Skip to content

Travels with Harley

The meeting was held at the clubhouse of the Chosen Few motorcycle club with riders from 26 other clubs. In fact, riders came from the Antelope Valley and as far away as Las Vegas to participate. OurWeekly was one of the sponsors, with the responsibility for transporting donated supplies the clubs had collected to the Dream Center in Echo Park, where they would be collected for shipment to New Orleans.

The riders were passionate about the prospect of rescuing people in the wake of the disaster caused by Hurricane Katrina. (It was later determined to be the sixth largest hurricane ever recorded, and the third largest to make landfall in the United States. Additionally, as the most costly hurricane in history, it racked up $75 billion in damages and left 1,836 people dead.)

Many were visibly overcome with emotion, having seen news reports of such scenes as mothers on rooftops holding babies, elderly people clinging to their water-logged homes and bodies floating among the debris. It was a newsreel worthy of a disaster in an impoverished Third World country.

But this was America in 2005. Some of the older bikers, having served in Vietnam and other theaters of war, were moved to tears by what they had seen. To many, New Orleans after Katrina was reminiscent of villages that had been devastated by American bombing runs.

Some of these riders were hardened by their own inner-city experiences and had lived through their own personal calamities. There were Crips, Bloods, many with long rap sheets, and former ex-cons. Others were blue-collar workers, some were professionals–even an integrated Christian club that prayed over the event, and at least one women’s club, Ladies First, who rode with attitude, like queens. Among the clubs were the Defiant Ones, Second to None, Rising Sun, and the list goes on.

The event was organized by Fred, “Punch” and “Worm” from the Rare Breed motorcycle club, “P.A.” from the Royal Aces, “Smooth” from the Buffalo Soldiers and “B.K.” from the Great Kings of Africa.

The clubs would caravan from the Department of Public Social Services (DPSS) parking lot on Imperial Highway and Normandie Avenue to Echo Park.

The LAPD was set to shut down the streets, and also sent a motorcycle officer all the bikers knew–a big, corn-fed White biker with tattoos all over his arms. Finding that the DPSS management forgot to remove the padlocks at the parking lot, which was to be the staging area, he suggested with a big grin, “Let’s get my bolt cutters and cut the lock.”

Soon, the caravan roared down Imperial Highway–800 Black motorcycle riders–in Hog heaven, so to speak, which was a little odd since for many years Harley’s Hog had not been a traditional favorite of Black riders.

According to bike builder Russell Miles, during the late ’60s to early ’70s, Blacks were not overly enthused with the Hog, due at least in part to the frequent magneto battery cell failure in the kick start and the bike’s shaking.

Today, Miles feels the Hog may have been given a bum rap. Guys back then were not servicing the magneto, and this led to ignition failure. This failure led Blacks to the Japanese bikes–the Honda 350s and 750s (depending what your money could buy), the Kawasaki 900s, 1000 LTDs and the Z1R–that were simpler to work on.

The ultimate was the Z1R. From the Z1R, the scene transitioned to the second-generation Suzuki Ninja bikes that arrived around the mid-’80s, and from there to the Harley-Davidson.

Harley owner David Anthony takes a different view. He believes that there was a strong association with Harleys prior to the invasion of Japanese bikes. He said African Americans rode both the American-made Harley and the British-made Triumph. As a young boy down South, he said all the Black bike riders rode Harleys and Triumphs.

But to many, Hogs didn’t become strongly noticeable among Black riders until about 1997. Their presence became a staple of the Black bike scene around 2000 and, according to Miles, around 2005 Crenshaw Boulevard was virtually filled with the iron roar of Hogs.

Recently, Bartels’ Harley-Davidson dealership in Marina del Rey held a workshop to reinforce the familiarity of the African American motorcycle culture with both the Harley and the dealership. They were given a tour of the facility, and a representative from Harley went over the history and the “long relationship” that the African Americans have had with Harley-Davidson.  (Bartels’ has indeed had a long history with the Black riders. Although Black riders weren’t always astride Hogs, the dealership was often either a starting point or a destination point after weekend bike runs.)

