Sonny Barger joined the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club the same year I was born, and was still a member in good standing when he passed away on June 29th, 2022. That’s one long career!
Myself, I never met the man – to the best of my knowledge I never met any member of his club – but Barger was still a big influence in my life. He features prominently in Hunter S. Thompson’s Hell’s Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (Random House, 1967) and parts of Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1968), and my nascent view of what it meant to be a motorcyclist – the life path I’d already chosen for myself – was informed by Barger’s and his brothers’ exploits. Not for me the ‘nicest people on a Honda’ as the infamous mid-’60s advert suggested. I would be a biker….
….and that’s what I did.
Aside from Evel Knievel, who was much more masochist than motorcyclist, Sonny Barger is assuredly the most famous biker in the world, and was in the news numerous times throughout his tenure. For example, after members of the Oakland chapter of the Hells Angels, which Sonny served as President, broke up an antiwar demonstration in October, 1965, Sonny held a press conference in which he foreswore violence against future protests because ‘Any physical encounter would only produce sympathy for this mob of traitors.’ He also read a telegram he’d sent then-President Lyndon Johnson, volunteering his club brothers for ‘behind the line duty in Vietnam’ as ‘a crack group of trained gorillas [sic]’ who would ‘demoralize the Vietcong and advance the cause of freedom.’
Sonny was also the voice of the Hells Angels after the disastrous Altamont Speedway concert in December, 1969, which resulted in the stabbing death of a eighteen-year-old African American named Meredith Hunter. Although accounts differ as to why they were present, the Angels had been sitting on the front edge of the low-slung stage, acting as a human barrier between the crowd and the performers. Hunter, who had been tossed off the stage by Hells Angels during a previous altercation, returned with a handgun and began waving it around, firing at least one shot into the crowd. Hells Angel member Alan Passaro stabbed and disarmed Hunter, who later died of his wounds.
The next morning, as the talking heads on local radio station KSAN attempted to unravel the chaotic stream of events, Sonny Barger called in and gave his club’s side of the story – the only official statement the club ever offered about the concert or the killing. Barger defended his patch holders, telling radio host Stefan Ponek ‘You can say anything you want and you can call them people flower children and this and that, and there was three hundred thousand people there approximately or whatever they say, and I guarantee you that the largest majority of them were there to have a good time, but there was a couple thousand of them that was there looking for trouble.’
Brushing aside the host’s attempt to cut in, Barger went on to say ‘Some of them people out there ain’t a bit better than what some of the people think of the worst of us, man, and it’s about time they realized it….’
The incident at Altamont and Barger’s telephone call to the radio station were captured on film by documentarians Albert and David Maysles and Charlotte Zwerin, and the resulting movie, Gimme Shelter, was released in 1970. One week after its premiere Hells Angel Alan Passaro went on trial, charged with murdering Meredith Hunter. However, when the film was played in court, it clearly showed Passaro acting in defense of self and third parties, and he was acquitted of all charges.
Given the Hells Angels’ hard-won reputation as thuggish brutes prone to violence and lawlessness, Barger was preternaturally media savvy – an excellent spokesman for his club and a wily self-promoter. He finagled parts for himself and other Angels in a couple of biker films – Hells Angels on Wheels with Adam Roarke and future Easy Rider star Jack Nicholson, and Hells Angels ’69, starring ’60s heartthrob Jeremy Slate, who later played the biker gang leader in The Born Losers.
He was also in the headlines for his numerous arrests, on charges ranging from drugs and weapons charges to conspiracy and murder and, while acquitted of the more serious charges, still spent several years in prison. During this time he gave several interviews to motorcycle magazines, including two for Supercycle, published in February and December, 1979.
During these years, and despite his numerous legal woes, Sonny discovered that he was a marketable commodity. The ‘Free Sonny’ t-shirts his wife sold during his incarceration were wildly popular, and other merchandise soon followed, but he really hit the jackpot when he teamed up with writers Keith and Kent Zimmerman and penned his memoir, Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club (William Morrow, 2000).
The book quickly became a best-seller, so he followed up with two biker-themed crime novels also co-authored by the Zimmerman Brothers – Dead in 5 Heartbeats and 6 Chambers, 1 Bullet (William Morrow, 2004 and 2006). He released a collection of road tales titled Ridin’ High, Livin’ Free: Hell-Raising Motorcycle Stories (William Morrow, 2003) and Freedom: Credos from the Road (William Morrow, 2005). Finally, with Darwin Holstrom, he co-authored Let’s Ride: Sonny Barger’s Guide to Motorcycling (William Morrow, 2010) in which he dissed American motorcycle manufacturer Harley-Davidson, for decades the only motorcycle Hells Angels were permitted to ride. In what can only be seen as heresy by those loyal to the brand, Barger wrote:
Sonny’s final contribution to the literature of motorcycling seems to be his massive scrapbook-styled tome, Sonny: 60 Years Hells Angels, published by the French imprint Serious Publishing in 2017. Copies are currently listed on Amazon at $357 USD! 😳 I swear, I did not pay even a fifth of that for my copy! 😎
Anyway, here is the first of the two 1979 interviews:
If enough folks are interested, I’ll post the second interview soon, along with some other articles about this and other clubs.
