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.
You Meet the Nicest People on a Honda
Part of the reason for the stagnation in motorcycle design at this time was lack of competition. The Indian Motorcycle Company (the first American motorcycle company, preceding Harley-Davidson by two years) had quit building motorcycles by the
mid-1950s, and even before it gave up the ghost, it had long ceased being competitive with Harley-Davidson. The British manufacturers only had to keep up with one another, and as long as none of them raised the stakes too high, none of them had to try too hard. There were interesting developments taking place in other European countries, but those countries were still in such turmoil from the war that manufacturers there concentrated on producing cheap transportation for their own people and weren’t interested in exporting motorcycles to the rest of the world.
That was soon to change. In only a few years, these complacent manufacturers would find themselves up against some very serious competition from a most unlikely source : Japan.
Like Italy and Germany, Japan was in ruins following World War II. Unlike those countries, Japan’s manufacturing infrastructure had been completely destroyed. After the war, Japan had to start from scratch. The Japanese rose to the challenge, and rather than rebuilding the past, they looked to the future for their inspiration.
Like European countries, Japan’s post-war motorcycle industry emerged to service society’s need for cheap transportation. That industry had a humble beginning, with many manufacturers building clones of bikes from other countries.
Americans had little use for the more-or-less overgrown mopeds coming out of Japan, nor did any other country for quite a few years. But by the late 1950s, Japanese motorcycles began to make their way into Europe and then into the United States. By this time, Japanese bikes had evolved into distinctive, original machines with innovations that made riders take note. These were elegant, reliable, nimble, and fast bikes, and cheap to boot.
The innovation people most took note of was the inclusion of electric starters on many of these machines. No longer did riders need the legs of mules to kick start their bikes; they simply pushed a button and rode off.
Unlike other manufacturers, the Japanese realized the sales potential of motorcycles that were convenient to use, and no Japanese company capitalized on convenience as a selling point as well as Honda. In an ad campaign designed to highlight the utility of its machines, Honda set the sport of motorcycling on the path toward respectability.
That campaign was the famous “You meet the nicest people on a Honda” series of ads, and it single-handedly undid much of the damage done to the image of motorcycling by films like The Wild One. The ads, which featured “normal” people doing nonoutlaw-type things on Honda motorcycles, appeared in 1961 and were so effective that they made the sport of motorcycling seem acceptable to society as a whole. The ads had such a powerful effect that for years afterward, the word Honda became synonymous with small motorcycles, much like the name Xerox is used as a verb meaning “to photocopy.”