1,206 cc, 1948, United States
Collection of Doug Strange


The rocky homecoming of American World War II veterans enriched American motorcycle mythology. Their wartime world fostered a camaraderie among motorcycle platoons that would form the root of motorcycle gangs like Marlon Brando's in the film The Wild One (1954). The juiced-up Army bike with the everyman-sounding moniker "Bob-Job," became the vehicle for their flight. Combat veterans roamed America's roads in cohesive groups; the forerunners of the maligned American motorcycle gang, these vets did Easy Rider long before Hollywood did. The counterpoint to the "Bob-Job" was the Vespa: Brando in leather against Audrey Hepburn in a billowing skirt in Roman Holiday (1953). Born of the need for cheap personal transportation in the chaos of postwar Italy, the Vespa zipped into the collective cultural psyche. Socially acceptable yet still romantic, it epitomized suburbia's embrace of the motorbike.

The end of warfare did not mean the end of war. The term cold war supplanted the phrase world war, with perhaps even greater cultural reverberation. The enemy could no longer be conquered simply by massive mobilization and mass patriotism; rather, the big bombs were as elusive and invincible as the air through which they might travel. Nuclear became society's operative word. The anxiety provoked by the perils of nuclear war spawned the American fixation on the nuclear family. The resulting insularity, best characterized by planned, homogeneous communities like Levittown, New Jersey, followed a pattern--the disintegration of the old patterns of human social relationship, and with it, the snapping of the links between generations. War planning, family planning, and economic planning sucked the spontaneity out of the postwar world. Political and social conformity became law.

Imme R100
99 cc, 1949, Germany
Deutsches Museum, Munich

AJS E-95
499 cc, 1953, United Kingdom
The Barber Vintage Motorsports Museum
Birmingham, AL
In this context, the GIs' uncomfortable homecoming became all the more jarring, suburbanization all the more unavoidable, and social rebellion all the more predictable. The motorcycle became the vehicle for all shades of rebellion--from the vigilantism of hardcore biker gangs to the softer, almost sexy poses of suburban housewives daring to mimic Hollywood starlets. Fine machine--from dainty Vespas to daunting Harleys--became the metaphor on which America would ride into one of the most tumultuous eras the young country had ever known. The anxieties of postwar society forecast the chaos of the 1960s, and the motorcycle became the cultural icon that tracked the societal meltdown.