Why I Ride a Slow, Uncomfortable, Unreliable, Noisy Motorcycle
Why I ride a Harley-Davidson with 17-inch ape hanger handlebars, a massive sissy bar that has the technical sophistication of a very large lawn mower?
May 28, 2013 at 1:29pm ET by: Tim Watson
If you ever saw my motorcycle you’d think I was a complete idiot. You would ask yourself why on earth would someone ride something with 17-inch ape hanger handlebars, a massive sissy bar that looks like a throwback from an early 1970s biker film bolted to a motorcycle that has the technical sophistication of a very large lawn mower?
It’s also noisy. Very noisy. Under hard acceleration it sounds like a moose bellowing as if someone had just slammed its testicles in a car door.
I honestly didn’t want it to be like that. But when my bike left the Harley-Davidson factory its stock engine set-up meant it ran so lean that the heat from the air-cooled motor made it almost impossible to ride here in California when temperatures climb into the 80s.
So I changed out the stock pipes. But then I was told I needed a new air filter and a re-map of the engine. All of that didn’t make my motorcycle much faster but it did suddenly come alive. And it sort of cooled down.
Its exhaust can be truly obnoxious which is why I ride with a light hand on the throttle in built-up areas. When there’s nobody about and just me and an open road I revert to the moose bellowing. But after a while it can make even my head hurt and then I wonder about my sanity and why I ride this damned bike.
I have read and re-read the countless things I could do to make its V-twin 96-ci engine faster and perform better. But I’m not convinced. I look at my bike and I am not sure that it is either.
At idle it shakes like a carnival ride and if I look down for too long the vibrations make my vision go blurry and then my hands go numb.
I hate the fact every single bolt and fastening has to be glued in place to stop them falling out. Before each ride I always have to check it over so it doesn’t leave me standing at an intersection with nothing more than the handlebars, a seat and a pile of parts.
The ape hanger bars were an after thought. I’d seen some of the Mexican low rider motorcycles in my neighborhood with mean looking dudes using them on their bikes.
I’ll admit they look preposterous (not the Mexican dudes) and I have lost count of the number of people who ask me precisely why I have them. I can’t give them a satisfactory answer. I just like ape hangers.
I did have an idea once of how I wanted my bike to look. I thought a sort of 1950s bobber style with some classic retro parts. But it’s become a bit of a mish-mash and not quite how I envisaged it would turn out.
I paid good money for a special order 32-inch sissy bar for the back of my bike. Some people have said looks like I am riding a remote control motorcycle or others have asked if I ever receive radio wave interference through it. It serves absolutely no purpose, rattles like hell all the time and makes getting on or off the bike a contortionist’s act. But I like the way it looks.
In a moment of madness I once took the front fender off. But this resulted in the bike and my face being sand blasted from road grit. Even an artfully tied bandana between the forks when it rained meant all that happened was a jet of water was thrown off the tire and straight up my nose. In a matter of hours the fender went back on.
I also kept the stock solo seat too. But if I were honest it would be more comfortable sitting on a piece of cardboard. There’s no back support and I feel I can ride over cigarette butts and tell you if they’re filtered or unfiltered. But I like the feedback from the road that it gives me even if on long rides it kills my back.
There’s an ugly gash on my bike’s left peg where I thought I could easily squeeze between a parked car and a wall to ride down a back alley. And there’s a dent the size of a dime on the front of the gas tank, caused by a rock flung out of a truck tire on the freeway. I’ve left it as a reminder of what that would have done to my face if the rock had hit me.
The factory fit rear brake light, which some say looks like a limp chrome dick, works intermittently. The rudimentary fuel gauge that may well have come off a 1960’s child’s pedal car some times pops out of the tank when I least expect it.
And I constantly have to check the primary plug for leaks as I over torqued it once during an oil change and stripped the thread. The chopper-style headlight I bought for it and which replaced the perfectly serviceable original light, is about as useful as a candle in the wind. But in daylight and probably only to my eyes it looks good.
Of course there are far better bikes out there I could have bought. There are many that are faster and nicer looking that probably have more engineering sophistication in their front brake lever than my entire motorcycle.
But herein lies the problem. For everything that irritates me about my bike it always without fail makes me smile every single time I get on it.
I have ridden it through empty deserts, up mountains and across, around and through nine states covering more than 8,000 miles in the process. I have nearly been taken out by an 18-wheeler on a downhill mountain pass and I once ran over a rattlesnake with it in the Mojave Desert.
My bike has taken me though some astonishing U.S. backwater towns in 100 plus degree heat and then a few hours later up into the mountains and over snow covered roads.
And, just like legendary Western lawman Wyatt Earp, I too once rode into Tombstone, Arizona, on it.
It’s my motorcycle. It drives me nuts at times but it’s been through a lot with me and has now become a part of my life. And for that reason alone I will never, ever sell it.
And my response? Well, it’s like this….
