Articles

The private world of the motorcyclist

Some people say he’s only indulging a harmless fad. To others his flashy gear and black jacket spell hoodlum. On his thundering machine he finds a sense of power his youth denies him and the imagined glory of a folktale hero

John Clare November 9 1957
Articles

The private world of the motorcyclist

Some people say he’s only indulging a harmless fad. To others his flashy gear and black jacket spell hoodlum. On his thundering machine he finds a sense of power his youth denies him and the imagined glory of a folktale hero

John Clare November 9 1957

The private world of the motorcyclist

Some people say he’s only indulging a harmless fad. To others his flashy gear and black jacket spell hoodlum. On his thundering machine he finds a sense of power his youth denies him and the imagined glory of a folktale hero

John Clare

For many years motorcyclists rode in comparative obscurity, coming into public view only occasionally as mud-stained men in a newsreel trying to climb a hill on their machines, or as dashing-looking daredevils revving up their bikes outside the Wall of Death show at a fair, or in the less exciting role of delivery boy for the corner drugstore.

But now that Canada has almost twice as many motorcyclists—thirty-five thousand at' last count—as there were before the war everyone seems to be aware of the dark-clad riders.

So, to some people, motorcyclists are a sinister combination of Billy the Kid and any one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. To other people they are just a noisy nuisance in the night when they shatter the peace of a sleeping residential street with their unmuffled exhausts. Some motorists think they are a highway hazard because of their speed and their weakness for stitching a perilous pattern in and out of traffic. To others, though, they are strange and frightening figures in black whose menace is somehow connected with their youth and is geared to the splattering explosive power of the great machines they ride.

Some motorists have become so annoyed with the motorcyclists’ highway manners that they lose their tempers and lean out of their cars to curse them and shake a fist at them. Others, not content with throwing epithets, will hurl cigar butts and even empty bottles at the offending riders. An editorial writer in the Toronto Globe and Mail spoke for these indignant motorists when he wrote of “the frightening experience as they (the motorcyclists) swarm past like so many angry wasps.”

There are other adults who dislike motorcyclists because they confuse them with delinquents. The black jackets the motorcyclists wear to protect themselves against the wind have been adopted by some gangs of hoodlums. Many of the young men who rioted at the Montreal Forum in 1955 over the suspension of Rocket

Richard wore them although they were not motorcyclists. The Montreal police later made a survey and of the two hundred young men in black jackets questioned none owned machines, but the name black jacket, as applied to hoodlums, stuck.

Parents of pretty and impressionable young daughters fear motorcyclists because the riders have a great attraction for girls. When a girl becomes a "buddy rider” or a "pillion pal” she goes where the gang goes and motorcyclists will ride a hundred miles in an evening, looking for something to do. But they are more likely to hang around a hamburger stand and shoot the breeze about motor bikes.

There are people who dislike and fear motorcyclists for other reasons. They dislike them because they are young; they dislike them because they are noisy. And they could well dislike them because of some of the stories they have heard about them are true.

There was the big fight at a restaurant outside of Hamilton a year ago when eighty young men and women, fairly evenly divided in their

enthusiasm between hot rods and motorcycles, started to brag and then to fight about the merits of their machines. At one time a motorcyclist was weaving in and out among the tables on his bike, scaring the few remaining patrons half out of their wits. Then the police came.

Earlier this year there was a fight at Angels’ Camp in California, when thirty-seven hundred motorcyclists on a gypsy tour (an expedition by a gaggle of riders, which includes a rodeo-tvpe competition at some distant point) took over a mountain town of twelve hundred and fifty. While the gang drank and fought, the town lived in fear of its collective life. As it was. three people, all motorcyclists, were killed.

A movie. The Wild One. starring Marlon Brando, dealt with the same kind of situation where a group of young motorcyclists set up a reign of terror in a small town after they had ridden in like Bad Men in a western. The villains, who were hard to distinguish from the Good Guys because everyone was dressed in black, were finally defeated, but not before enough long level looks were exchanged to supply a year’s schedule of westerns.

continued on page 60

Motorcycling gets a black eye from “outlaws" on a rampage, impostors in black jackets and outbursts of the wild ones

continued from page 31

Deputy Chief Robert Kerr, of Metropolitan Toronto Police, thinks riders would gain greatly in public favor if they would wear a uniform that did not

so closely resemble the SS of the Third Reich. “I’ve seen motorcyclists in the States who looked just as smart and attractive in their dress as any officer.” Others would add to a new uniform a shoeshine, a haircut and a scrubbing.

