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Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad, and the Custom @ Whatcom Museum of History & Art

1947 Indian Chief
Collection of Gary Palmer. Photo by Jason Koski.
©Whatcom Museum of History & Art
1912 Black Hawk
Collection of Pete Gagan. Photo by Jason Koski.
©Whatcom Museum of History & Art

Whatcom Museum,
Arco Exhibits Building

In its purest form, a motorcycle is simply a machine – an object – with a beauty all its own. As a symbol, however, motorcycles hold a unique appeal in American culture.

1947 Indian Chief
Collection of Gary Palmer.
Photo by Jason Koski.
©Whatcom Museum of
History & Art
1929 Henderson In-line 4.
Collection of Ian Davidson.
Photo by Jason Koski.
©Whatcom Museum of
History & Art

Through the 20th century, the vehicle of the American icon – the independent, adventurous cowboy – gradually transformed from horse to machine. At the same time John Wayne was riding across the prairie in search of our nostalgic past, James Dean was thundering up the highway on a quest to define our future. As we moved from a pastoral to an urban society, dominated by machinery and technology, the choice to ride a motorcycle has increasingly symbolized individuality, freedom, adventure, and an intimacy with nature.

An astonishing range of motorcycle clubs are now in existence, bringing together riders with common interests. Clubs have been established for such diverse groups as retirees, veterans, religious affiliations, and gay and lesbian riders. Just what makes motorcycling so appealing to such a broad range of people?

The Whatcom Museum aims to answer this question in its new exhibition Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad and the Custom, May 8 through Dec. 4, 2005. Along with the classic and rare motorcycles themselves, the show investigates major topics important to motorcycle culture such as racing, customization, and design. As the exhibition title, the Good, the Bad, and the Custom indicates, motorcycling has experienced some changes in public perception over its 100+ year history.

Because of its early uses in the 19-teens and 20s by the United States military, the motorcycle first enjoyed a strong affiliation with safety and independence. Photographs of brave American soldiers astride motorcycles during both World Wars spurred public interest in motorcycling and generated a positive, patriotic association. During the 1920s and 1930s, motorcycles were favored by many police departments because they were faster and more agile than horses or cars. Motorcycling was seen as a healthy, adventurous pastime and mode of transportation.

Also popular were various types of racing competitions, including endurance runs, board track, flat track and hill climbing, which fulfilled many riders’ need for speed. The Mt. Baker Motorcycle Club, founded in 1925, is one of the ten oldest motorcycle clubs in the United States and the second oldest on the Pacific Coast. In 1946 the club purchased 50 acres of land and created Hannegan Speedway, which has been in continuous use since that time. Local racing legends associated with the club include Johnny Matinolich, national hill climbing champion in the 1940s, and more recently Steve Baker, who was the first American to win a road racing world championship in 1977. The exhibit is dedicated to the late Fred Pazaski, another local motorcycle enthusiast, who painstakingly restored and rebuilt historic bikes such as Joe Petraili’s 1935 Harley Davidson Peashooter.

Today’s imaginatively customized motorcycles have their roots in the 1930s and ‘40s. Chopping and personalizing became increasingly popular after WWII when many veterans returning from military duty altered their motorcycles for racing, and also painted images on the gas tanks reminiscent of bomber airplanes. This trend has continued through the decades, with riders now able to order completely customized and individualized motorcycles from manufacturers.

Recreational and sporting images of the motorcycle were somewhat tarnished in the tumultuous 1950s and ‘60s when non-conformist, rebellious bikers captured the American imagination and a new stereotype was formed after a notorious riot in 1947 of a gathering of motorcyclists in the quiet town of Hollister, California. Hollywood seized on the idea of the leather-clad, outlaw biker and made such movies as "The Wild One," which was based on the Hollister incident. A new version of the American icon emerged in black leather as opposed to the white Stetsons of the previous generation.