Why I Ride a Slow, Uncomfortable, Unreliable, Noisy Motorcycle
I too ride a motorcycle that is slower than the latest whiz-bang showroom models, but then, its powerplant is a forty-eight-year-old shovelhead which was tractor-engineered at birth and is still virtually box stock. It is smaller than the smallest late-model engine, still fitted with its factory carburetor and cam, rudimentary exhaust and (gasp!) a points-and condenser ignition system! That’s downright barbaric, isn’t it? and especially when you realize that my motorcycle has never had an electric starter. That’s right; kick-start only, kids, just the way Grandpa did!
My shovelhead does have solid lifters – more for reliability and convenience than performance – and a belt-drive primary. However, the belt is for convenience, as well, and whatever low-end performance boost it might have provided has been offset by the 25-tooth countershaft sprocket I installed to regain my highway top-end. My bike is built to go places, but I don’t have to break any land speed records making the trip.
And when I say ‘built to go places’ I mean that in every sense.
My motorcycle is not uncomfortable. It began its life as a 1974 FX 1200 Superglide, with the heavy OEM swingarm frame and lightweight narrow-glide forks. I played with different saddles and handlebars, added highway pegs and a set of wide-glide forks off a 1966 Police Special, but my motorcycle never became truly comfortable on long rides until I switched from the stock swingarm frame to an OEM 1954 rigid wishbone.
I can hear the Greek chorus now, shouting ‘Impossible! Absurd!’ but it’s true, nonetheless. With the rigid frame and a frame-mounted LaPera butt-bucket saddle, I have ridden all over the Central Plains and Rocky Mountain States, from Texas to South Dakota, from Louisiana to Arizona – numerous 500- and 600-mile days, at least one 1000-mile day, a lot of back roads and goat paths and well over a half-million miles all told – and never once regretted converting to a rigid frame.
And if you’re interested, my comfort depended on the way I set the bike up at the start, the way I pack for road trips and the way I learned to ride a rigid-framed motorcycle. It’s different than a swingarm
My motorcycle is not unreliable, either. Despite its origin as a ‘bowling ball bike’ manufactured during the worst of the AMF years at the Motor Company, when factory workers were allegedly sabotaging bikes in order to get back at miscreant management, my shovelhead was never an unreliable machine. In addition, I’ve had my fingers in every subassembly on my motorcycle, from handlebar wiring to wheel hubs, and did my damnedest to rebuild them right. That means plenty of Nylock, Loctite, lock-washers and safety wire, and the systematic removal of anything the bike does not need to function the way I need it to. No chrome covers or extra gewgaws; no colored lights or (shudder) a stereo; not even turn signals.
As a result of stripping my bike down and securing every part on it the best I possibly can, parts rarely vibrate loose. As a result of simplifying every system on the motorcycle the best I possibly can – seven wires for the entire wiring harness, for instance, rather than the seemingly endless coils of brightly-colored 16-gauge snaking hither and yon – I can usually troubleshoot problems with little fuss. As a result of knowing my motorcycle’s innermost workings, I am able to repair all but the most serious breakdowns parked under the nearest shade tree.
Finally, as a result of my efforts, I can count on one hand the number of times in the past 43 years my shovelhead has been forced to ride home in the back of a truck, with fingers left over.
And my motorcycle is not particularly loud, either. Louder than a Prius, yes, but so is a hummingbird fart, and my shovelhead is far quieter than a good many late-model Harleys. It is also a damned sight less irritating to adult ears than the wind-tunnel shriek of many metric sportbikes, whose riders are, ironically, so quick to whine about Harley riders giving them a bad name. Let’s not forget that’s a two-way street, kids.
And you will never find me parked outside some chic café with a lovely open-air patio, rapping on my open exhaust pipes as hapless diners cover their ears, or racing into my neighborhood in the wee hours, setting off car alarms and rattling window glass as I screech to a halt in my driveway. I have this funny thing about treating people as I’d want to be treated, see, and I wouldn’t want some overgrown man-child on his midlife-crisis-mobile destroying my peace and quiet.
See how easy that is?
But what is so compelling about a motorcycle with few creature comforts and only the bare minimum of safety equipment? Why would I choose it over a newer, faster, sleeker model with all the latest whistles and bells, and stick with it for almost four and a half decades?
Well, for me it’s like this:
Recent years have proven that anyone with a large enough credit limit can own a Harley-Davidson, a Victory or ersatz Indian, a Triumph, Moto Guzzi or Ducati, or any of the Pacific Rim brands. A swipe of the gold card, a push of a button, the snick of a gearshift and voila! Instant motorcyclist!
But how many of those men and women can climb aboard a motorcycle with a forty-eight-year-old engine cradled in a sixty-eight-year-old frame and pushing fifty-six-year-old front forks, and do the things I’ve done with it? How many can ride that motorcycle from Denver to Austin in a day after a week of 500-mile days, kickstart that engine on an icy-cold morning in the South Dakota Badlands or a hurricane-drenched night in Houston, or navigate the Black Canyon of the Gunnison with nothing but mechanical brakes and a four-speed transmission between them and the canyon rim? How many can tear down the better part of their bike at the roadside and put it back together again, and actually make it run? How many would even be willing to try?
I know I’m not the only greybeard out here on a rigid-framed dinosaur of a motorcycle. There are plenty of panheads and knuckleheads in daily use here and around the world, ridden by bikers who do every one of the things I’ve mentioned here. However, a lot more peoplecan’t do those things than can, and I really enjoy being part of that smaller circle.
