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The Impact of Motorcycles on American Pop Culture
Posted on 3/11/2019 3:08:00 PM

From The Wild One, and The Motorcycle Diaries, to American Chopper, and Sons of Anarchy, motorcycles and the bikers who ride them have made a big impact on American pop culture. Since biker gangs became a thing, America has always been fascinated with these modern-day cowboys, while The Motorcycle Diaries depicted a different kind of rebel, Che Guevara, touring on a motorcycle as an icon of freedom and political upheaval. Moreover, Harley-Davidson is at the center of what motorcycles mean to American pop culture.

The Impact of Motorcycles on American Pop Culture

 For more than a century, motorcycles have been a fixture in cultures all over the world, including American. Throughout the years, motorcycles have been associated with many different groups of people, and the portrayal of these groups in popular media has helped shape Americans’ perspective on motorcycles and the people who ride them. Here’s a brief history of the rise of motorcycle culture and popular portrayals of bikers.

The History of the Motorcycle

 In 1894, Heinrich Hildebrand, Wilhelm Hildebrand and Alois Wolfmüller created the first series production motorcycle, called the Hildebrand & Wolfmüller, in Munich, Germany. Though their bike was the first to be referred to as a motorcycle, it came after a few decades of different inventors’ attempts at developing a bicycle with some kind of powered element. Soon after, more commercially produced bikes were released by different manufacturers, and by the turn of the 20th century, the first major mass-production firms had emerged, including the iconic American brand Harley-Davidson.

A Brief Harley-Davidson History

 Harley Davidson was founded in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, in 1903. Since then, the company has grown to be known as one of the most iconic brands, not just amongst motorcycle enthusiasts, but around the world, with a large and loyal following, and for good reason. In its more than 100-year history, the brand has been responsible for a distinct style of motorcycle that has impacted motorcycle culture in the US and around the world.

The American Motorcyclist Association

 In 1924, the American Motorcyclist Association (AMA) formed as a nonprofit dedicated to promoting the motorcycle lifestyle and protecting the future of motorcycling. It is now the world’s largest motorcycling association with more than 200,000 members. The association is responsible for advocating and lobbying for motorcyclists’ interests at local, state and federal government levels as well as frequently sanctioning motorsport competitions and motorcycle recreational events.

Biker Gangs

 As motorcycles began to grow in popularity and cultural appeal, so began the rise of the first motorcycle gangs. Motorcycles especially began to grow in popularity after World War II. Some of what would become the first “biker gangs” began as clubs of WWII veterans searching for the same sense of brotherhood and thrill they found during their military service.

The Hollister Riot of 1947 was a monumental moment in what would become modern popular motorcycle culture and perception. The riot occurred at an AMA-sanctioned event. More motorcyclists than the association anticipated flocked to the small town for the rally, and as attendees began to drink and socialize, fights broke out, causing some minor damage in the town, though press coverage of the event sensationalized the “pandemonium” the bikers caused, leading to negative national perception of bikers.

The One Percenters

 A number of outlaw biker gangs identify as “one percenters” and may even make this known by wearing a patch with the numerical figure on it. The term one percenter comes from a purported quote from a representative of the AMA saying that 99 percent of motorcyclists are law-abiding citizens, implying that the tarnished reputation associated with bikers at the time was due to the 1 percent of motorcyclists who were not law-abiding citizens.

Because many of these gangs are not sanctioned by the AMA, they often have their own take on biker culture and their own established bylaws that are not in accordance with the AMA.

Motorcycle Movies

 With the rise of bikers and biker gangs in American culture, so followed the depiction of them in movies.

The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando, is considered to be the first “outlaw biker film” and the first to examine American outlaw motorcycle gang violence. The film, based on a 1951 short story inspired by the events of the Hollister Riot of 1947, focuses on troubling events set into motion by a biker gang that rides into a small California town for a race.

Portrayal of bikers in movies began to shift with 1969’s Easy Rider, which painted bikers in a gentler light. While still portrayed as criminals, the film’s main characters, played by Peter Fonda and Dennis Hopper, aren’t as violent as earlier biker character movie depictions. Rather, the two are more in-line with the hippie movement that was on the rise throughout the 60s.

On the heels of Easy Rider came On Any Sunday, a 1971 documentary about American motorcycle sport. The documentary is often credited as one of the most important motorcycle documentary ever made. The documentary is particularly praised for showing the unique and distinct personalities of different bikers.

Motorcycle TV Shows

 Stories of motorcyclists in popular culture haven’t just been limited to movies. Modern representation of bikers has grown to include the small screen, too.

One of the most popular and successful examples of this is the Discovery Channel (and later TLC) reality TV series American Chopper. The show, which has aired since 2003, focuses on a family bike shop that builds custom motorcycles, often for celebrities. The immensely popular show helped shift public perception of motorcyclists by showcasing them as everyday people in the form of both the stars of the show and their customers.

Sons of Anarchy is another more recent example of bikers on the small screen. The hugely popular drama series, which aired on FX from 2008 to 2014, told the story of an outlaw motorcycle gang in California. Though the show portrays the lawless nature often associated with bikers and biker gangs, it allows viewers to sympathize with the characters and the situations they find themselves in, particularly with the show’s protagonist, Jax Teller, the “biker with a heart of gold.” The show follows suit with the rise of the anti-hero in popular culture, with Mad Men’s Don Draper and Breaking Bad’s Walter White being a few popular contemporaries.

Bikes of Sons of Anarchy

 Both American Chopper and Sons of Anarchy are notable in the attention they pay to motorcycles. Sons of Anarchy in particular has taken special care to showcase and outfit the bikes the characters ride. Most of the characters ride Harley Davidson Dyna Wideglides, but each character’s bike is outfitted a little differently and customized to their character, including Jax Teller’s bike. Jax rides a 2003 Harley Davidson Dyna Super Glide Sport that he fits out with a variety of Harley Davidson parts.

The Biker Look

 One of the more iconic impacts bikers have had on modern popular culture is motorcycle style fashion. Though it’s commonly associated with Harley Davidson leather jackets and boots, motorcycle style has evoked a few different looks over the century-long rise of motorcycle culture. Motorcyclists in the earliest days wore tweed suits, full length boots, gauntlet gloves, and close-fitting wool sweaters. The first leather jacket designed for motorcycling was designed in New York City in 1928, but the look didn’t become synonymous with bikers until the 50s, thanks in part to Brando’s styling in The Wild One. In the 60s, the leather jacket gave way to the popularity of the leather vest. In the 70s, the leather moto jacket became synonymous with the punk music movement, thanks in part to the Ramones. In the 80s, as sport bikes rose in popularity, the biker look began to differ with more elaborately styled and more colorful leather jackets and gear, fitting in with the overall 80s aesthetic of excess. Now, bikers new and old, as well as those who don’t ride, look to more classic styling details like the leather jacket or vest when going for “the biker look.”

For more than 100 years, Americans have been fascinated with stories of motorcycles and the bikers who ride them, and it doesn’t appear that our cultural obsession with these modern-day cowboys is going to go away any time soon.

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