The Origin of the Bad Boy Biker Image

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Hollister is a small, quaint town. It is also the origin of the bad boy biker image.

Unlike any other auto owner, many bikers have a public persona that is often tied to danger, toughness, and brawn. But, how did this all start? Why did the motorcycle develop into a symbol for all of these things? Well, it all started in sunny southern California in the small, meek town of Hollister.

The Riot in Hollister, California

Starting in the early 1930s, Hollister, California played host to an annual 4th of July gypsy tour event, which was sanctioned and backed by the well-known American Motorcycle Association. For years, the event – known as “The Cyclists Holiday”- held motorcycle races, activities, and exorbitant amounts of partying for hundreds of attendees. The small town of about 4,500 people welcomed the event with open arms because they knew it would benefit the local economy.

However, the usual upbeat energy of the event was upended in 1947 when an estimated 4,000 bikers roared into town on their iron horses. The next 3 days turned into a nightmare as an anarchistic tornado swept through the town, leaving businesses damaged and the streets filled with garbage and broken bottles. There were reports of men drunkenly sleeping on sidewalks, bar fights, racing in the street, and there were 60 reported injuries, including a broken leg and a skull fracture.

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Over 50 arrests were made at the 1947 event.

The small town’s seven man police force was completely over matched, but they did manage to make 50 arrests. Most of these arrests were misdemeanors: public intoxication, disturbing the peace, and reckless driving. These arrests, however, didn’t slow the partying down, so police threatened to throw tear gas in the streets and bars closed up to two hours early. Finally, on the third day of the event, most of the bikers had left, leaving the town residents to deal with the aftermath.

Blown Up By the Media

Even though things undeniably got out of hand, most locals weren’t too upset by the event. They just saw it as a wild party that got a little out of hand. In an interview conducted by author Bill Hayes, Hollister local Gus Despersa said of the event, “[The motorcyclists] really weren’t doing anything bad, just riding up and down, whooping and hollering, not really doing any harm at all.” But, the media grasped hold of the story, and with it, the beginning of today’s bad boy biker image was instilled in the American consciousness.

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The now infamous Life Magazine photo.

Just days after the event, the San Francisco Chronicle featured articles about the event with titles like “Havoc in Hollister” and described the event using words like “terrorism.” Eventually, the story made its way into Life Magazine with a now infamous picture and a caption that read, “Cyclist’s Holiday: He and Friends Terrorize Town.”

Further cementing the bad boy image was the 1953 film, The Wild One, starring Marlon Brando. This film was based on the events in Hollister, California and was marketed as a movie about a gang of hot-headed motorcyclists that terrorize a small town. Film Critic, Tim Dirks, says, “In America, it was feared that the shocking, ‘Communist’ movie glamorized an anti-social subculture in revolt, would set a bad example, and cause impressionable viewers to copy-cat its plot and incite delinquency and riots. In fact, it took many years for pacifist motorcyclists to overcome stereotypes and fabrications promoted by the film.”

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Marlon Brando in The Wild One.

Wow. Unfortunately, this stigma has been something that bikers have battled for decades. Even today, people around the country are filled with negative perceptions, and many look down their noses anytime they see a pack of bikers on the highway. Like many urban legends, the origins of this story and the bad boy biker image stem from a small story that was blown out of proportion.

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5 thoughts on “The Origin of the Bad Boy Biker Image

  1. When Honda came to North America with their Motorcycles, they did very poorly in Motorcycle shops. The stigma associated with Motorcycles prevented their target markets from going into the shops and looking at the Honda bikes.

    Quickly, they pulled them out of the Motorcycle shops and put them in Supermarkets and Sporting Goods stores. Along with an aggressive ad campaign to show every day white/blue collar folks with clean nails and poodle skirts riding Honda’s to work and to school, the image of Honda Motorcycles turned around.

    It’s interesting how that can happen. And how quickly it can happen.

  2. Hi, James! I really like the article and totally agree about the impact of media. What a power it has!

    And I also have a very strong opinion about “the bikers” in my side of the world – Europe, or, at least, the region by the Baltic.

    First, I always artificially separate “motorcyclists” from “bikers”. “Bikers” in my country copy the bad boy stereotype from America. They are MC stuff wearing “colors” and riding, mostly, only on weekends to some gatherings (loud and messy events). But the worst fact that shows their poor morality is how they treat girls…. You know.

    Thus, I really don’t like Hell’s Angels (MC, book, movie – whatever) and the impact they (media) made to the real motorcyclism. Here I would like to explain more by giving an example. Just imagine, if not a motorcycle but a helicopter would be a “real bad boy’s” tool. I have no doubt all the “bikers” would change motorbikes to helicopters and become “aviators”. 🙂

    Motorcyclism is not about “looking as someone”, showing “your balls”, “being bad”, etc. For me, it is all about riding and feeling it. No matter how you look (to others). It is not fashion, it is passion.

    Therefore I am really sad that so many (plenty of!) “bikers” follow that stereotype in my country. They really pollute the image of motorcyclists (as the crazy fast street “sportbikers” do too). But on the other hand, they are not the ones to talk about (more). As bigger a “bike”, as smaller balls. 🙂

    Keep writing!

    • Thank you Aldona! It’s interesting to hear a European point of view. I definitely agree about how passion should be about the pure love of what you’re doing. I think there are too many ppl out there who love things for the image. Which essentially makes them not pure and kind of phony

  3. Pingback: Passion vs Fashion | Motor cyclist.lt

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