How bikers turned into their parents and turned off their kids
On a rainy night in 1974, Charles Umbenhauer pulled his Yamaha motorcycle into the parking lot of a hotel in New Jersey so that he and his wife could wait out the storm before finishing their ride from his hometown of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, to the Jersey shore. The front desk clerk would let them stay under one condition.
“If you push the motorcycle up the street there and it’s not in the parking lot, I’ll go ahead and rent you a room,” Umbenhauer recounted in 2008 to American Motorcyclist, the membership magazine of the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA).
The request stung Umbenhauer, who had served two years in the Army and considered himself an upstanding citizen. He and his wife, Carol, said no thanks. Instead they found a “really crappy” hotel that allowed them to keep their bike in the lot. A couple of years later, when a friend invited the couple to attend a new motorcycling group’s first rally for their rights at the Pennsylvania State Capitol, Charles and Carol hopped on the bike and went.
This was the ’70s, and bikers faced discrimination not just from fearful business owners but also from state and federal governments. A group called MAUL—Motorcyclists Against Unfair Legislation—wanted to broker a truce with lawmakers to oppose helmet laws and other restrictions. The coalition drew motorcyclists of all kinds. In particular, the wrong kind.
“We went to the rally, and I knew it wasn’t going to work,” Umbenhauer says. For starters, the group had shown up to the state legislature on a Sunday. “People were streaking, there were beer kegs, but there was no legislative session. I gave it a 10 on having a great time but a zero on doing something to benefit bikers.” The Associated Press reported the morning after that one motorcyclist rode around the rally naked “except for black socks” and that several riders had burned their helmets.
Umbenhauer voiced his concerns to other MAUL members, and they asked him to organize their next trip to the statehouse. His first act was to hold the event on a Monday. “I said we’re gonna do it when the legislature is in session, and someone said, ‘Half these people won’t come.’ And I said, ‘Good. We don’t need people drinking beer on the Capitol steps.’”
Over the next 40 years, Umbenhauer, now 74, and his fellow bikers organized, professionalized, and lobbied their way to legitimacy. But the victory has been bittersweet. Motorcyclists have more freedom than ever, but the gains they fought for are going to waste. Whether legitimacy has made motorcycling uncool or safety has simply become more of a priority, young people just aren’t becoming bikers. “My grandson,” Umbenhauer says, “doesn’t ride.”
MOTORCYCLE INTEREST GROUPS are almost as old as motorcycles. Munich’s Hildebrand & Wolfmüller began mass-producing motorrads in 1894. During the next 10 years, engineers in the United Kingdom and the United States followed suit, launching such iconic motorcycle brands as Triumph, Indian Motorcycles, and Harley-Davidson. These new machines—not as big or as fast as cars, far more powerful than bicycles—drew fans and haters alike.
“The peculiar character of the motor bicycle has left its status open to various definitions, and as a result in many states...the laws applying to big motor cars are brought to bear on motorcycles with oppressive force,” reads a notice published in The New York Times on August 24, 1903. Authored by the leaders of the Alpha Motor Cycle Club and the New York Motor Cycle Club, the notice likely referred to the patchwork of road laws then governing gasoline-powered vehicles, which were considered a nuisance. Some cities required vehicles to have hand-operated noisemaking devices that drivers were supposed to honk and ring whenever they drew near pedestrians. Other cities weren’t sure whether to treat motorcycles like pedal-powered bicycles (which they closely resembled) or like cars.
New York riders wanted to protect themselves as cities and states figured out new rules for the era of gasoline. “One cannot freely pass from one state into another without fear of arrest because of such laws,” the notice continues. “To combat such measures, to insist that the highways are free to all alike, and that the right to use them is irrevocable, is one of the objects to be served by organization.” They would go on to name the new group the Federation of American Motorcyclists.
By 1910, motorcycles were coming into their own as a feature of daily American life. Motorcycle cops chased down baddies, adrenaline junkies broke speed records, and the U.S. military learned biker messengers were twice as fast as riders on horseback. After visiting the 1910 motorcycle trade show in Madison Square Garden, the Times’ C.F. Wyckoffdeclared that these “little distance annihilators” had graduated from the “poor man’s automobile” to a “pleasure vehicle” and a “utility vehicle.”
Through the ’20s, ’30s, and ’40s, motorcycles made headlines for miraculous feats (“motorcyclists on way: Two Argentinians Reach Mexico City En Route to New York”), for upsetting the apple cart (“Town Hunts Motorcyclist; Broke 30-Year Sabbath Calm”), and for their role in daily life (“dog trails motorcyclists; Hunts for Dead Owner, Killed in Crash”). Much ink was spilled on accidents, but the same was true for cars back then. All of which is to say that motorcycle culture was considered an anodyne subgenre of sporting and adventure.
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