You may have noticed that I used to write for some of the magazines, back in the day. In the course of that pursuit I interviewed a woman whose husband ran a chopper shop in Killeen, Texas, in the late ’60s and early ’70s.
Louis Schange was killed in a freak bike accident in ’72, and when I met his widow, Nelda, in 1994, she still had all the photo albums and memorabilia from those days. She had a 1934 VLD in the shed (!) which she’d just sold to an American living in South America. She also had plenty of tales to tell about jumping on the bike to go touring several states, or hopping aboard and riding to Ohio just to take part in a hill climb… She had all sorts of adventures like that.
As we leafed through the photo albums I said ‘These photos should be in a book, or a museum! There are several motorcycle museums that would love to have this stuff!’
Nelda shrugged and said ‘Oh, my children will probably just throw them out when I die.’ 😳 That broke my heart. The only one of her kids who liked motorcycles died a young woman, and the others didn’t give a shit about her, her life, their own father… 😡 I tried to get her to let me take the albums and copy them, at least but she wouldn’t cut for that. She let me take some pics of the VLD, gave me two photos for the article, and gifted me a vintage dealership sticker her husband picked up in Hawaii. She would not budge on the rest.
I published my interview, and tried to keep tabs on her through the friend who introduced us, but she died before I could even make another run at her, and I heard from her brother-in-law, who I met many years later, that her prediction came true. All that history lost!
It still breaks my heart. 😢
A last note: take a moment to look at the photo above, and really think about what it represents. Twenty-two years after her husband died on a motorcycle, this woman – who looks like your average housewife – was still dedicated enough to his passion (and hers) to keep the VLD cleaned, properly lubricated, et cetera. She was dedicated enough to the love of her life to keep his memory alive, and retain all those souvenirs of their life on two wheels.
On a Q&A forum I found the following question: What is the point of riding on a motorcycle other than looking “cool.” Are there any physical advantages as compared to a car? I know the old adage says ‘the only stupid question is the one you didn’t ask,’ but the question that poster posed is dangerously close to a stupid question. I borrowed one reader’s answer as a starting point for my own rant.
The ‘point’ of riding a motorcycle is to ride the motorcycle. It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it. People bandy about words like ‘freedom’ and ‘exhilaration’ but they are weak sauce compared to the reality. The reality is so, so much more.
Again: the ‘point’ of riding a motorcycle is to ride the motorcycle.
It is difficult to explain to someone who has never experienced it. People bandy about words like ‘freedom’ and ‘exhilaration’ but they are weak sauce compared to the reality. The reality is so, so much more.
Seriously, how do you describe the challenge of leaning into a hard curve on a twisty mountain road in the Colorado Rockies, just a hair’s breadth from the high side that’s gonna hurt like hell if you don’t maintain your line? What words can match balling through the New Mexican desert alone on a star-studded night, with ghost shadows marching across the sands as the chill night air seeps through the seams in your leather jacket? Can language even begin to capture the feeling of blasting through the heart of Dallas on a Saturday evening, twenty or thirty of you in a pack, so there in that moment – so large and loud and alive – that the straights in their cars instinctively move aside to let you pass? How do you tell someone who’s never been there about rocking through a mountain pass on a chilly autumn morning, sun at your back and your best road dog at your side as you crest the Continental Divide and rumble down into the Black Canyon of the Gunnison? Can you make any sense at all of the delight you feel waking up in a rain-soaked tent in Rapid City, South Dakota, on your way to the annual rally at Sturgis, and laughing about it because Who fuckin’ cares? We’re at Sturgis, baby!
And if that’s hard, try explaining how even the ‘bad stuff’ gets good, later. Things like riding through the wake of a hurricane in downtown Houston, water so high on the road that it’s burbling and bubbling at the ends of your exhaust pipes and dousing your ignition system. Things like spending a sleepless night camped on the banks of the Rio Grande, kept awake by the bitter cold and the new traveling companion who neglected to mention that he snores like a fuckin’ buzzsaw.
Things like kneeling in the mud in a pouring rainstorm to help a stranger get his motorcycle started, because the biker’s code says you never leave another rider behind. Things like facing off with a shotgun-wielding deputy sheriff who is screaming at you and your buddies to get those goddam bikes out of there before he arrests the lot of you, because one of your buddies can’t get his bike started and the biker’s code says you never leave another rider behind. Things like your buddy suddenly remembering, after twenty minutes of trying to kickstart his shovelhead, that he installed a hidden kill switch as a security device just last week, and Oh, yeah! That’s why my bike won’t start….
….because every biker knows the best stories are the ones that really sucked in the moment.
Are there physical advantages? Well, let’s see…
There’s the fact that you’re out in nature, breathing fresh air, instead of being cooped up in a cage with the air conditioner on, guzzling fossil fuel and contributing to global warming. And let’s remember that motorcycling is not a sedentary activity the way driving a car is, either. The constant shifting of weight and the tensing and relaxing of different muscle groups actually burn calories, really, and help you maintain a healthier body. Add a kick-starter to your machine and you can just about sell your Nautilus!
