Category Archives: Vintage Gallery
You had to be fearless, to serve your country as an Army motorcycle dispatch rider. It took even more than bravery, to solo across the country on a motorcycle. To really up the risk factor, do it as a black teen-aged female – in the 1930s, when racial prejudice was still the unofficial attitude of the nation! Add up all that, and you’ve described Bessie Stringfield. “The Motorcycle Queen of Miami” was “BB” to her friends, and a barrier-buster to her gender and her generation.
She was 16, Jamaican-born and African-American, when she began riding her bike in the South — in 1927, when blacks didn’t travel on the roads alone, and “nice young women” didn’t ride cycles. For her, it wasn’t about flouting societal conventions; Bessie just wanted to experience adventure, in a bigger world.
Bessie encountered the racial discrimination that was epidemic in 1927. She told of being run off the road in the South, by a white man in a pickup truck. The first stirrings of the modern civil rights movement were four decades away; but she was following her inclinations and inspiration. Bessie was orphaned and adopted at age five by an Irish woman in Boston, and her new mama gave her religion – and whatever she wanted. Bessie explained, “When I was in high school I wanted a motorcycle. And even though good girls didn’t ride motorcycles, I got one.”
Her first bike was a 1928 Indian Scout, but she graduated to Harley’s and spent the 1930s and ‘40s riding them on eight solo tours across the face of America, on what she called her “penny tours.” Her custom was to toss a penny onto a map of the U.S., and then ride to the place where the penny had landed. She owned more than two dozen Harley-Davidsons over 60-plus years, claiming, “To me, a Harley is the only motorcycle ever made.”
Bessie was a solo rider, but maintained that she didn’t ride alone: she said Jesus was watching over her as she traveled roads and regions where even men hesitated to ride, even in pairs. The country wasn’t welcoming to blacks, let alone a black woman on a motorcycle. The five-foot-three-inch adventurer stayed with Negro families when she could, and when no other options were available she slept on her bike. She wasn’t looking to break barriers or make history, but she did: she carried army documents between bases as a civilian motorcycle dispatch rider during World War II — the only woman in her unit.
Bessie’s personal life was just as adventurous. She settled in Miami after marrying and divorcing six times, and after losing three babies while married to her first husband. She kept her third husband’s name, Stringfield, but never had any other children. She performed with her dogs, founded the Iron Horse Motorcycle Club, and became a licensed practical nurse. The “Motorcycle Queen of Miami” eventually developed an enlarged heart, which limited her mobility. When her doctor advised her to stop riding because of her condition, she told him “If I don’t ride, I won’t live long.” So she never did quit.
Stringfield died in 1993, at age 82. The American Motorcycle Association created the Bessie Stringfield Award in 2000, given to “women who have shown other women they can be active participants in the world of motorcycling.” In 2002, she was inducted into the Motorcycle Hall of Fame. BB summed up her more than 60 years of motorcycling: “I was somethin’! What I did was fun, and I loved it.”
Bessie is an inspiration to those who witnessed her life and for those of us who hear her story passed on. She inspires because she lived her passion without hesitation.
SHE RIPPED AND SHE ROARED
Circa 1920s– Lillian La France in her early Motordrome riding days. This must be 1924, or close to it. She looks a little green, and that signature smile and exuberant confidence is not quite present.
“It was the thrill of risking my life that made me to take to drome riding. I was the girl who flirts with death. From childhood I was inspired by wanderlust. I was always alone, dreaming of adventures– how to ride a pony out West, to follow my calling to fame. This was my secret. I shared it with no one.”
In 1894, Agnes was the second of nine girls born into honest-livin’, hard-workin’ Catholic family standards. She christened herself Lillian LaFrance and quickly shook the dust of her Kansas hometown from her boots sometime around 1916, and roared off to create the life she had always dreamt of, carving it raw as she went along. She began Motordrome riding in 1924, and left a blurry, yet brilliant legacy behind that still haunts many who are taken by the images of her incredible spirit staring back through squinty eyes in a copy of a copy of old grainy photos. Incredible.
What will I do today? Nothin’ much, in comparison anyway.
Great shots of La France– I’m a sucker any day for the aviator goggles, jodphurs and riding boots.
Lillian La France started riding the Motor Drome in 1924, at the age of 30 yrs old, and was equally adept on a motorcycle or on four wheels.
Lillian La France sporting a jersey with a skull and crossbones motif– which was quite popular among the stunt rider set of the day. A symbol of rebellion and perhaps a manifestation of an inner, romanticized death-wish.
