How America’s best selling motorcycle marque became notoriously tied to a criminal underworld.
Outlaw biker clubs like the Hell’s Angels have been identified with Harley-Davidson motorcycles since the first member of Chicago’s Outlaw Motorcycle Club threw his leg over a motorcycle back in the 30s.
Over the years, Harley has tried at various times to distance themselves from the outlaw image and embrace it as a means of selling bikes and various pieces of pirate cosplay accouterments. How did this come to pass? Why are Harleys the go-to bikes for biker clubs?
Let’s start off by talking about what constitutes an outlaw motorcycle club. The American Motorcycle Association sanctions competition and organizations such as motorcycle clubs. Some sources say the origin of the term Outlaw Biker Group was in reference to clubs that weren’t sanctioned by the AMA. After several members of these non-AMA-sanctioned clubs made the news as a result of their criminal shenanigans, the term gained a closer association to disregard for the law. The AMA didn’t like the bad rap OMGs gave the rest of the motorcycling community, and actively took steps to combat these clubs via measures. One such famous anti-OMG campaign resulted in the banning of club insignia at races and other AMA-sponsored events.
As of 2015, the US Justice Department reported that there are roughly 500 large outlaw motorcycle clubs active in the United States. If smaller clubs are counted, that number jumps to around 2,500 clubs nationwide. The FBI estimates that about 45,000 Americans belonging to biker clubs. Despite law enforcement combating these organizations, they continue to attract new members and grow. Some clubs, like the Hell’s Angels and The Outlaws have chapters all over the planet.
The term one percenter, which is commonly associated with biker clubs, refers to the fact that outlaw clubs make up a minute percentage of motorcycle clubs according to the American Motorcycle Association. The public’s perception of the criminal biker image has been widely ingrained on the American conscience however, largely due to TV and film such as Marlon Brando’s 1953 film: “The Wild One” (Brando rode a Triumph in The Wild One, by the way. -Ed.) to the more recent “Sons of Anarchy”.
To even begin to grasp how H-D’s became the status quo in outlaw motorcycle clubs (from here on out I’ll refer to them as OMGs), you have to go back to the beginning. Supposedly the very first OMG was founded in 1935 in a suburban Chicago bar. The group, which I mentioned in passing above, unimaginatively named itself “The Outlaw Motorcycle Club”. It would be another 13-years before the Hells Angels appeared on the scene in the San Bernardino, California. The Angels, Outlaws, and other clubs experienced exponential growth in the post-war era thanks to a large influx of new members, many of whom were disenfranchised ex-military back from World War 2.