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Rebel Image of Motorcyclists Set in 1950s
By Larry Quiñones
Elvis owned several. Evel Knievel rode them. Malcolm Forbes gave Elizabeth Taylor a purple one. Dan Aykroyd led John Belushi's funeral procession on one: the American-made motorcycle, the Harley-Davidson.
Three El Paso cyclists pose in desert. Photo courtesy of Al Jones and Leigh Smith
Motorcycles were at the heart of a rebel movement born in the 1950s which acquired a reputation still very much with us. Conservatives looked at motorcyclists as a menace to society; law enforcement hated them; and a generation of Americas regarded them as a romantic symbol of freedom.
World War II troops used a great many motorcycles, Harley-Davidson produced the model WLA equipped with a rifle holster, ammunition boxes, luggage rack and blackout covers on the lights. This motorcycle proved to be highly reliable and sturdy. By war's end, Harley had sent almost 90,000 machines to battle. Despite its use in the military, the Harley-Davidson motorcycle would come to symbolize rebellion and anti-social behavior in the minds of many.
Shortly after World War II, trouble began. American servicemen returned to a society which did not understand the scars left by the war. Many decided to settle in California, where they had been discharged from the service. "Some of them, though, unwilling to adjust to a 'normal' life…bought large motorcycles, usually Harley-Davidsons, and adopted more freewheeling lifestyles," according to Martin Norris, author of the book Rolling Thunder. In later years, the outlaw clubs that would become infamous were outgrowths of bomber crews who had adopted the nicknames painted on the sides of their airplanes.
Even though cycling was and is a respectable form of recreation, isolated incidents that are the focus of bad press have marred its image. One such incident occurred in Hollister, California, on July 4, 1947. Flat-track races and hill climbs attracted over 4,000 cyclists to Hollister on that day. Many of the cyclists congregated on the streets of the town were drinking and racing led to confrontations with locals. Accounts differ as to the magnitude of the disturbances.
Of the hundreds of pictures taken that weekend, one taken by a photographer from San Francisco made the cover of Life magazine on July 21, 1947. This picture depicted an obese, haggard-looking man, sitting on a stripped down Harley, holding a beer in each hand, accompanying the phenomenon of the "outlaw biker" to national prominence.
Robert Barron and fellow "Throttle Twisters" gas up. Photo courtesy of Debra Barron Diaz
These and other events hardly affected cyclists in the El Paso area. Two El Pasoans, Robert Inez Barron and his brother, Luis Alfonso Barron, were members of the Throttle Twisters. Robert Barron founded the club as a young man during the time he made his living by delivering telegrams on a Harley for Western Union Telegraph Company.
Barron says, "We were good guys who enjoyed riding our cycles around El Paso. We would drive up to Scenic Drive, then down to what used to be Bowie High School and race one another. We never used looked for trouble. Being in the Throttle Twisters Club was an adventure that has left me great memories of the wonderful fifties."
Native El Pasoan Manny Narro, motorcyclist and mechanic for the past 48 years, says, "We never had much trouble around here with outlaw gangs. The police didn't give me a hard time because I rode a motorcycle. Being one of the few motorcycle mechanics in town, I worked on their bikes and on the Knucklehead model Harley-Davidsons that the Juárez police rode."
But on one occasion Narro did experience the fear of the people who believed the outlaw stories. He was on a trip with 20 other bikers to Percha Dam, north of Las Cruces. "As we arrived, we noticed people starting to pack up their things as if to leave. I recognized a man and told him we were not going to be any trouble to them. They didn't leave after all," says Narro.
In 1954, Hollywood film-makers began to capitalize on the outlaw biker image with the release of the film "The Wild One," starring Marlon Brando and Lee Marvin. This film "stirred the consciousness of the impressionable and disaffected youth,…with its cast of anti-heroes," says William Green in his book Harley Davidson: The Living Legend.
Green claims the film confirmed that motorcycle gangs' members behaved anti-socially, dressed in blue jeans, leather jackets and boots and rode a Harley-Davidson. Attempts to ban the film backfired, and its has since been elevated to cult status. Similar films were to follow.
"Their credo is violence…Their God is hate… The most terrifying film of our time!" read the poster advertising the film "The Wild Angels," which starred Peter Fonda and Nancy Sinatra. This film and others like it contributed to the negative image of motorcycle riders, especially Harley-Davidson owners.
In 1969, "Easy Rider" was released which portrayed motorcyclists in a different light. Dennis Hopper and Peter Fonda starred, riding customized Harleys across America. The pair meet a drunken lawyer, played by Jack Nicholson and journey to Mardi Gras together. The only hostile people in this film are the townspeople. "It's not you they fear," says Nicholson at one point in the film, "but the freedom you represent."
Later films portrayed cyclists in a more positive light. The recent movie "Terminator Two: Judgement Day" shows Arnold Schwarzenegger returning as the terminator reprogrammed to save the life of lead character John Conner, doing much of it on a beautiful Harley-Davidson FLSTF Fatboy. Although the image of bikers portrayed on screen may have improved in recent years, the damage done by earlier films and the treatment by law enforcement of cyclists in general. Following the events at Hollister, California, many police targeted "outlaw" bike club members, Senator Fred Farr called for action against the "menace."
Charges were dropped against the club members, but newly installed Attorney General, Thomas C. Lynch, across the state of California. The replies became known as the Lynch Report, which concluded that outlaw motorcycle clubs were responsible for many more crimes. The media in turn twisted the findings and reported that "if the 'outlaws' were responsible for documented crimes, then ordinary riders were responsible for the rest."
Attempts at legislation that would affect all bikers continued as recently as 1980. That year a group of senators submitted a resolution calling for a federal strike force to combat the threat of outlaw bike gangs. The irony of lawmakers targeting motorcycle riders is that many policeman ride Harleys themselves on the job.
Liko Subia, native El Pasoan and Harley rider since 1946, remembers Al Jones, retired motorcycle cop and one-time owner of the Harley-Davidson dealership in El Paso. "Al is the only biker in El Paso who has been riding longer than myself. He used to chase me speeding down Alameda on my Harley, back when it was a main highway."
Subia recalls the flat-track races held every Sunday outside the El Paso city limits in the northeast and the upper valley in the fifties and sixties when he raced his own Harley street bike. "I would pull off the headlights, take off the saddlebags and go," he says.
The rebel movement of the 1950s changed the history of motorcycling in America. The Harley and motorcycles in general belong to American popular culture, and they still suggest both defiance and adventure. The motorcycle is a symbol of freedom enjoyed by our soldiers, police, neighbors, celebrities and outlaws.