Charming, candid shots of stunt rider Lillian La France.
Lillian La france — The World’s Foremost Lady Stunt Rider — left, with a broken arm.
Honolulu, Hawaii, Circa 1930– Lillian La France photographed with the Side Show performers she traveled with. Including seven-footer, Johan Aasen, who also enjoyed some stardom in his day.
Lillian La France showing off with no hands on the treadmill at full rev. She was one of the first, and also one of the most popular, female Wall of Death riders of the 1920s & ’30s.
“I was never meant to have children, or to be a plain housewife. I saw how my mother lived, so you know married life never appealed to me– to endure what she went through…”
Lillian LaFrance, stunt rider
Lilian LaFrance balancing on her bike at high speed on a treadmill-a popular tactic to entice people to spend the money to see the show.
The Girl Who Flirts with Death
She went on to become a premier motorcycle dare devil rider performing inside the “Wall of Death” attraction at carnivals across the country and around the world. She performed stunts that amazed the audience, who would pay ten or fifteen cents to watch from around the rim of the wall.
In 1998, a documentary about Lillian was done by writer, filmmaker Kim Wood called “Advice for Adventurous Girls.” Her novel, based on the life of a Kansas farm girl turned world-famous motorcycle daredevil, will be published in 2012.
Although the Indian Motorcycle Company was founded and started two years before the Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company, it has not been able to stay on track nearly as long as this legendary company. However, its history is rich and exciting, and even though the motorcycles are no longer being manufactured in the original aspect, Indian continues to bring forth admirers and collectors of these amazing bikes.
The Indian Motorcycle Co. was founded in 1901 by George M. Hendee and Carl Oscar Hedstrom in Springfield, Massachusetts. In the early days, the company was known as the Hendee Mar Company, and started its beginning with America’s very first motorcycle. The company was technologically advanced in a number of ways, including the introduction of the very first V-twin bike in the year 1907. This was far more advanced than the single motorcycles being produced by Harley-Davidson even in 1910.
In 1916, before World War I, Indian Motorcycles was one of approximately 20 American motorcycle companies that were trying to make it in the volatile market. Indian Motorcycle Co. accounted for 40 percent of the market share in 1916, making it one of the most popular in its time. The Powerplus line of bikes was sold to the US government in the years 1917 and 1918 for use in the military. As World War II arose, both Indian and Harley-Davidson Motorcycle Company manufactured their motorcycles for military use, specifically the United States Army. The Army even requested a specialized motorcycle design that would allow fighting in deserts, and the Indian Motorcycle Company stepped up to the plate and produced a specific motorcycle for the military’s needs. The 841 was born and a thousand were manufactured for the government.
In 1945, the company was bought out by Ralph B. Rogers, and many changes were made that may have caused the demise of the Indian Motorcycle Co. The more popular bikes, such as the Scout, were discontinued, and more lightweight designs were manufactured and introduced by 1949. However, the quality of these bikes were sub par, and loyal owners began to lose interest and hope in the future of the company. The company filed for bankruptcy and stopped producing motorcycles in 1953.
Indian Motorcycle Company has an exciting history that includes military support and many years as one of the top motorcycle companies in America, outselling and outperforming Harley-Davidson motorcycles in the early years. As many other companies have continued to try and build off the Indian Motorcycle Company name, the original designs and manufactured bikes are highly sought after by motorcycle enthusiasts and collectors
Have just found this great feature on the “Chop Cult” website,
Thought i would share it with you. very interesting look at Old School 70s bike club history.
The San Diego Chariots MC
Earlier in the year, Chop Cult member, Beefdrippings put up a link in the forum to some pics that a buddy of his had scanned. Photos that his mom shot forty years ago when riding with a small club out of Imperial Beach, CA called the Chariots MC. Sharon, the photographer and companion to the VP back then was nice enough to let us post some of the pics and answered a few questions about the people and bikes in these great old photos.
The takeaway? These are good times we live in and nothing lasts forever. Despite a down economy, long-haul wars and myriad other problems we face today, if you are fortunate enough to have a bike and some buddies who are willing to strap a bedroll on and hit the road, things can be pretty darn good. So if you are a lucky one, sit back once in a while and be thankful because you never know how long it’ll last. Enjoy the ride!
You can see more photos, in larger sizes on Sharon’s son’s flickr page here. Huge thanks to her, Carl and Beefdrippings for helping bring these images out of hibernation. It’s funny, some of them look like any of our usual adventures – working on a bike in the Denny’s parking lot, drinking beer in the shade, hanging with your buddies, only these dudes look a little classier!