Today, you are much more likely to see a judge or schoolteacher on a motorcycle than a menacing outlaw. This rebel perception gradually changed in the 1970s, with motorcycle sales soaring from the 1980s onward. New innovations by top manufacturers including Harley-Davidson, Honda, Yamaha and Triumph have made motorcycles safer, more economical and environmentally sound than ever before. And they continue to be fun. For many, riding is a group activity enjoyed with like-minded souls seeking a respite from the pressures of mainstream life.

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Bellingham Taxi on Old Chuckanut Drive c. 1925
©Whatcom Museum of History & Art,
J.W. Sandison collection, #4018

Salsbury Motor Scooter, 1948
©Whatcom Museum of History & Art, 1955.1.5533,
Jack Carver Collection

Cliff Majors, stunt rider, c. 1946
©Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling

Death Head Derby - over the bridge
©Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling

Brown Derby Hill Climb
Johnny Marinolich of Mt. Baker Motorcycling Club.
7 time national champion hill climb, 1930s.
©Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling

Power Slide
©Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling
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Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad, and the Custom at the Whatcom Museum of History & Art features more than 30 historic bikes, including the following highlights:
1912 Black Hawk
Courtesy of Pete Gagan. Black Hawk (1911-1914) built a 500cc single with chain or belt drive, spring fork and seat, and a rear hub clutch. This is the only known model to exist today.
1924 Brough Superior model: SS-80
Courtesy of Pete Gagan. It was this model which encouraged a tester to describe the Brough as "The Rolls Royce of Motorcycles". Approximately 2800 Brough Superiors were manufactured in Nottingham England between 1919 and 1940; all of them hand built, and rarely are any two the same.
1935 Side Car Taxi
Courtesy Trev Deeley Collection. This sidecar is one of two built in Bellingham in 1935, and is the only survivor. The cab seats two people and is mounted on a Harley-Davidson commercial chassis. The rig was used as a taxicab for 40 years in Bellingham for a charge of 10 cents a mile.
1935 Harley Davidson Model: Peashooter 350 c.c. 21 cu. in.
Courtesy Trev Deeley Collection. The engine in this machine is the actual racing engine raced by Joe Petrali, who chalked up 31 consecutive victories in 1935. To top off his career, Petrali established the world motorcycle speed record of 136.183 mph at Daytona Beach on March 13, 1937. He was one of Harley-Davidson’s most well known racers and was inducted into the Motorsports Hall of Fame in 1992.
1939 Crocker model: 61 OHV
Courtesy Daniel Statnekov. The original owner of this bike was Jack Lilly, of the Booze Fighters Motorcycle club, from which the characters in the 1954 movie The Wild One were based. This bike is the 103rd motorcycle ever manufactured by Alfred Crocker, American Motorcycle Manufacturer of the 1930s and ‘40s.
James Dean’s 1948 CZ
Courtesy Mark Winslow. (on exhibit June 14 – Sept.6, 2005)
The CZ was a Czech-made motorcycle (ceska zbrojowka or Czechoslovakian weapon factory in English). James Dean bought this bike in his youth from a local Indian dealer. In 1948, the first series of 350 cc’s appeared in the frame used by the 250 cc. The motor had flat pistons, reverse flow and a capacity of 358 cc. The top speed was about 65 mph.
1951 BSA model: A-10 Golden Flash 650 c.c. 40 cu. in.
Courtesy Gene Theissen. This motorcycle was ridden to a class A fuel speed record in 1951 at the Bonneville Salt Flats. The pilot was Gene Theissen of Eugene, OR and the two-way speed average was 143.5477 mph. Hap Alzina, distributor of BSA in the Western U.S.A, gave this machine to Theissen. It has only been ridden in two competition events — Rosemond Dry Lakes and the Bonneville Salt Flats.
1963 Triumph T 120
Courtesy Del West. Owned by Steve McQueen, and used as his early desert racer. McQueen produced the film On Any Sunday, which cast a new light on motorcycling as a fun sport enjoyed by people of all walks of life and marked the beginning of the motorcycle’s return to main stream of American Society.
1973 Triumph model: X75 Hurricane 750 c.c. 45 cu. in.
Courtesy Trev Deeley Collection. The Hurricane was a limited production designed by an American, Craig Vetter. Vetter was given a 1969 BSA Rocket 3 to redesign to appeal to the boulevard cruiser market. It was not an extraordinary success and only 1,171 were produced.
1975 Honda Gold Wing
Courtesy Bob Lanphere. Developed as a super bike with it’s water cooled flathead opposed four cylinder and shaft drive the Gold Wing became the consummate touring machine and has a loyal following world wide.
2005 The Dragon Bike
Courtesy Tom Varga, HawgZotic. Developed by HawgZotic this bike contains one of kind airbrush artwork special designed frame, triple tree, and rear wheel. These are truly one of a kind motorcycles custom built for one of kind customers such as Canadian Hockey stars.
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Saturday, May 7, 9 a.m.
Harley-Davidson of Bellingham to Whatcom Museum

