Motorbike Mania

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In 1910, the first paved streets appeared in Bakersfield. Not surprisingly, in 1911, the first motorcycle race around China Grade Loop took place. However, paved roads were far from necessary when it came to some of the earliest daredevils in our midst, and those who were a part of the Bakersfield Motorcycle Club—also founded in the early 1900s—have become the stuff of local legend.

(After all, who could forget the record-setting Motorcycle Hill Climb of 1923 that the Club hosted, as detailed in our 29-6 issue’s Bakersfield’s Sound?)

North of the Beale Clock Tower, three men prepare to race their Harleys. Between 1910 and 1920, motorbike racing was wildly popular in Bakersfield.

North of the Beale Clock Tower, three men prepare to race their Harleys. Between 1910 and 1920, motorbike racing was wildly popular in Bakersfield.

Back in those times, “motorbikes” were gaining popularity, and Kern County was steeped in speed fever. According to the Kern County Union Labor Journal, the riders in those days had to have true grit just to take on such a vehicle. “The bike in those days was a single or twin cylinder affair, with belt-driven, hard narrow tires, with an aceteline [sic] headlight lamp, fed by a tank of compressed gas,” it read. “It was a high-wheeled and hard-riding affair…” The types of bikes they rode had been noted as mostly having been forgotten by the 1950s, except for “Harley Davidson, Metz, Excelsior, Thor, Curtis, Indian, Flying Merkyl,” and a few others.

Racing and riding were favored pastimes of motorbike owners like Leonard Dunn, who won the prize cup on July 4, 1908, for a three-mile motorbike race. One time, around 1905, he was asked by another local to bring a horse and buggy up to Fresno, offering to “pay Leonard’s train fare back to Bakersfield.” Rather than take him up on that, Dunn threw his motorbike into the buggy, driving the buggy up to Fresno, and then returned home via bike. “Riding a train was not Brother Dunn’s idea of excitement,” the Union Labor Journal detailed, quoting Dunn’s friend, Jack Crough, as having said, “It took him nine hours to do the hundred odd miles over sand, cow path and through dust back to Bakersfield…a record which to my knowledge has never been equaled.”

Dunn wasn’t alone. His fellow motorbike enthusiasts rode in parades and even traveled significant distances, like to Woody, just to have picnics or barbecues together. This destination “was then reached over rough and dusty roads. Many of the riders and their girl friends [sic] riding on a seat behind, wore dusters and goggles were a ‘must.’” They didn’t ride alone, though. Often, a car would accompany the riders, carrying refreshments like sandwiches and soda pop, and even extra gasoline and spare parts in case a breakdown occurred.

Naturally, the motorbike evolved into the motorcycle, and much has changed, from the level of comfort to the price tag (these earlier models were typically $125 to $200). But the adventurous spirit of our forefathers remains.

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