Hollister Riot: The Event That Changed Motorcycle History
In motorcycling history of the past 100 years or so, very few incidents have had an impact as that of The Hollister Riot of 1947. Rooted in both myths as well reality, it can almost be quoted as an example of the ‘Butterfly Effect’, as the events of one night changed the whole public outlook towards motorcycling culture for several decades and led to interesting developments such as the rise of outlaw biker groups in the US and the entry of Honda and other Japanese manufacturers into the western market.
This interesting story was narrated to me by my reporting manager Mr. Vijay Thomas, Lead Marketing, during my summer internship stint at Harley-Davidson India. Although this topic has been written about before, I felt the urge to dig a little deeper and share my own perspective on it.
So how did a seemingly harmless incident at a small town in California change the motorcycling world? Let’s have a look.
In 1941, after the attack of the Japanese on Pearl Harbour, the US was pushed into the Second World War. Motorcycles had replaced horses in infantry battalions and Harley-Davidson was conscripted as the motorcycle supplier for the allied war efforts. Around 90,000 units of the 45ci Harley-Davidson WLA aka ‘The Liberator’ were shipped to Europe and other war fronts, many of which the veterans brought back home with them.
The war ended in 1945 with the surrender of Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan. Suffering from PTSD and unable to re-adjust to civilian life, the war veterans found solace in their motorcycles. With leftover pensions and little means for excitement and adventure, they bought back their service motorcycles, removed excess bodywork (aka ‘bob job making them ‘bobbers’), and started forming motorcycle clubs to rekindle the wartime camaraderie. Small MCs such as ‘Jackrabbits’, ’13 Rebels’, and ‘Yellow Jackets’ started popping up where the members wore club sweaters and spent their time partying during the ‘field meets’.
It was Friday, the 4th of July 1947. Independence Day celebrations were in full swing and the American Motorcyclist Association (A.M.A) had organized ‘Gypsy Tours’ across the US, which were 3 day-long events comprising of dirt-track racing, hill climbs, and scrambles, held since the 1930s. For Hollister, a small farming community in California of 4500 which had hosted the Gypsy Tours for many years, the event meant more customers and better business.
Bikers had already started pouring into Hollister since the afternoon of the 3rd, arriving from different parts of California like San Francisco, LA, and also including as far as Florida and Connecticut. Initially, the town’s bars and taverns welcomed the guests with open arms but quickly realized that they were overwhelmed when the attendance swelled to more than 4000.
Soon the AMA-sanctioned races were ignored and the inebriated bikers started fighting, crashing into bars, racing full speed through the intersections, and creating a ruckus. The local P.D consisted only of 7 officers who were clearly outnumbered, the local hospital was jammed with injured bikers and a special session of night court was convened for the many arrests of public drunkenness, disorderly conduct, and reckless driving.
By Sunday, the show began to lose steam and California Highway Patrol officers were able to disperse the unruly bikers with a show of force and threats of tear gas. Thankfully, albeit a lot of a discarded beer bottles, there was no damage done to the town in terms of property or personal loss. Life returned to normal and Hollister moved on with its business. But unfortunately, the press did not.
The Infamous Photo
Initial reports on the incident in local dailies such as the ‘Hollister Freelance’ were accurately retold and not sensationalized. But on the evening of 6th, the desire to increase readership would prompt Barney Peterson, a photographer from the San Francisco Chronicle to capture the infamous photo that would go on to imprint the stereotype of bikers as loud, obnoxious, and rowdy in the mind of the public.
The image consisted of an intoxicated-looking man who is claimed to be Eddie Davenport with beer bottles in each of his hands and around his Harley-Davidson motorcycle.
Life magazine picked up this photo and ran a full-page spread on page 31 the next week, hoping that the image would create more of a furor than the details of the incident. Although eye-witness testimonies of attendees of the event such as that of August ‘Gus’ Derpa (behind Eddie Davenport in the image) claim that the image was faked by the photographer, the strong nationwide influence of the magazine made sure that the news was a national sensation.
The AMA was caught in a PR nightmare as the notion that any minute, roving bands of ruthless motorcycle hoodlums might descend upon them, caused towns across the US to cancel race meetings. It was further complicated by the fact that an incident similar to Hollister took place again in 1948 in another town called Riverside.
Although this isn’t corroborated, the legend goes that in order to save their reputation, the A.M.A put out a statement saying that “the trouble was caused by the one percent deviant that tarnishes the public image of both motorcycles and motorcyclists and that the other ninety-nine percent of motorcyclists are good, decent, law-abiding citizens.”
The AMA also antagonized and discriminated against many of its riders who wore military jackets with club insignia and rode ‘chopped’ motorcycles by banning them from attending AMA-sanctioned motorcycle events, which eventually led to the formation of Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs (OMG) as these riders embraced their ‘1%’er identity.
The Big Four
The big four outlaw MCs are — Hell’s Angels (1950), The Pagans (1959), The Outlaws (1959), and The Bandidos (1966) among several others. Although started as associations for rebellious bikers, memberships swelled in the 60s & 70s as they attracted disillusioned veterans of the Vietnam War and other fringe elements ostracized by the society.
Currently, these OMGs have branches in several countries, follow their own rules, resort to extreme violence to control their territory, and are considered dangerous organizations involved in criminal activities that pose a formidable threat to society and law enforcement in general.
The Hollister event and the outlaw motorcycle culture sparked the imagination of Hollywood directors and in 1953, the ‘Wild One’ was released which starred Marlon Brando as a rebellious outlaw motorcycle gang leader who terrorizes local towns but then falls for the sheriff’s daughter. A biker himself, he rode his own Triumph Thunderbird 6T in the movie.
The Honda Super Cub
In the 1960s, Honda the Japanese manufacturer had set its sights on entering the US market. By this time, thanks to the prominence of outlaw motorcycle culture and supporting Hollywood productions, if someone owned a motorcycle usually a Harley-Davidson or a Triumph, they were either considered to be a leather-clad ruffian from an illegal biker gang or a Rock-N-Roll star. They were big bulky machines that required constant maintenance and which no one besides the most ardent of enthusiasts would want to own.
On the other hand, Honda envisioned the ‘Super Cub’ a small 50cc motorcycle for the masses. They enlisted the service of Grey Advertising and together they created a marketing campaign with the slogan — “You meet the nicest people on a Honda”, that was targeted at the average joe — housewives, young couples, students, working men etc. It highlighted the fun, simple, low-cost nature of the Super Cub and the campaign became so successful that it captured 63% US motorcycle market-share for Honda and is still analyzed in marketing case studies today. It also was paramount in erasing the motorcycle’s deep-rooted image of rebellion and evil.
The HOG Culture
In 1983, Harley-Davidson was able to successfully shed its past associations with the outlaw biker culture with the establishment of the Harley Owners Group aka HOG. The club associates itself with various philanthropic efforts and with more than a million members worldwide, acts as a channel for the brand to interact with its fans and get their feedback. It also supports the US military by introducing a number of biking programs to honour veterans for their service.
The Hollister community remained calm through all the pandemonium and 70 odd years after the incident, still hosts biker meets every year as part of the 4th of July Independence Day celebration. Similar to the Sturgis Rally, attending the event is an annual pilgrimage for motorcycle enthusiasts across the US, as the immense significance of the incident that took place over a weekend in this small town all those decades ago is not lost on them.