Celebrating the opening of Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad, and the Custom at the Whatcom Museum, motorcyclists can join in the fun by participating in the Whatcom HOG Chapter’s Fred Pazaski Memorial Opening Ride to benefit the Whatcom Children’s Museum. HOG stands for Harley Owners Group. The all-day ride throughout Whatcom County begins at Harley-Davidson of Bellingham (1419 N. State St.) and ends at the Museum’s ARCO Exhibits Building for a preview reception from 6 to 9 p.m.
For registration packet and route information contact Harley-Davidson of Bellingham at (360)671-7575.

Sunday, May 8, 9 a.m.

The Pacific Northwest Museum of Motorcycling invites riders to meet at the Museum of History & Industry parking lot ride at 2700 24th Ave. E in Seattle for a 90 mile trip to the Whatcom Museum of History & Art on opening day of Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad, and the Custom. This ride commemorates the Death Head Derby, as part of the regional history of motorcycling. From 1937 to 1956, the winner of the derby, hosted by the Olympia Motorcycle Club, was presented with “Annabelle”, a human skull that served as the trophy. On May 8 Annabelle will be delivered to the Whatcom Museum as part of the ride.
For more information, call Jack Mackey at (206)762-5558.

Sunday, May 8, noon to 5 p.m.
Whatcom Museum, ARCO Exhibits Building, Free

Be among the first to view more than 30 classic examples of Pacific Northwest motorcycle history. The exhibition officially opens to the public at noon with the installation of "Annabelle" the historic human-skull trophy from the region’s Death Head Derby of 1937-1956. As part of the opening day festivities, the Victoria City Police Drill Team will perform at 1:30 p.m., and the Seattle Cossacks Motorcycle Drill Team will perform from 2 to 3 p.m. in front of the Museum’s ARCO Exhibits Building at 206 Prospect Street.

Saturday, June 11, 2 p.m.
Whatcom Museum, ARCO Exhibits Building parking lot, Free

Accomplished motorcycle rider, author, and instructor David Hough will offer his expertise in a question and answer session at the Whatcom Museum on the topic of street riding safety. Recognized as one of the few motorcycle journalists in the world who deals with real-world motorcycling skills for public roads, Hough has published three award-winning books as well as a regular column for Motorcycle Consumer News.
For more information, call (360)676-6981.

Tuesday, June 14, noon to 5 p.m.
Whatcom Museum, ARCO Exhibits Building, Free

A celebrity addition to the Whatcom Museum’s current exhibition, Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad, and the Custom, James Dean’s 1949 CZ will be on display June 14 – Sept. 6. This was one of Dean’s first motorcycles. Made in Czechoslovakia, the motor had flat pistons, reverse flow and a capacity of 358 cc. The top speed was about 65 miles per hour. Dean later became a teenage icon for his role in the 1959 film Rebel Without a Cause.
For more information, call (360)676-6981.

Tuesday, June 14, 7 p.m.
Pickford Dream Space, 1318 Bay Street, $4 donation

James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo star in the 1955 iconic teenage alienation drama. Dean doesn’t ride a motorcycle in the movie, but the rebellious, disenfranchised feelings that drove many young people of the era to motorcycles and the open road are captured here. The movie is timed to coincide with the installation of Dean’s own motorcycle, a 1949 CZ, 175-350cc, to the current exhibition Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad, and the Custom at the Whatcom Museum. The film series is sponsored by Trek Video and presented in partnership with the Whatcom Film Association.
For more information, call (360)676-6981.

