Revving into popular culture: How motorcycles became mainstream

In 1977, ‘CHiPs’ sanitized riding a motorcycle, but the ride to bikes being mainstream hasn’t always been smooth.

By Richard Crouse Wheels.ca

Sep 11, 2022 4 min. read

Article was updated a year ago

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Forty-five years ago, “CHiPs,” the long-running television series starring actors Erik Estrada and Larry Wilcox as California Highway Patrol officers, made motorcycles family friendly.

For decades, movies like “The Wild One,” the 1953 Marlon Brando film about bikers who terrorize a small town after one of their leaders is thrown in jail, gave motorcycles an unruly reputation in mainstream culture. Suddenly, motorcycles were synonymous with the outlaw spirit and rebellion.

In the film’s most famous exchange, a local woman asks Brando’s gang leader, “Hey Johnny, what are you rebelling against?”

“What do you got?” he snorts in reply.

The leather-jacketed, lawless vibe established by “The Wild One” dominated biker movies for decades. The poster for 1969’s “Run Angel, Run,” for instance, screamed “raw and violent” in words larger than the film’s title.

Then, on September 15, 1977, the anarchy epitomized by “The Wild Ones” gave way to “CHiPs,” a feel-good crime drama about two motorcycle riding Los Angeles patrol officers. The good-natured antics of the show’s main characters, Frank (Ponch) Poncherello and Jon Baker, were front and center, but for many viewers the real stars were the motorcycles.

Motorcycle TV

Ponch and Jon rode a Kawasaki Z1-P and a KZ900-C2 in Seasons 1 and 2, and a KZ1000-C1 starting in Season 3, as they cruised Los Angeles’ freeways solving crimes and rescuing people in trouble. The smiling Estrada’s popularity and advice on how to look good on a cycle – “Sit up straight, don’t slouch and smile” – was the exact opposite of the rebelliousness in “The Wild Bunch.”

“These ‘chippies’ never draw their guns,” the Hollywood Reported wrote about the TV show. “They let their bikes do the talking instead.”

Since “Chips” debuted in 1977, motorcycles – ridden by heroes, antiheroes and villains – have rumbled their way into movies and television shows like, “a burst of dirty thunder,” as Hunter S. Thompson wrote in his book “Hell's Angels: The Strange and Terrible Saga of the Outlaw Motorcycle Gangs.”

One of the grittier portrayals of biker life in recent years appears in “Sons of Anarchy,” the adrenaline-charged TV series starring Ron Perlman as the leader of an outlaw motorcycle club based in Charming, Calif.

Motorcycle TV

The members of SAMCRO (Sons of Anarchy Motorcycle Club, Redwood Original) drive Harleys. There is the 1946 Harley-Davidson Knucklehead, customized for the show using bike parts from 1946 to 1951, and the 2006 Harley Davidson Dayna Street Bob, a true outlaw bike that is stripped of any piece not required by law, like a passenger seat.

Despite admitting that, “Bikes don’t like me and it’s mutual,” Perlman rode the coolest bike on the show. His massive 2008 Harley Davidson Dyna Super Glide was an extension of Perlman’s character: big, bold and intimidating.

Musician Prince had a hit with his song “Little Red Corvette,” but it was another vehicle that provided to be his most iconic moment. Loosely based on his own life, the 1984 film “Purple Rain” told the story of an up-and-coming musician balancing life, love and a career on the streets of Minneapolis.

[caption id="attachment_171284" align="aligncenter" width="1566"]Motorcycle TV 1. Vanity Fair 2. Pleasantville 3. The Wild One (Marlon Brando)4. Scream (Drew Barrymore)[/caption]

Shot on the backlot of Warner Bros. Studios, where a set was dressed to look like a gritty back alley, the movie poster shows Prince shrouded in smoke and perched atop a purple 1981 Hondamatic Honda CM400A motorcycle (its 30-inch seat height modified to fit the musician’s five-foot two-inch frame), as love interest Apollonia watches over him. The image was also used on the accompanying album cover and later on the home video and DVD covers.

The motorcycle featured spoked wheels and pink velour inserts, custom fairing, handlebars and seats, was embossed in red and included an early version of the singer’s unpronounceable love symbol, a combination of the male and female glyphs. New York Times critic Vincent Canby thought the photo summed up the film’s plot perfectly. “(It’s) probably the flashiest album cover ever to be released as a movie,” he wrote.

Motorcycles also feature heavily in “The Matrix” movie franchise. In the first film, Carrie-Anne Moss as Trinity rides a Triumph Speed Triple when she sees Agent Smith kidnap Neo, the hero played by Keanu Reeves.

Harley Davidsons appeared in the third film in the series, “The Matrix Revolutions,” and a Ducati Panigale Streetfighter is put through its paces in the most recent film, 2021’s “The Matrix Resurrections.” The franchise’s most spectacular motorcycle sequence, however, is the centerpiece of the second film, “The Matrix Reloaded.”

Using a mix of live action stunt driving and CGI, its freeway chase sequence features Trinity on a sleek Ducati 996 as she jumps from the back of a carrier truck, careens through heavy traffic, avoids being crushed against a cement barrier and attempts to rescue a character known as the Keymaker.

Moss, who shared the driving duties with a host of stunt performers, said operating the bike with a passenger on the back was nerve-racking. “I knew that if I allowed my mind one moment of doubt,” she told Entertainment Weekly, “that I could hurt another human being.”

In the end, it doesn’t matter who – the good, the bad or even a Matrix escapee – popular cultural decides to have riding a motorcycle. As “CHiPs” star Estrada once said, “There's only two kinds of motorcycle riders. Those who have been down and those who are going down.”




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