A possible reason for the recent interest by Harley in courting Black riders, according to Target Market News, is that Harley’s traditional White market is getting older and feebler.

“As the Baby boomers who transformed Harley’s rumbling, lumbering bikes from countercultural totems into American icons enter their senior years–the leading edge of the generation is turning 60 this year–they’re increasingly in the market for knee and hip replacements, not Harley’s notoriously bone-shaking bikes,” the Target Market News article said.

“That’s forcing the Milwaukee, Wisconsin-based company to scramble to find new customers among women, Blacks and Hispanics . . . .”

When questioned about a television series that attracted them to motorcycle riding, African American riders, mentioned the series “Then Came Bronson” and the movie “Easy Rider.” The motorcycle in the movie, called “Captain America,” was designed by a pair of African American custom builders, Cliff Vaughn and Ben Hardy. The Captain America bike was made from a 1950s Harley-Davidson police bike purchased at an auction. The finished bike had a red, white and blue customized pan-head design, and is easily remembered, though its African American designers are not.

Considered by many to be one of the most iconic motorcycles ever built, little is known of its African American origins. The movie “Easy Rider” encapsulated the anti-establishment protests of a generation and the nation’s failure to become a government of all the people. The slogan from the movie was: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.”

Working together, the Black motorcycle builders fashioned three Captain Americas, one of which was destroyed in the making of the movie. The other two were stolen. The Captain America was the most identifiable motorcycle of its time–replete with popular memorabilia such as toys, posters, key chains, clothing–and today one has to do extensive research to discover the South Los Angeles craftsmen who created the bike, unless they happen to visit Harley-Davidson’s website to find the true story.

Hardy and Vaughn remained largely unknown and unaccredited for 25 years, according to Michael Fowler, a longtime custom bike builder, and were never welcomed into the mainstream of the White motorcycle world.

In addition to the Hogs cruising Crenshaw Boulevard, Johnnies Pastrami stand on Adams Boulevard off Crenshaw was a staple to the bike scene.

“If we wanted to find a stolen bike that was the place,” said a former LAPD officer assigned to patrol near Johnnies Pastrami during the period. “I remember one weekend there were 30 Kawasaki LTDs with California Department of Motor Vehicles stickers attached to the rear license plates lined up along the curb. The stickers indicated to law enforcement that a bike was rebuilt, or a special construction. These stickers were controlled by the Highway Patrol and the California Department of Motor Vehicles, but it soon became known that in most cases these special-construction bikes were rebuilt with stolen parts.

Johnnies Pastrami stand was an active hangout for Black bikers between 3 p.m.-2 a.m., and it was also used as a staging area for illegal bike races. Johnnies eventually became less popular as a biker hangout around the mid-’90s.

LAPD Special Agent Richard Johnson [not his real name] has a passion for Harleys. He has owned three Hogs. He feels the impact of special-construction bikes in South Los Angeles may have contributed to the popularity of the bike in the inner city and could have indirectly served as a public relations campaign for the company. Riding a Hog encouraged other Blacks to go out and purchase Hogs legitimately from dealerships like Bartels.

However, special-construction bikes also suffered certain engineering problems. Harley frames had different bolt patterns due to company patents, which caused issues with Harley parts fitting special-construction frames. Because after-market frames did not have the same bolt patterns, special-construction mechanics had to drill larger holes, which impacted integrity of the frames.

Most bike mechanics were ex-lowriders who went from working on Chevrolets to Harley-Davidsons without technical training. Back in the day, this was a technique law enforcement could use to make an unsatisfied customer tell off on his inner-city special-construction bike builder.

Still, the Harley-Davidson Hog made a status statement in African American motorcycle culture. It said, “Top dog, you have arrived.”