The Origin of the Bad Boy Biker Image

The Origin of the Bad Boy Biker Image


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.


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.


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.”


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.