Saturday, August 13, 2011

The Origin and Development of Motorcycles and Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs - Part 2

(Click on images to enlarge)
Bikie gangs get together for a reconciliation day at Menai, Sydney, in 2009. From left: Finks, Ambassadors, Lone Wolf and Hells Angels.
Picture: Simon Bullard

Motorcycles to WW2:

Harley-Davidson was founded in 1903.  Their bigger engine and loop-frame design took the machine out of the motorised bicycle category and helped define what a modern motorcycle should contain in future years.

The new sport of motorcycle racing resulted in experimentation and innovation, with engines of increasing power and ever tougher, faster and more reliable machines.  These benefits were passed on in the machines sold to the public for general use.

By 1914, motorcycles were no longer just bicycles with engines.  Motorcycles had their own technologies but many maintained bicycle elements, such as the seats and suspension.

Until WW1, Indian was the largest motorcycle manufacturer.  With the outbreak of WW1, Indian sold its entire stock to the US Government, a move that saw it lose many dealerships who were then starved of stock, to Harley-Davidson.  It was a loss from which it never recovered.  Harley-Davidson became the largest manufacturer after WW1, with DKW taking over in 1928. 

WW1 motorcycle ambulance

WW1 Harley-Davidson

Prior to WW1 motorcycles had became an affordable alternative to the purchase of a motor car.  The cost of a pre-Ford motor vehicle was extremely high but great improvements in engine and carburettor design, the development of multi-speed transmissions, lighting systems, mechanical drum/leading-link braking systems, frame, and suspension designs resulted in much more sophisticated and better-performing machines that started carrying larger prices as well.  By the mid-1920s the cost of a small Harley or Indian was around $275, a full size or big-twin model was roughly $375, and the price of a Model T Ford was only $545.

Only two American motorcycle manufacturers survived the Great Depression: The Indian Motocycle Company and The Harley-Davidson Motor Company. 

From the early 1930’s, the number of motorcycle manufacturers increased in the US and Europe, with production intensified for military use at the approach of WW2.

Motorcycle clubs:

Motorcycle clubs were formed almost as soon as motorcycles began production in the early 20th century.  These clubs were for the purpose of communal rides, exchange of information and parts, general camaraderie and the bringing together of people with like minded interests.

The outlaw tag for clubs was still a long way off.

One of the first long lasting motorcycle clubs formed was the McCook Outlaws in 1935, which still survives today. The group would later be called the Chicago Outlaws and is now known as the Outlaws Motorcycle Club. The group was supposedly formed for long distance touring and racing. Alcohol consumption and partying were secondary, but important, reasons as well.  Members wore mechanics’ overall with the club name stencilled on the back.

McCook Outlaws Motorcycle Club 1935

An all-female motorcycle club called The Motor Maids was formed in 1940, making it the oldest established motorcycle club in the world.  Although the Outlaws were formed earlier, that club has had two organisational changes, whereas the Motor Maids has maintained a singular identity.  The Hell’s Angels, which also maintains an unaltered organisational identity, was not formed until 1947.

Dot Robinson (right) with daughter Betty, co-founder and first President of Motor Maids

More Motor Maids. 
Note the wide belts, called “kidney belts” designed to support internal organs on a  motorcycle ride on a rigid frame bike.


The advent of WW2 saw a halt in the growth and activities of motorcycle clubs, partly because of the absence of members and partly because of petrol rationing.

With the war’s end, the young men came home and went back into civilian life, men who had been in combat and in other high adrenalin positions, men who had formed strong bonds with other men, men who had endured years away from civilian families and jobs. Many had difficulty in adjusting and found in membership of a motorcycle club the sense of adventure, the camaraderie, companionship and understanding that seemed to satisfy their emotional void.  The average age of WW2 servicemen was 26 and many returning combat veterans reported suffering from restlessness and depression, a condition that would today be categorised as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), a clinical diagnosis that wasn’t recognised until 1980.

The US National Centre for Post Traumatic Stress Disorder defines the condition as:
a psychiatric disorder that can occur following the experience or witnessing of life-threatening events such as military combat, natural disasters, terrorist incidents, serious accidents, or violent personal assaults like rape. People who suffer from PTSD often relive the experience through nightmares and flashbacks, have difficulty sleeping, and feel detached or estranged, and these symptoms can be severe enough and last long enough to significantly impair the person's daily life.

Motorcycle clubs were therapeutic for many of these men.  Not only was there a sense of camaraderie fostered by association of like minded persons who had shared similar experiences, there was also excitement in the power of the motorcycles.  Loud exhausts, large machines, associated antisocial elements such as drinking and fighting, and disapproval from mainstream society, only added to the allure for people who often felt out of step or marginalised in the post war economic boom.

It was not unusual for riders in groups to go for long weekend rides and to gather at various bars for drinking sessions.  Arguments would often result, but no more than for any other gatherings where alcohol was readily available.

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