Saturday, June 18, 10 to 3 p.m.

Harley-Davidson of Bellingham presents the Seventh Annual Bellingham Bike Show at their dealership at 1419 N. State Street. Participants will see over 50 custom motorcycles with prizes given in a number of special categories. There will be live music, complimentary food and sodas, and summertime fun. This year the show coordinates with the Whatcom Museum’s current exhibition Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad, and the Custom. Partial proceeds from the event will support the Whatcom Children’s Museum.
To enter a custom motorcycle or for more information, call Harley-Davidson of Bellingham at (360)671-7575.

Saturday, June 25

The Bee Cee Beemers motorcycle group will ride their BMW’s from Canada south to the Whatcom Museum for a view of the new exhibition Motorcycles: the Good, the Bad, and the Custom.

Saturday, July 9, 2 p.m.
Whatcom Museum, Rotunda Room, Free

Sound Rider! internet motorcycle magazine publisher, Tom Mehren, presents an illustrated program on the Columbia River Gorge. Mehren spends a month each year riding in the Gorge and will share his captivating photography and a wealth of information during the program. Most local motorcyclists only pass through the Columbia River gorge on their way to somewhere. But the region is a Disneyland for two-wheel tourers who take the time to venture into it deep. With several hundreds of miles of world class motorcycling roads, more than a dozen quality tourist attractions, and some of the most scenic beauty the Northwest has to offer, it’s a paradise vacation if you know where to go. But with grated bridges, frosty roads, changing weather and light conditions, there’s plenty for the first time adventurer to know to make the most of their ride.
For more information, call (360)676-6981.

Sunday, July 10, 6 p.m.
Pickford Dream Space, 1318 Bay Street, $4 donation

Peter Fonda, Dennis Hopper and Jack Nicholson star in the 1969 generation-defining, low budget movie, with excellent music, that was one of Jack Nicholson’s finest early roles, and Captain America’s sweet custom ride. Fonda and Hopper ride two panhead hardtail Harley choppers on a motorcycle trek "experience" through the Southwest to find "America". The film series is sponsored by Trek Video and presented in partnership with the Whatcom Film Association.
For more information, call (360)676-6981.

Friday, July 29, Noon

The group rallies in Lynden this weekend and will make a group visit to the Whatcom Museum’s motorcycle exhibition on Friday.

Saturday, July 30, Noon to 5 p.m. Free

First 200 visitors to the exhibition will receive a coupon for $1 off a pint of rootbeer/beer courtesy of Boundary Bay Brewery & Bistro. Offer valid Saturday, July 30, 2005.
For more information, call (360)676-6981.

Saturday, Aug. 27
Maritime Heritage Center park below the Whatcom Museum

Summer means organized motorcycle rallies for many cycle clubs. The Washington State HOG group ends their statewide tour in Bellingham Aug. 27 to honor and view the Whatcom Museum’s motorcycle exhibit. The Maritime Heritage Center Park below the Museum’s 1892 Old City Hall will stage their ending ceremonies and the motorcycle exhibit will extend hours into the evening for the event.
For more information call (360)391-1870 or visit

Saturday, Aug. 27, dusk
The Traveling Pickford Show 2005!, Bellingham Public Library lawn downtown, $4 donation $10 family

Marlon Brando (on his own Triumph) and Lee Marvin (on a Harley) star in the 1954 original biker movie. Two biker gangs descend upon a quiet mid-western town and each other, inspired by the real life 1947 events in Hollister, CA. Brando’s Johnny, the leader of the Black Rebels, struggles against social prejudice and his own gang’s lawlessness. Brando’s performance defined a new American icon of the rebel outlaw, with black leather and a steel ride replacing the Stetson and horse of the previous rebel. The film series is sponsored by Trek Video and presented in partnership with the Whatcom Film Association.
For more information, call (360)676-6981.

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