When Toronto was setting up its civildefense force one group of motorcyclists offered their services, reminding Kerr that he had used them as special constables to help direct traffic during the 1951 royal tour. The offer was declined.

“These boys have changed in the last ten years,” I was told by Kerr, whose reference covered the period of greatest expansion in motorcycling. “Their dress, their manners and their general attitude is sloppy. I'm not one of those who think these are bad boys. We have no more trouble with them than we have with any other group, except that they sometimes make a racket with their machines and citizens complain and we have to deal with them. When we find them taking the baffle plates out of their mufflers to make more noise we give them a summons the way we would any other traffic-law violator." The fine for tampering with a muffler in this way is five dollars.

But who are the motorcyclists and why do they ride hell-for-Ieather across the country making people nervous?

Most of the riders are boys in their late teens or early twenties with good jobs. They need them because the machines are expensive, up to nineteen hundred dollars. The first money from a boy's first job will often go as a dowm payment for his first machine, which will probably be a secondhand job costing up to five hundred dollars. The down payment for one of the new expensive machines will be four hundred, with monthly payments of sixty or sixty-five dollars.

Gas is cheap—a hundred and twenty miles for a dollar—but every motorcycle cowboy hankers for costly flashy trappings. Saddle bags, studded with brass or chrome and lashed with leather thongs, cost seventy-five dollars a pair; a windshield is thirty-five dollars; bumperettes cost twenty-five dollars and white-wall tires are an added expense.

Cop on a caper

Many riders admit they still prefer an automobile for transportation but a motorcycle is almost a way of life. Anyone who has ridden a motorcycle knows the effortless sweeping speed that can be attained with a twist of the right hand grip. Lawrence of Arabia succumbed to the lure of motorcycle speed and. as Aircraftsman Shaw, lost his life on a powerful four-cylinder Brough he had named Boanerges (Sons of Thunder).

The strange power of a motorcycle over a young man has been felt even by a policeman. Late one winter night, on a deserted Toronto street, a young traffic policeman had a chance to express a long-suppressed desire. The pavement was lightly covered with icy snow scarcely marred by a wheeimark. The city lay dark and silent around him as he began to put his machine into a strange dance after checking over both shoulders, unobserved by an unsympathetic sergeant or taxpayer. By lightly touching the front and then the back brake (the wheels are braked on separate circuits) the officer was able to get the bike to execute the most wonderful arabesques as it swirled down the silent white street.

When asked about his greatest thrill as a rider, one motorcyclist replied, “When I went out of control on the highway at a hundred miles an hour.” This can easily happen when a forbidden drag race is on. A drag race is to motorcycling what the hundred-yard dash is to track. The racers start from a standing position and the idea is to accelerate as quickly as possible over a short course.

Even the most prudent young rider sometimes finds it hard to resist the challenge of a race when the highway stretches invitingly ahead and the traffic is sparse and the rider next to him is taunting him to go.

Most motorcycle clubs across Canada —and there are about sixty of them— discourage such exuberance and try to discipline erring members. The clubs are affiliated with two organizations, the American Motorcycle and the Canadian Motorcycle Associations. Both are postwar developments in Canada.

They hold rallies and competitions, off the highway on abandoned air strips or farms suitable for hill climbing, obstacle races or scrambles. The Canadian association is the more traditional in its approach. Its members drive stripped-down bikes—but only at rallies, for which the machines are designed, and not on city streets—and are required to wear crash helmets in competition. The American association members are more likely to wear black-visored caps. The Canadian group broke away from the AMA a few years ago because it wanted to concentrate on racing and other tests of speed and skill and felt the other group paid too much attention to the social aspects of motorcycling.

"We concentrate on the serious aspects of motorcycling." Dave White, ot the Canadian Motorcycle Association, told me. Wright drove and fought with a Canadian recce unit during the war. His wife Eve. a schoolteacher, is secretary of the association.

"Some of our members buy bikes just to ride around the streets, but most of our boys race. We have the use of an abandoned airstrip at Harewood. near Hamilton, where we hold closed-circuit races far from the road. We also run our own road races on closed-off sections of highway and we have scrambles and racing on the ice. We re doing our best to build motorcycling into a popular spectator sport.

“Our members favor the lighter European bike and many of them get started with secondhand ones costing as little as a hundred dollars, and buy up to oiws at about a thousand. As for the AMA. we have no sympathy with their aims,” lie said.