And for most riders there is also an emotional benefit to being in the wind. You see it in the slogans on biker t-shirts: Four wheels move the body, two wheels move the soul; Sometimes it takes a whole tank of gas before I can think straight; and You never see a motorcycle parked outside a psychiatrist’s office. I know that, for myself, nothing can clear the cobwebs and help me forget about a crappy day like some time in the saddle. It’s two-cylinder meditation. My mind is focused on the ride – the shifting of gears, the changes in pavement texture and potential hazards, traffic patterns, the weather, et cetera – and tending to all that frees your mind from the weight you carry.
There are also the benefits of being a smaller vehicle in traffic, in those enlightened states that permit motorcycle ‘filtering’. This is the low-speed lane splitting which allows motorcyclists to work their way through stopped traffic. It gets them where they’re going faster and reduces carbon emissions. It also eases overall traffic congestion, which helps get everyone moving faster, further reducing emissions, et cetera. A real win-win. I just wish the Texas legislature would get on that bandwagon, rather than all the horrid, hateful ones they have seen fit to climb on lately.
Finally, in cities where land is at a premium, and motorists are desperate for parking spaces, motorcyclists require much less space than cars and trucks. If office buildings, colleges and malls would provide secure parking for motorcyclists, they could reduce the demand for parking by the drivers of full-sized vehicles, and again, contribute to lessening carbon emissions, fuel consumption, global warming, and so on.
So, it’s all that and more, and you notice that none of that has sweet fuck-all to do with being ‘cool.’ We ride because we’re riders. We don’t know any other way to be.
Forty years ago I attended an antique motorcycle show here in Austin, and came across two Famous James motorcycles. I’m a Harley guy, and I knew something about Harleys, but aside from that? Not so much. I kinda sorta knew of Indian and some of the better known metric brands – the Triumphs, Nortons and B.S.A.s friends rode when I was a teen, and the Italians and Japanese makes I’d see in motorcycling magazines – but I knew nothing about the hundreds of marques that rose and fell before and during Harley-Davidson’s tenure, and had never heard of my namesake motorcycle company.
The James Cycle Company Ltd. began manufacturing bicycles in 1897, and produced their first engine-powered cycle in 1902. After a short residence in Sampson Road, Birmingham, the works were moved to Greet, Birmingham, and from that locale the company produced a number of popular motorcycles, all the way up to 750cc, in solo and sidecar configurations. They put out some good-looking machines with a reputation for reliability.
They also produced some innovations that didn’t quite fly – a hub-centered steering system is one such – and even teamed up with an outfit called Samson to create a three-wheeled ‘Handyvan’, complete with enclosed cab.
James earned a name for itself in TT races, which helped sales, and its economy models like the Comet proved popular in a Britain still reeling from the aftereffects of World War Two. However, as automobiles became more affordable in post-war Britain, and Japanese motorcycles later began eating up remaining market shares, sales of British motorcycles fell. A number of marques were either discontinued or swallowed up by the conglomerate Associated Motor Cycles (AMC), including Francis-Barnett in 1947, and James in 1951.
Production continued, but little innovation was ventured – on occasion the only difference between a James and a Frances-Barnett was the tank badge and paint scheme! – and sales continued to plummet. A scooter, released in 1960, might have helped save the marque had it been released earlier. However, it was a case of too little too late, and AMC (and James) died in 1966.
Standing there in that exhibition hall, I had no way of knowing all that. I just saw my family name on a pretty sweet-looking motorcycle and thought I ought to have me one of those! However, I had not a clue where to begin looking for one.
Then, just a few months later, a co-worker who was desperate to get himself a Harley picked up one of the freebie advertising magazines that were popular in the days before craig’s list – this one geared to motor vehicles – and sure enough, there was an advert for a James!
I made arrangements to meet the seller at his shop in a small town north of San Antonio, where he had the bike suspended from the ceiling by a come-along. I bought the thing, hauled it home in the back of my work van, and started researching.
This was pre-internet days (for me, anyway) and ‘researching’ involved chatting up anyone who might know anything about vintage machines, scouring magazines for any mention of the James, writing letters that were often ignored, calling long-distance (remember those days?) and running up my telephone bill, et cetera. I even got up early one Sunday morning and rode my motorcycle halfway across Texas to attend an antique motorcycle show, on the off chance someone there might know something.
Someone steered me to a company called Meeten & Ward, Ltd. of Surrey, England, and they identified the bike as a Comet, powered by a Villiers 98cc 1F engine. They thought it was made somewhere between 1949 and 1953, and assured me they could provide engine spares as needed.
I later discovered an Ohio-based company called Accessory Mart (aka DomiRacer), and from them I purchased a copy of Roy Bacon’s Villiers Singles & Twins. It was from Mr. Bacon that I learned mine was a 1949 model.
Sadly, both Meeten & Ward and Accessory Mart have since gone out of business, but my quest went on.
Over the years I acquired a branded James shock absorber spanner and footpeg rubber, a large advertising poster and a 1956 parts manual, but never got anywhere on the actual restoration.
The James made a lovely telephone stand in my bachelor pad, and I lugged it with me wherever I went, until I married and settled back in Austin. There it was consigned to a backyard shed, dry and safe but utterly neglected for the next eight years.