Q: When were these images taken?
These photos were taken in 1972 with a small point and shoot Vivitar camera. I caught a lot of flack for taking them. Definitely not a cool thing to do – But when they came back from the drug store, everyone was sure anxious to see them. I had duplicates made for both Steve and I.
Q: What San Diego area were most members from or where did you guys hang out the most?
As nearly as I recall it seemed that most of the guys lived in or around National City, Chula Vista and IB. Some of them probably lived in San Diego proper but where anyone lived never came up as a topic of conversation.
Steve’s (AKA, Tusky) house on Holly Street in IB was where everyone hung out after hours when the shop was closed. Drinking at a bar was too expensive. I was Tusky’s girl friend at the time and we shared one of two bedrooms. Midget and John shared the other bedroom and there was usually at least one, usually more, camped out in the living room. I cooked for whoever was in residence at the time. The guys were always very appreciative of that and I enjoyed their gratitude. They were always very respectful towards me.
The garage was attached to the living room, and bikes and parts were brought directly into the living room to be worked on and the avocado green carpeting was usually covered in black grease spots. One of the other wives clued me into the fact that Scrubbing Bubbles Bathroom Foam spray worked great to clean up oily grease spots. Those were the days before the vast array of carpet cleaners were available, or at least that I was aware of… And the foam spray worked very well, although trying to keep that carpet clean was pretty much an exercise in futility.
We were all smokers back then and the pans from old Panheads were all over the house for use as ashtrays. Motorcycle parts often made up much of the “decor”.
One of the best things about being the VP’s “old lady” was whenever we went on a “putt”, we were always up front, riding in tandem with the president. I never saw what the pack looked like from riding in the middle or the rear.
Q: Do you keep in contact with many of the old members any more?
Sadly, no. Wish I knew what happened to everyone. I did hear that one the guys (Chuck) joined another club after the Chariots disbanded.
Q: Did you guys ever ride in Baja?
I’m guessing that you are referring to Baja, Mexico? If so, the answer would have to be a resounding NO! A group of us drove down to TJ, one afternoon, parked the car and walked across the border. It was not much fun crossing into Mexico back then if one looked as rough as we did. They did not seem to be thrilled about “our kind” coming into their fair (LOL) city. Getting back over to our side was a big pain in the neck. I was worried that we would be searched and detained even though we had made a point of making sure that none of us had anything illegal in our possession before we left home. They could not understand how we had even been admitted into Mexico to begin with. So a ride into Baja would probably not have been a good idea.
Q: What eventually happened to the Club?
It disbanded – a few months after Steve and I parted ways, although our split had nothing to do with it. There were enough reasons, collectively, I believe to “break the camel’s back”. Shortly before I moved in with Steve, the club president (Sonny) was killed in a tragic motorcycle accident. Steve kept his position as VP and Charley became president. Charley was very well respected but I don’t think the club ever fully recovered from Sonny’s death.
Money, or the lack of it, was also an issue – a couple of the guys, Steve included and I believe, also John, were laid off from National Steel. House payments could no longer be made and Bozos was not making enough to make ends meet to support Charley, his wife and new baby. He needed to provide for them with a regular paying job.
Most of the Chariots were in their early twenties and pretty narcissistic about how bad they were. We realized (I include myself) that we were probably not all that bad after a group from a well known 1% club crashed a party we were having at Bozo’s one night. These guys were well armed, a lot older, nasty and a truly sadistic bunch trying to bully and scare us with how bad they were. None of the Chariots were lightweights or cowards. Many were former Viet Nam Vets, among them a Navy Seal. I truly believe they would have gone to the wall for each other. But I don’t think they had aspirations of being like the bigger clubs. They just wanted to be left alone in their own shop on their own side of town. It was too much to ask for. Some of the guys had families and responsibilities.
I cannot say positively that these are some, any or most of the reasons the Chariots dissolved. This is just surmising on my part, looking back, after the fact, many years later.
I have always felt blessed to have been able to spend apart of my life in that lifestyle. There was never a dull moment and hearing the sound of bikes coming down the street always made my pulse quicken – I was able able to recognize, sight unseen, who each club member was by the unique sound of his bike’s engine. They all rode Harleys.
It is gratifying to know that after so many years, these photos have been given new life and have been enjoyed by a much larger audience than I could have ever imagined..