Motorcycling in the World entered the modern era following World War II. Important technological advances had been made prior to the war, but most people were too busy struggling to survive the Depression to pay much attention.
World War II changed all that. After the war, a lot of restless people came back from Europe and Asia, people not content to go back to the way things were. They could afford transportation, and they had an elaborate new highway system to explore. Many of them decided to explore those new roads via motorcycles.
Throughout the 1950s, motorcycling remained the domain of extreme gearheads and one-percenters (outlaws). Nice people did not ride a bike. Nice people didn’t even associate with those who did ride, whether they were upstanding members of the American Motorcycle Association (AMA) or hardcore outlaws.
The reason for this involved more than just the perceived danger of the sport or of motorcyclists’ outlaw image. There were practical reasons for the marginality of motorcycling as well. Part of the problem was that the machines themselves demanded a great deal from their owners. The technological advancements of motorcycling had not kept pace with automobiles. By the 1950s, cars were relatively reliable, easily maintained devices, and the experience of owning one was not all that different than it is today.
Bikes were another story.
The reason only gearheads owned motorcycles back then was because you had to be a gearhead to own one. There was nothing easy about riding a bike. Even starting the beast was a traumatic experience in those preelectric-start days. Glance at the starting procedure of a mid-1950s Triumph as outlined in its owner’s manual, and you’ll be instructed to tickle carburetors, retard the spark, and align the piston according to the phase of the moon. Once you’d accomplished all this, it was time to kick the starting lever. If all was in sync and the gods were smiling on you, the machine would start without backfiring and smashing your ankle into hundreds of tiny bone shards (which happened more frequently than you might imagine).
And all this just to start the bike. Keeping it running was just as difficult. Riders who put a lot of miles on their machines knew the inner workings of their bikes intimately. They saw them frequently, sometimes even when they hadn’t intended to: More than one rider saw pistons, valves, and connecting rods flying from their engines as they exploded like grenades between the riders’ legs.