I had a fun experience one evening, while on a ride with some friends. We had stopped for supper, and when we came out an older gentleman was looking at our bikes. Now, anyone who has ridden for any length of time has encountered the fellow who comes up and says, wistfully, ‘I used to have one of those, but…,’ followed by the explanation that it was sold to pay for school, or because the kids needed new shoes, or some such thing. However, this old boy shocked the hell out of me when he said ‘Have you ever heard of a James motorcycle?’ I shocked him right back when I told him ‘I have one in my living room!’
What are the odds of us running into each other like that? Two strangers, bonding over an obscure motorcycle brand very few Americans have ever heard of! Like I said, fun!
My disabling work injuries made the dreamt-of restoration even less likely, and finally led me to sell the James in early 2008 – a decision I have questioned ever since – but I’ve not lost my fascination with the history. In fact, I was doodling around on the ‘net when I discovered Sheldon’s EMU. If you’re into motorcycling history, that site will keep you busy for a good long while!
So, that’s my history lesson for the day.
NOTE: after publishing this, I came across a Facebook group for James enthusiasts. I wanted to note it here in case anyone is interested in learning more about the marque, or seeing photos of some beautifully-restored James motorcycles dating back to the earliest days of the marque’s (and motorcycling’s) history. Visit: https://www.facebook.com/groups/106226192748844/about
A FOLLOW-UP, 5 November 2022: just last night, I learned that a Brit who claims to own the James trademarks is attempting to revive the marque. Amanda Quick wrote about it here: https://www.webbikeworld.com/the-famous-james-iso-brand-investor-not-picky-must-love-brit-bikes/ (she used one of my images for her article, with appropriate credit, and thank you, Amanda!) and MCN mentioned it here: https://www.motorcyclenews.com/news/2022/october/james-motorcycle-brand-returns/ but I admit to some doubts. As noted in my reply to Ms. Quick’s article, John Oakley’s windmill is a wondrous thing, but it’s still a windmill. If Indian – a much better-known brand – has struggled so to arise from the trash-heap of history, what chance has an obscure, much-loved-but-little-remembered British marque that quietly petered out of existence almost sixty years ago? If Mr. Oakley is serious about reinventing the Famous James, and not just hustling investors in an attempt to cash in on an otherwise useless intellectual property, I wish him all the luck in the world, but (much as a stock certificate from the James Motorcycle Company might be a fun thing to own, framed on my wall) I will probably not be investing in his venture. The next sound you hear will be me, waiting and watching.
A reader asked about the sidecar I attached to my Shovelhead back in the mid-’80s, which sent me off on a daylong squirrel hunt. As I didn’t have access to the interwebs way back then, I had a hard time learning anything about the sidecar. I knew it was a ‘Zephyr’ brand unit, but after that my search for info hit a brick wall.
However, in the course of researching the sidecar’s provenance and history I did come upon the United Sidecar Association, and founding member Hal Kendall. I joined USCA and purchased a couple of sidecar manuals Dr. Kendall had published. Looking back, I know I could not have gotten the sidecar safely and properly mounted on my Shovelhead’s OEM Harley-Davidson wishbone frame had it not been for the good doctor’s manuals, which are still available, as downloads, at the USCA’s Sidecar Tech page.
Another essential to my task was the assistance of a motorcycle-savvy welder named Bill Mading, who owned BG&T Welding in Austin, just down the street from the cop shop. Bill was a dirtbike racer, which meant he understood the stresses and strains motorcycle frames must endure, and how to compensate for them. However, he was also a skilled enough artisan that he could weld aluminum and aluminum-alloy engine and transmission cases – not an easy trick, as those metals tend to warp from the heat of the welding process. Warped cases means uneven gasket surfaces, less-than-perfect seals between case halves, et cetera. Bud (Bud’s Motorcycle Shop) used Bill for all his delicate welding needs, and we never had a problem with a part Bill repaired.
Between the manuals I’d received from Hal Kendall, and Bill Mading’s dedicated assistance, we were able to devise a bastard set of mounts for the sidecar. They weren’t pretty, but they by god worked! See the photo below for more information.
I didn’t have the interwebs back in the Dark Ages of the 1980s, so finding out what I needed to know involved scouring magazines for any mention of sidecars, writing letters that were often ignored, calling long-distance (remember those days?) and running up my telephone bill, et cetera. Today? Ten minutes with a mouse and I had already gleaned scads of information! In fact, the first site I visited told me where the Zephyr was manufactured, and by whom, and even had a photo of a pretty snazzy brilliant yellow Zephyr sidecar!
Greetings, y’all. You might say I’ve been busy lately – flooded home, reconstruction, dealing with ongoing pain and disability from my catastrophic work accident in 2004 – but I haven’t forgotten this site, or the things I still hope I might accomplish here. Anyhoo…
There’s a fellow who does some really fun stuff with what he calls “Rejected Princesses”: strong, often rebellious and even violent women who violate the gender norms of their day and challenge the male-dominated societies in which they lived; wild women who blaze their own paths and fight their own battles; women that Walt Disney and company would never consider for cutesy movies, clothing lines and toy tie-ins a la Snow White, Cinderella, Ariel, Pocahontas and Mulan. His name is Jason Porath, he hangs out over at Rejected Princesses, and as a son, brother, husband and erstwhile stepfather to some pretty amazing women, I really, really enjoy his work.