The CM A. which has European affiliations and uses international standards in its competitions, won't even compete in the AMA's more informal gypsy tours— although it will take part in organized AMA meets held in the United States. CM A members speak scornfully of AMA riders, such as Toronto’s Humber Valley Riders, as “cowboys.”

The third main body of motorcyclists is made up of the “outlaws.” so called because they don't belong to any organization. The outlaws arc usually to blame, say the clubmen, whenever a rider creates a noise or a nuisance.

Dr. Daniel Cappon, a Toronto psychiatrist, sees in motorcyclists’ footless occupation of hanging around hamburger stands an attempt to defeat the sadness that must accompany the long step from adolescence to young manhood.

“They are premature adults—sexually, economically and socially. ’ he said recently. “They know about sex but they're not very good at it; they make a man’s money but they’re not mature enough to spend it like an adult; and there is no real place for them in the social structure because they are neither children nor adults at this stage. In these years they are often preoccupied with thoughts of death, which may explain their black clothes.”

How do the w'heeled cowboys see themselves? Many are confused and angry about a reputation they feel they do not, as a group, deserve. They are aware that adults disapprove of their dress. “But what’s it to them?” one asks. “They probably wore some pretty ranchy clothes, too. when they were young.” They feel the police pick on them, although they admit that they do cut up on the road once in a while. When mothers scold them and warn them to stay away from their daughters, motorcyclists are deeply hurt and are inclined to ponder

sadly on the great injustice of it ali.

“1 brought this kid home once, pretty late, 1 guess,” one rider told me. “And there was her mother waiting for me. She started to drag her daughter inside and call me names. 1 told her 1 was no burn but had a good job and my bike almost paid for. Then the daughter got into it and told her mother to lay off me. 1 got out of there and left the two of them fighting about it. A few guys can sure make it tough for the rest of us.”

They admit that they will sometimes drink some beer on their wiener roasts

or gypsy tours. But is this worse, they ask. than a man going out with a bottle in the glove compartment of his ear? One thing about a drinking motorcyclist, they argue, withmotet heat than logic, is that, unlike ,E motvrtet. lie just can’t ride when he’s

One effect of aHdthe buttu-un they receive is to drive tfce IffiAorcvclist deeper into the private||N*1tN8hai he and his friends have m.ia^lfot' ^j|e?nselves. My guide into this wJ™HTu''n\ Boudreau, president of the Humber Valley Riders, of Toronto. Boudreau, dark, short and stocky like many riders, is twenty-three and is married. When 1 met him at the Yonge Street filtingr station where he works, he had no time to talk but invited me to a meptinp the club the next night held over |he shoR¡ of a motorcycle dealer who Jön«te$ ijhcg.space.

There were. dozen machines

neatly parked at angle outside the store when 1 got thçjie shortly before eight the night of the meeting.! 'Boudreau met me at the door and while we waited for the members to assemble he told me something about the club.

It had been started in 1948 at the time interest in motorcycling was rising to its crest. Dues are four dollars to join and five dollars each half year. A dollar for a crest from the American Motorcycling Association, whose safety award the Humber Valley Riders have won for accident-free riding, brings the initiation fee to five dollars.

Most of the members are in their late teens or early twenties and all were working at such trades as auto mechanics, plumbing or carpentry. What usually happens, Boudreau explained, is that a

boy starts to save his money for a down payment on a bike as soon as he quits school and gets a job. He might go through a couple of secondhand machines before getting a new one of his choice.

A few members at the meeting wore violently red silk club shirts trimmed with white (price: thirteen dollars) and all wore black peaked caps similar to taxi drivers’, except that these have a strap under the chin secured by a boondoggle, such as worn on a cowboy's chin strap. It was a hot night and few wore

the black jackets which, Boudreau said, most of them owned but were regarded by the club as optional.

The members sat around the bare upstairs room with their feet hooked in the rungs of the kitchen chairs. Most of them—about thirty in all—smoked or chewed gum, and some of them looked as though they had come right from work without having washed up or changed their clothes.

There were almost as many girls as boys in the room, although only a few of the girls were club members. The rest were girl friends who had come along for the outing, for. it was explained, the club is a social centre as much as a sports organization.

Boudreau opened the meeting with the reading of the minutes. He wielded a crisp gavel and although proceedings were not always along strictly parliamentary lines he had control at all times. He sternly levied five-cent fines on latecomers. as provided for by the club bylaws. And when he reminded Len Swafield about the fine for swearing, the goateed rider took a hitch in his jeans and continued his criticism of the club’s arrangements for a wiener roast held a week before. “I figure that was worth about thirty-five cents,” Swafield said digging into his pocket when he was through.

