first year of operation in the United States (1959–60) it sold 2,548 cycles.[4] Two years later (1962) the annual total had increased to about 50,000,[5] and for the 1965–66 period Honda sold 267,640 motorcycles in the United States. By this time Honda estimated that its motorcycles accounted for close to 70 percent of all American motorcycle sales and that Americans across the country were riding a total of 720,000 of them. Total sales for fiscal year 1965 were just over $77 million, while a year later the company’s sales totaled over $106 million.[6] The Honda motorcycle was dubbed the “next potential Tin Lizzy.”[7]

The success of Honda was largely the work of Soichiro Honda. Honda, the son of a poor village blacksmith, had always been fascinated with engines. He apprenticed as a mechanic in a Tokyo garage and at age twenty-one established an automotive repair business. He eventually started racing autos until an accident in 1935 left him without any chance of continued success. After World War II, he began building motorcycles and by 1949 had produced his fourth model, which has been described as the sire of all the Hondas that were to follow. It was capable of going about 45 miles per hour and averaged 200 miles per gallon of gas. Soichiro painted it red, black, white, and blue and called it the Dream. By 1952 Honda employed one thousand men, and his factory was about one hundred times larger than the two wooden shacks he started with.[8] By 1964, he had four factories in Japan (two in south central Honshu and two in Tokyo), a research center, and a plant in Belgium and another one set to open in Thailand.[9]

Honda was not alone in the American market. Within just over a decade of Honda’s appearance in the United States, the company’s share of the U.S. market dropped to around 42 percent as other Japanese companies began to sell to American consumers—Yamahas, Kawasakis, and Suzukis. Together the Japanese brands had captured more than 80 percent of the U.S. market, compelling one contemporary to note that “in no other U.S. market category do Japanese brand names hold such a commanding position.”[10]

Honda’s good fortune reflected the company’s success at attracting a new cohort of riders—what its ads described as “the nicest people” and who were unmistakably middle class. Within a few short years of the appearance of the first Hondas, stories began to appear with titles like “New Breed of Motorcyclist,” “Cycles in Social Revolution,” “Cycles Swooping Up,” and “Civilized Cycles: Everybody Rides ’Em Now.” These articles celebrated the craze in motorcycling that was sweeping across the nation and offered vivid descriptions of the “smiling boyish faces, midriff beauties and solid commuter types,” who had recently taken up cycling.[11] “Motorcycles, like pool tables,” had “joined the anointed ranks of the socially acceptable.”[12] Another story referred to the “growing sophistication of the motorcycle.”[13] “With the endorsement of doctors, lawyers, teachers and a wide variety of other professional persons,” a New York Times article exclaimed, “the motorcycle image has undergone a change that has contributed to the sales explosion.”[14]

These new riders were also generally linked to families.[15] A 1963 Business Week article, for example, noted that riders of these Japanese motorcycles were swiftly changing the typical image of the “heavy leather jackets,” “goggles,” and “tough young men” and persuading Californians that a motorcycle can be “for family fun.” About 65 percent of Honda customers were “newcomers to the sport who have never ridden a motorcycle before,” and their “enthusiasm has run so high that—with the encouragement of enterprising Honda dealers—they have set up clubs and dubbed themselves ‘Hondanauts.’” One such club in Eagle Rock, California, consisted of “young married couples who like to take off on weekend excursions.”[16]

Motorcycling was also attracting more women riders in the 1960s. The typical picture of the middle-class motorcyclist featured comfort-conscious executives, young fashionable coeds, and even mothers gearing up for a trip to work or a weekend of fun.[17] The April 1965 issue of American Motorcycling featured Pat Parnell, wife and mother of two young boys, as an example of this new rider. Pat and her husband faced a “transportation problem with a home in Huffman and her job in Houston.” The pair “solved it by buying a bright red motorcycle.” Pat rode “40 miles a day to work in blue jeans, a long-sleeved shirt, a ski jacket, and a safety helmet over her curlers.” She commented, “I think the only way you could tell I’m a girl is by my purse on the handlebars.” Once she had completed her journey, she would stop at a gas station, disappear into the ladies room for a few minutes, and reappear with “blonde hair brushed, and the motorcycle outfit replaced with a pretty suit.”[18]

No reliable statistics exist on the number of female riders during this era, but anecdotal evidence suggests their numbers grew considerably in the 1960s. At the time that Josephine W. Bucklew of Houston wrote a letter to American Motorcycling in 1949, she had been without a “motor[cycle]” for two years and had “felt lost” during that time. She explained that she had been riding horses from the time she was a “wee little one” and “was never as happy as I am on a good iron steed.” Bucklew started riding a Harley 61 in 1943 and exclaimed, “There are very few days in this part of Texas that a motor cannot be ridden.” The only drawback she mentioned was the scarcity of other female riders on the road: “Girl riders are still rather a novelty here in Houston—only about six or seven have their own motors even now.”[19] In 1966 Honda claimed that “its women customers have doubled in number over the past two years,” although the company would “not give specific figures.”[20] By 1975 Yamaha would claim that 10 percent of its customers were female, up from 3 percent two years earlier. A year before the company became the first motorcycle manufacturer to buy ad space in a woman’s magazine—Cosmopolitan. Their full-page ad was so successful that Honda followed up with its own Cosmopolitan ad shortly thereafter.[21]