Jason has honored women like baseball pitcher Jackie Mitchell, the seventeen year old woman who, in 1931, struck out New York Yankees hitters Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig, back to back, before being pulled from the game, quite possibly for embarrassing the two stars. Then there’s Lyudmila Pavlichenko, the young Russian woman who, in World War Two, energized by the Germans’ destruction of her University, became the deadliest female sniper in history (in a cadre of deadly women snipers that Russia fielded to fend off the Nazis, Lyudmila took out 309 of the bastards) and later became friends with American First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Or howzabout Rosalind Franklin, who made the discovery of DNA possible with her pioneering work in X-Ray diffraction (whatever the devil that is!) and was promptly ignored and even posthumously insulted by the pompous asses who claimed the resulting Nobel Prize for themselves.
Jason even delves into ancient history, with women like Hypatia, the first female mathematician in recorded history, and mythology, with women like Iara, the Brazilian warrior woman who was murdered by her own father – tossed in a river to drown – and subsequently turned into a mermaid by sympathetic fish, so she could sing a siren song that drove men mad with desire. The entire site is chock-a-block with stories like these, and pretty cool Disney-styled portraits of the women in question. Jason’s also published a book, Rejected Princesses: Tales of History’s Boldest Heroines, Hellions and Heretics, and is working on a second volume.
So, what does all this have to do with motorcycling?
Not a damned thing, except that, just today, I took a moment to suggest two new heroines for Jason’s files; two women well-known to those of us who read the history of motorcycling. My entry is reproduced below, and if Jason should opt to honor one or more of the women I mention, I’ll be back here ASAP to announce it. Meanwhile, take a stroll over to Rejected Princesses and poke around a bit. As internet time-sucks go, it’s one of the more entertaining and enlightening sites out there.
There are two women who loom large in the world of motorcycling – the world I’ve lived in since I was seven years old (55 years ago) and got my first ride on the back of a neighbor boy’s bike.
Dot was NOT the first lady of motorcycling, despite the title – by the end of the 20th Century’s first decade women were already making their mark in the world of motorcycling by taking cross-country trips (well before the advent of the Lincoln Highway, Route 66, the Interstate System, or even “luxuries” like motels and motorcycle repair shops every 10th of a mile along the way) and acting as ambassadors for the sport and lifestyle of motorcycling – but Dot DID do a lot to further women’s participation.
Bessie was an African-American woman who took numerous solo motorcycle trips across America during the Jim Crow era, when “uppity” blacks were getting lynched and jailed at an appalling rate. She apparently never lost her joyful approach to life and motorcycling.
There are other women, like Effie and Avis Hotchkiss, Adeline and Augusta Van Buren and Della Crewe – some of those early pioneers cited above – who are also worthy of mention, but Bessie and Dot are two of better-known women ‘cyclists.
Anyhoo, I love the work you do. I was one of the folks who pre-ordered the first RP book, and am looking forward to the second. I hope you’ll consider honoring one, both or ALL of these fantastic women. If I may be of assistance in any way, please don’t hesitate to contact me.
Bill J. from Austin
UPDATE: I’m a little slow getting this posted here (what else is new?) but I promised an update when I heard back from Jason Porath, and here ’tis. I actually heard back from Jason almost immediately, and he told me:
As a longtime biker, any mention of motorcycles, riders, clubs, etcetera, intrigues me, so when Bob Dylan mentioned late Hells Angel Berdoo President Bobby Zimmerman (Chronicle: Volume One, 2004, pg. 79), while explaining his own renaming, I went looking for more info. First, I located a photo of the deceased, posted on the Berdoo chapter’s Memorial page:
Dylan apparently had the date of death wrong: He said Zimmerman died in 1964, but Zimmerman’s *Angel brothers have him dying three years earlier.
Then I dug a little further, and found this article, a human-interest item by John Weeks of the San Bernardino Sun, published last fall, in which Dylan claims a spiritual bond with the soul of the dead Angel:
A surprise addition to the local family
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s put our hands together and give a warm hometown welcome to a local boy who has made good, who has distinguished himself as one of the most influential singers and songwriters of all time, a living legend, a Presidential Medal of Freedom honoree, a recipient of multiple Grammy, Oscar and People’s Choice awards, the one and only, the Inland Empire’s own … Bob Dylan!
Whoa, hold on here. Let’s check our notes.
Says here that Bob Dylan was born Robert Zimmerman in 1941 in Duluth, Minn., that he grew up in Hibbing, Minn., that he went to college in Minneapolis, that he moved to New York and became famous, that he later lived in both New York and Minnesota, and that for the last couple of decades he has made his home in Malibu. There’s no mention here at all of the Inland Empire.
Oh, wait, there’s more. Wow, this is new. Says here that Bob Dylan had a bonding experience with the soul of a dead San Bernardino biker, also named Robert Zimmerman, in the 1960s, and that he was transformed into a different person at that time.
