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When there were far fewer people around, far fewer laws and regulations, when the legal speed limit was 75 mph, when gas was cheap, when driving was a pleasure, if you owned a hot machine you could point the grill down an empty road and go!

Biker!

If you were a hot rodder in the early Fifties, it was because you wanted to go fast. And if you wanted to go really fast you bought a bike.

That desire for speed was all that bikers and hot rodders had in common. They were two separate groups, and only a few guys crossed over. That’s funny because it would seem that the two groups had a lot in common.

Hot rodders were outlaws who desired respectability, which resulted in mild schizophrenia. A hot rodder really wanted to drag it out at every stop light, but he had that NHRA decal on the windshield right under his nose, and he could read the motto, “Dedicated to Safety”. He also had his club plaque on the back of his car, and he knew that if he got caught street racing he could be bounced from the club. So he built a full-race engine and drove around town at 35 mph.

Bikers, on the other hand, seemed to know who they were. Society had deemed them outlaws and most seemed to embrace that title. They didn’t try to be respectable. You couldn’t ride a bike through an Oregon rainstorm wearing a suit, so bikers wore Levi’s, leather jackets, boots and greasy caps. They hung out at taverns, drank beer, rode noisy cycles and had a chick on the pillion. They weren’t Hell’s Angels yet, but they were moving in that direction.

My father always had one or two old Harleys around, but he didn’t fit the biker image. The guys I was in awe of hung out at Merhar’s Drive-In. That was the only place where you could get exotic food, like Coney Islands and root beer milkshakes, so anything that happened there seemed mysterious to me. From the safety of the back seat of my parents’ car I saw the row of chromed bikes parked near Merhar’s side door. They were big Harleys and Indians, suicide machines, with an occasional Velocette, Triumph or BSA. The bikers stood by their bikes, drinking beer, saying things I couldn’t hear to the passing car hops. Long after the bikers had ripped out of the parking lot I could hear the angry staccato of their exhausts as the roared up 82nd, and I was certain that they were riding to their fiery deaths.

So, naturally, when I later put my roadster on blocks after three years of using it as a daily driver, I bought a bike. The first one was a 1947 BSA twin, a real dog, a suicide machine, but at least I knew who I was.


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