Two new members, a boy and a girl, were accepted. Plans for a gypsy tour to be held at Puslinch l ake near Toronto were discussed.

During the meeting 1 sat next to Reg Ison, a quiet twenty-one-year-old boy who was with his girl. He told me that he rode because of the companionship.

“For instance,” he said, “four of us rode down to the big New England gypsy at l.oconia in New Hampshire. There must have been twelve thousand bikes there and everyone was a friend of the other even though they had never seen each other before. That’s the way riders are.” •

“When it’s time you gotta go”

A few days before the Toronto meeting I attended, a former member of the club, Melvin Hoplock, had been killed at a Toronto intersection when his motorcycle was in collision with a car. The whole club had ridden in the cortege and had given blood to the hospital bank to replace that given to him to try to save his life.

Some of the members were discussing his death.

“If Floppy had stayed with this club I bet this wouldn’t have happened,” said one.

"What are you talking about?” said another. “You could say if he hadn't been on his bike it wouldn't have happened.”

“When your time comes you gotta go," said a third.

Ison leaned over to me and commented on the conversation. "I've never drawn blood or cracked a bone and I’ve been riding for five years,” he said.

At first these laconic observations about riding and death had a youthfully dramatic air about them and then 1 realized what kind of a drama these young people were playing. They had cast themselves as characters in the folktale best known to them—the western. Only instead of horses they used motorcycles. Instead of eight-gallon hats they wore black caps at an angle.

Even the words were the same—“saddle tramp" for a wandering rider; “cowboy” for a hard-riding motorcyclist; “outlaw" for one outside the world of organized riders. They wore the same tight jeans, the fancy belt buckles and the shirts with the white fancy piping.

They were enacting the role, that of a cowboy, that has appealed to nearly every boy at one time or another and retains a lot of charm for grownups, judging by the current popularity of “adult westerns” on television.

Later, on a deserted strip of beach behind a hamburger stand at Sunnyside, an abandoned amusement park in Toronto. I met more of the riders and their girl friends. They talked like Marty and his friend in the TV and movie play of the same name. Remember how their boredom ran like a refrain through the earlier part of the picture? “What do you feel like doing tonight?” Angie would ask. Marty never knew.

Mother rides the pillion

I was at the lakeside rendezvous when Johnny Sombrero (“Sure, it's my right name”) arrived. He was stocky and strong-looking. His thick dark hair was brushed back with a lock of it falling free like Tony Curtis’ hair; but Johnny Sombrero looks more competent than the actor. He wore his black shirt open to his heavy belt buckle. He had a thick but neatly trimmed Van Dyke.

You could tell by the way he carried himself, by the way the others called to him and looked at him. that Johnny was one of the leaders. It was he who suggested they all take the moonlight cruise that night on the Cayuga, a lake steamer, for something to do and as a way to beat the heat.

There was no one to hear them here, beside the lake, as they lounged, waiting for something to happen.

“Often we will ride forty miles to Hamilton just to get a hamburger,” Ison told me. He sighed. “And for something to do, one night we rode all the way to Buffalo, had a cup of coffee and rode back. Something to do.”

Over on a patch of lawn Len Swafield, one of the few riders who wears his goatee without a mustache, was picking at a guitar.

Closer at hand a small knot of boys had pulled in close to hear what Sombrero had to say.

“These people are all my friends,” he said. “Sure, people talk about us and try to push us around but they're all good guys and my friends. Riders are like that.” He hitched up his belt. “That’s why I ride.”

A group gathered around Sombrero to hear what he had to say. Although he had left the Humber Valley Riders to join the Black Diamonds, he was obviously still a man with friends and influence in his old club.

Like many other riders he felt the public was unfair in its criticism of motorcyclists. "Why, I had my wife out riding just a little while before our baby was born,” he said. “Docs that sound as though we were a bunch ol hoodlums who can't be trusted?”

“I take my mother out all the time,” said Tiger Grant. “She likes riding the pillion better than in the car, she says.”

Sombrero was getting fidgety. He looked around him.

“C’mon you guys, let's get going if we’re going on that Cayuga cruise. Let’s not sit here all night,” he yelled.

Down at the beach a motor coughed, sputtered and slammed into life. One of the riders pulled up beside me.

"Want to come?”

No, thanks. I was meeting my wife and my mother later.

"Mother!” he yelled as he gunned the motor. “To hell with that. We don’t want any old people around.” ★