An Inland Empire person, evidently.
Is this a joke?
If it is, it’s Bob Dylan himself who is telling it. In public.
Here are his own words, in an interview with Mikal Gilmore that appears in a recent cover story in Rolling Stone magazine:
“When you ask some of your questions, you’re asking them to a person who’s long dead. You’re asking them to a person that doesn’t exist. But people make that mistake about me all the time. … Transfiguration is what allows you to crawl out from under the chaos and fly above it. That’s how I can still do what I do and write the songs I sing and just keep on moving.”
That Bob Dylan! What a card! What a kidder!
No, wait. Later in the interview, he starts talking about transfiguration again, and he presses the point. He brandishes a dog-eared copy of the book Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club. He cites a chapter in the book that recounts how Robert Zimmerman, the 21-year-old president of the San Bernardino chapter of the Hells Angels, who lived on Walnut Street in San Bernardino, was killed in a 1961 motorcycle accident in Madera County. That accident was a precursor, Dylan believes, to his own motorcycle accident in 1966 near Woodstock, N.Y. The two events were directly related and they completed Dylan’s transformation into a new person, he says.
He can’t be serious about this, right?
Wait, he really is. He goes off on it for a third time during the course of the interview. “I’m showing you a book that’s been written and published. I mean, look at all the connecting things: motorcycles, Bobby Zimmerman. … And there’s more to it than even that. … I’d always been different than other people, but this book told me why. … I didn’t know who I was before I read the Barger book.”
Well, if he really means it, we should start now to prepare for that hometown concert in the Inland Empire that now seems inevitable. We’ll put up banners. “Welcome home, Bob!”
He can perform in the giant San Manuel Amphitheater in Devore, or perhaps he would prefer a smaller arena show, at the Epicenter, say, in Rancho Cucamonga, or the San Manuel Stadium in downtown San Bernardino, or Coussoulis Arena at Cal State San Bernardino. Or, he could do a series of small, intimate shows in theater settings, such as the Glass House in Pomona, or the Fox Riverside, or the historic California Theatre in San Bernardino.
Many towering figures in the music industry do have strong roots in the Inland Empire. The list includes Tennessee Ernie Ford of San Bernardino, Kris Kristofferson of Claremont, Frank Zappa of Rancho Cucamonga, Jimmy Webb and Jim Messina of Colton, Sammy Hagar and Travis Barker of Fontana, and Liberace, Dick Clark and Herb Alpert, all of whom had homes in Lake Arrowhead.
Jazz legend Pearl Bailey, in her retirement, ran a popular guest ranch in Apple Valley.
Singers Bonnie Raitt and Joan Baez both have University of Redlands connections, thanks to their fathers. Raitt’s father, the Broadway star John Raitt, was a University of Redlands graduate. Baez, whose father taught there, writes about living in Redlands in her autobiography, “Daybreak.”
Now, it appears, we must add a new name to the list of musical hometown heroes.
Of course, unlike the others, Dylan neither was born nor raised here, nor did he ever work or go to school here. No, he’s here only in spirit, as the result of transfiguration.
The story is addressed in greater detail by author Grant Maxwell, in a post he describes as “a (slightly modified) excerpt from my forthcoming book, How Does It Feel?: Elvis Presley, the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Meaning of Rock and Roll,” which may be seen here:
In that post Maxwell delves deep into the chronology of events, and how Zimmerman’s death ties in not only with Dylan’s own motorcycle crash, but with the entirety of Dylan’s professional career! So, I guess that would make Zimmerman Dylan’s “guardian angel,” right?
Food for thought, if you’re inclined to think along those lines.
* NOTE: In the book Dylan mentions in his interview – Hell’s Angel: The Life and Times of Sonny Barger and the Hell’s Angels Motorcycle Club – Hells Angel Sonny Barger relates the story of Zimmerman’s death on the ride home from the Bass Lake Run, an annual Angel event immortalized in Hunter S. Thompson’s book on the Angels. However, while on page 70 he gives the same 1964 date that Dylan used, on page 130, again recounting Zimmerman’s death, he writes that Zimmerman died in1962. I can’t explain the discrepancies between Barger’s recollections and the chapter’s official website.
I’ve been doing a little research on songwriter Bob Dylan. Like most riders, I already knew about his mysterious wreck near Woodstock, New York, in 1966, where he dumped his Triumph, injured himself to an unknown degree, and went into seclusion for a while.
However, in reading through books about Dylan, interviews with people who knew him prior to his arrival in Greenwich Village, and his own Chronicles: Volume One (2004) I turned up a few references to Harleys, time spent running with the biker boys in his hometown, even being a bit of a “rough, tough” character. I don’t know how true any of that is, but he apparently did spend some time around riders, as seen in the photos below.
1966, on the Triumph he later wrecked:
I always cringe at this one, because for some reason he’s dangling his feet – not a smart thing to do and goofy-lookin’ to boot!
The passenger below is identified as “Sebastian,” but I don’t who Sebastian is:
I’m not sure of the year – probably mid-’60s – but he appears to be riding a Japanese bike; maybe a Honda:
and in 2004, back on a Harley-Davidson!
One more, of the man on an entirely different kind of bike…