This new middle-class rider was also African American. Ebony magazine’s article on “50 Eligible Bachelors” for 1969 started off by highlighting motorcyclists among its featured bachelors. “If a GIRL has read up on her Afro-American history and if she doesn’t object to riding on the back of a motorcycle or even in the cockpit of an airplane, she just might be able to land herself one of this year’s Ebony eligible bachelors.” The bachelors, described as men who had “much to offer,” were “scattered from coast to coast,” most lived in large urban communities, and they had annual incomes as high as $100,000. The article featured several photographs of men at work and at home, lounging about the bachelor pad, or standing next to their favorite sports car, and they were described in general as sophisticated and well-traveled. Many of them spoke more than one language, and almost all of them had a very clear idea of the type of woman they were looking for. The “ideal girl,” Ebony explained, had to be “with it” on “just about everything.” “Not only does she have to be intelligent, the bachelors say, but she has to be really sharp on practical sociology and politics.” She also had to “have a certain grace and elegance because most of the bachelors like to entertain, and she has to be sporty enough to keep up with guys who enjoy riding motorcycles and flying airplanes.” E. Gene McFadden was one such bachelor. He was twenty-nine years old and an assistant superintendent who supervised and coordinated community education for the school district of Benton Harbor, Michigan. Motorcycling was his hobby, and he wanted a “girl ‘with a strong personality.’”[22]

As these examples suggest, the face of motorcycling was indeed changing in the early 1960s. White, working-class men dominated motorcycling and its image in motorcycle publications. Other riders still remained on the margins, and their impact on motorcycle culture was even less conspicuous. The lightweights that became popular in early 1960s had the potential to link these new riders together, as did their middle-class status. They were respectable and clean-cut, or what one contemporary likened to the Pepsi generation—the company’s slogan in the 1960s and 1970s that emphasized the country’s youth and an adventuresome spirit. Pepsi’s original television ad about this generation, in fact, featured a young couple aboard a lightweight motorcycle against the backdrop of the song’s lyrics and the voice-over that described the Pepsi generation as, “Just about everyone with the young view of things” who were “active livelier people with a liking for Pepsi cola.”[23]


From Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist by Randy D. McBee. Copyright © 2015 by the University of North Carolina Press.

Randy D. McBee is associate professor of history at Texas Tech University. His book Born to Be Wild: The Rise of the American Motorcyclist, is now available.

  1. [1]Michael Sumner, “Varoom at the Top: The Madison Avenue Motorcycle Club,” Esquire, November 1965, 141.
  2. [2]On the idea of class consumption, see Benson, Household Accounts; see also Cohen, Consumers’ Republic; McGovern, Sold American; and May, Recasting America.
  3. [3]Motorcycle Industry Council, 1977 Motorcycle Statistical Annual (Newport Beach: MIC, 1977), 7.
  4. [4]Garson, Born to Be Wild, 116.
  5. [5]“Wooing the ‘Mild Ones,’” Business Week, March 30, 1963, 26-27; “How the ‘Thunder Herd’ Boss Brought a Honda Boom to U.S.,” Newsweek, July 6, 1964, 66.
  6. [6]Walter Carlson, “Advertising: V-r-r-room in Honda’s Sales,” New York Times, July 29, 1966, 38.
  7. [7]“Twice the Fun, Twice the Risk,” California Living in San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, December 11, in “motorcycle” file, Peter Tamony Collection, Western Historical Manuscript Collection, University of Missouri-Columbia (hereafter Tamony Collection).
  8. [8]“The World’s No. 1 Thunderer,” Reader’s Digest, December 1966, 13-14, 17-18, 20.
  9. [9]“How the ‘Thunder Herd’ Boss Brought a Honda Boom to U.S.,” Newsweek, July 6, 1964, 66.
  10. [10]Moskowitz, “The U.S. Craze for Japan’s Motorcycles,” California Living in San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, December 11, 1966, “motorcycle” file, Tamony Collection.
  11. [11]Chas Cruttenden, “Cycles in Social Revolution,” San Francisco Sunday Examiner and Chronicle, June 19, 1966, “motorcycle” file, Tamony Collection.
  12. [12]Ibid.
  13. [13]Michael Sumner, “Varoom at the Top: The Madison Avenue Motorcycle Club,” Esquire, November 1965, 141.
  14. [14]Albert G. Maiorano, “A Motorcycle Offers Fun, Thrift—and Respectability,” New York Times, April 2, 1967, A27.
  15. [15]See, for example, “Motorcycling Is a Family Affair,” American Motorcycling, April 1963, 12.
  16. [16]“Wooing the ‘Mild Ones,’” Business Week, March 30, 1963, 27.
  17. [17]Robert Reinhold, “New Breed of Motorcycle Buff Is Businessman 5 Days a Week,” New York Times, June 16, 1969, 59; “New Breed of Motorcyclists,” San Francisco Examiner, November 29, 1966, “motorcycle” file, Tamony Collection; Lyn Billingsley, “Blonde on Motorcycle Is Secretary, Mother of Two,” American Motorcycling, April 1965, 16.
  18. [18]Lyn Billingsley, “Blonde on Motorcycle Is Secretary, Mother of Two,” American Motorcycling, April 1965, 16. For a more general discussion of women motorcyclists, see Ferrar, Hear Me Roar, and Joans, Bike Lust.
  19. [19]Letters, American Motorcycling, March 1949, 3.
  20. [20]Walter Carlson, “Advertising: V-r-r-room in Honda’s Sales,” New York Times, July 29, 1966, 38.
  21. [21]“The Uneven Race to Take Over Honda,” Business Week, May 25, 1975, 156.
  22. [22]“50 Eligible Bachelors: Singles Search for the Girl with ‘Soul,’” Ebony, June 1969, 62-65, 68-70, 72.
  23. [23]See www.youtube.com/watch?v=QWQkfow5JR4&feature=results_video&playnext=1&list=PL4C7A31F9ECB52.