Story by Ray Seidel
Today we think of our motorcycles as the trinity: 1) transportation 2) works of art, and 3) best friend. Soon after the turn of the last century, however, as mass production of the automobile dropped its price to less than that of most bikes, it was clear there was more bang for the buck in buying something less expensive and could carry much more for most of the population… and motorcycles became more a recreation vehicle. (Uncle Sam came to the same realization in 1941 during WWII when the Jeep came on the scene which meant canceling existing contracts for motorcycles in favor of something far more versatile.) And while this was largely the case for us mere mortals, for those in Stardom such constraints did not apply…motorcycles were within easy reach.
Some of those stars from the Golden Age of motion pictures include Clark Gable (Harley), Oliver “Ollie” Hardy, Tom Mix, Robert Ryan (Indian), Rita Hayworth (Triumph), enjoying their own rides. Using studio bikes for a training film out of MGM were Harley riders Robert Horton, Ralph Meeker and Keenan Wynn, which we’ve posted on our QT Facebook from time to time. Wynn instructs Horton on basic points of riding, and that he (Horton) is smarter than the motorcycle, and not to be afraid. Well, the riding is off-road on full size Harleys where I’d be afraid to take my 4X4, and of course Horton drops the bike coming up a dirt hill, but, anyway…
Cowpokes often had steel steeds in addition to their 4-legged friends. Besides Tom Mix, “The Duke” John Wayne could often be seen on an off-road Honda or such through the likes of Monument Valley. Cowboy star Roy Rogers rode out to Hollywood in the early 30’s on a motorcycle when times were bad and transportation costs were high. He took a liking to the sport, riding his Indian until World War II. Out of the saddle for 16 years his last bike was a 74 cubic inch Harley-Davidson. There was also a “Roy Rogers” bike, of sorts. Not shy of lending his name to various products, one could buy a Roy Roger Whizzer and ride like The King of the Cowboys. After Rawhide was a wrap, Clint Eastwood took a low paying (VERY low paying) job to play in a Spanish – Italian Western, thinking at least he’ll get to see Europe out of the deal. And that he did, often on a British bike. Alan Ladd also was a rider, but in his case the bike was supplied by Indian Motorcycle. Indian’s advertising campaign back in the day was to get their bikes into the hands of big celebrities for good exposure. Among the chosen were Jane Russell and her football star husband Bob Waterfield, baseball star Bob Feller, football star Johnny Lujack, and singer Vaughn Monroe, all pushing the new Indian light weight bikes.
Television stars also got into motorcycles, for one reason or another. On the set of Desilu Studios, the STAR TREK actors had bicycles to get from point A to point B. Well, usually. The cast made it a habit of hiding Leonard Nimoy’s bicycle – somewhere not so easy to retrieve, and for him not all that funny. William Shatner was fine riding his motorcycle both on set, and off. We all know about Happy Days, and the various bikes used by Fonzie that Henry Winkler just wasn’t adept at riding. On the flip side, more recently was the cast of Sons of Anarchy. Readers of Quick Throttle have followed the 7 year journey as the actors have really taken to being riders, particularly Charlie Hunnam. During season 2 all actors were offered bikes for a year from a dealer in northern California with the option to buy at the end of the year; bikes custom made to have a similar profile as their character’s. Only Ron Perlman turned the offer down, who never took to riding like the others. “I like my Mercedes, I like my Boise.” During season 3 Charlie told me he had put on only 1000 miles on his car, everything else on his Harley.
Superstar singer-actor Elvis Presley spent a lot of time riding, usually but not always on a Harley, and co-star Ann-Margret could join in. We know Steve McQueen for his love of cars and racing, but also his passion for motorcycling. At a recent anniversary screening of BULLETT, nearly everyone still alive who worked with Steve was on hand to share anecdotes of working with “Mr. Cool.” If there was one person who could be called McQueen’s best friend, it would be Don Gordon, who Steve would cast in many of his films. I asked Don (whom I remembered from early B&W TV “The Blue Angels” TV show… [big smile] ”What? You remember that?”) to tell me something of his riding experience with Steve. While Indians were Steve’s favorite motorcycles, Steve would just show up unannounced in the middle of the night on his Triumph 650, ring the doorbell, and say “Let’s go riding.” “But Steve, it’s pouring rain outside!” “Who cares, let’s go.”
Today there are some standout riders and collectors. Perhaps at the top of the list is Jay Leno. He can often be found at The Rock Store (30354 Mulholland Hwy, Cornell, CA 91301) and is more than happy to talk about whatever he is riding that day. Think Peter Fonda and you think motorcycle, though these days he rides an Italian sport bike. We loved seeing Anthony Hopkins in The World’s Fastest Indian, though he told me he stopped riding himself long ago. Mike Wolfe, and Mark Wahlberg love bikes, and both are stumping for Indian motorcycles. Actor and former California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is well known for riding both Harleys and Indian in the Terminator movies, and in his own life. The list goes on and on. Take a look at the pictures, and see how many stars you can recognize. You may just meet one on your next ride.