Experience the California Motorcycle Culture

By From page B2 | October 26, 2016

Larry Weitzman
Special to Village Life

A brand-new exhibit at the California Automobile Museum called “Live Free: California Motorcycle Culture” is now open. It tells the story and impact of motorcycles since their beginning, which started in earnest in about 1903 with the founding of Harley-Davidson.

Consisting of about 60 significant motorcycles and memorabilia, it tells the story of American Iron, the British invasion and the Japanese takeover with bikes ranging in age from over 100 years old to the 1980s.

“This exhibit was difficult to organize with the number of bikes and their significance. In putting the exhibit together to tell the story of the California (motorcycle) culture and how motorcycles affected California culture, we were offered more than 150 classic and neo-classic motorcycles and while we originally planned for about 40 to 50 bikes for the display, we ended up with about 60, turning down more than 100 great bikes. There are about 40 bikes in the main exhibit area with about 20 more strategically scattered throughout the museum,” Carly Starr, museum curator, said.

“We have worked hard with the story and its structure to let visitors who don’t know much have an acceptable and friendly experience while the enthusiast can experience the history of their avocation,” Starr said.

A rare look

As a motorcycle enthusiast, this exhibit has some great, mostly rare bikes, all in pristine condition. There is a section of great motorcycle racers, including some Indians dating back to 1912 that raced on board tracks. There was even a board track mile and a quarter oval built in what is now the center of Beverly Hills in the 1920s. For motorcycles they were called motordromes.

The first board track was built in 1910 in Playa Del Rey. It was a mile-long oval built of wooden planks much like the oak flooring of houses built before and after WWII. They were steeply banked (from 20-60 degrees) with huge crowds of tens of thousands seated in grandstands above the banked track. Even the early racers ran close to 100 mph.

The ride

Visitors to the museum can see what these daredevils rode.

There are great examples of 1930s Harleys and Indians including some beautifully restored Indians including the Scout, a model reintroduced by Indian a couple of years ago that carries on the tradition of this famed sporty ride.

There is a 1947 Knucklehead that brought Harley into the overhead valve age of the modern Harley engine. Famed British motorcycle engine designer Edward Turner has several models on display including the bikes that ruled the 1950s and 1960s — the Triumph 500, 650 and 750 overhead valve parallel twin. That engine dates from the 1930s.

Turner also designed at an even earlier date the “square four,” a model of which is at the exhibit in the form of a 1951 Ariel 1000cc Square Four with “plunger” rear suspension. It had two crankshafts connected through gears as the engine formed a square, with a cylinder in each corner.

Wild time

Motorcycles at the time of the Hollister motorcycle incident of 1947 are there. The takeover of Hollister by motorcyclists (actually it was an American Motorcycle Association rally that got a bit out of hand) was made into one of the most famous movies of all time, “The Wild One” starring Marlon Brando and a 1950 Triumph 6T 650 Thunderbird parallel twin. Wild Bill Hill of Wild Bill’s Tattoos (who has a Cushman three wheeler on display) said that actual motorcycle is still somewhere in police custody in Hollister, probably in pieces.

Also on display is a Harley XA. Built at the request of the Army, it was a knock-off of a BMW motorcycle used by the German army. The Harley had shaft drive and an opposed twin engine. More than 1,000 were built.

There are also a few scooters — a “bathtub” 1953 Cushman and a rare 1983 Lambretta 200.

Perhaps the star of the several scooters on display is a 1946 Salsbury. Built in Pomona, the Salsbury looked like it was designed by NASA and had advanced features like a CVT transmission and front and rear suspension. Instead of a twist grip throttle and hand brakes, it had a gas pedal and brake pedal on the floor board like an automobile.  

There was even a 1951 Mustang “almost motorcycle.” Built in Glendale starting in 1946, it was the first American “motorcycle” to have a telescopic front fork.

Whether you are just curious or an enthusiast visitors need to spend some time at this exhibit located at the California Auto Museum, 2200 Front St. in Sacramento.

For more information call (916) 442-0802 or go to calautomuseum.org. Visitors should also take in the about 150 very significant and classic cars.

Special to Village Life


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