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MailTribune.com
  • Pioneers in Motorcycling

    Those American Motorcycle Girls
  • It took several blinks to bring myself back from a motorcycle trip through time. I realized two hours had passed, and I was still sitting on the couch with a big grin on my face. In my lap was one of the most fantastic motorcycle books I have ever had the pleasure to own: "The American Motorcycle Girls, 1900 to 1950," by Cris...
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  • It took several blinks to bring myself back from a motorcycle trip through time.
    I realized two hours had passed, and I was still sitting on the couch with a big grin on my face. In my lap was one of the most fantastic motorcycle books I have ever had the pleasure to own: "The American Motorcycle Girls, 1900 to 1950," by Cristine Sommers Simmons. The subtitle characterizes it as "A Photographic History of Early Women Motorcyclists."
    I was transported back in time as I flipped page after page filled with beautiful sepia-tone photos dating back to the early 1900s. The rich photographic chronicle made me realize that today's female riders have nothing on these daring and enterprising ladies. You might think these were rebellious tomboys or social misfits out of step with the socially accepted patterns of appropriate feminine behavior.
    Really "… not so much.
    Photo after photo depicts these audacious gals dressed in fashionable dresses of the period, complete with elaborate plumed hats, standing proudly by what now would be priceless vintage motorcycles. These proper ladies were no tomboys. That came later.
    Historians tell us that a doctor's wife who enjoyed bicycling through the streets of Paris brought this trend to America in 1894. Her obvious enjoyment of this pastime overcame many a disapproving glance, and the trend caught on. It wasn't long before man's ingenuity evolved a motorized version of the new contraption. Voila! The motor-cycle came to be.
    As this new mode of transportation became popular, it wasn't long before women desired the same thrill and exhilaration enjoyed by men. Vaudeville performer Clara Inge gave some insight as to how women felt about riding in an article from MotorCycle Illustrated, dated January 1911.
    "I do not see why more women do not ride motorcycles. I always enjoyed bicycling, but motorcycling is much more stimulating. Until recently, I imagined that motorcycle riding always soiled a person's costume, but I haven't found it so. I've been riding for two weeks and haven't a spot on my dress yet."
    One of the first competitive female riders was Clara Wagner, the 15-year-old daughter of motorcycle manufacturer George Wagner of St. Paul, Minn. Many a male ego took a beating when this young woman showed up at local motorcycle events.
    No doubt inspired by his daughter's skill and determination, Wagner manufactured the very first motorcycle designed to fit a women's frame. Called the Ladies' Drop-Frame Model, it sported special guards over the chain and a lowered seat and handlebars. It could be special-ordered with fabric fender covers to protect long skirts from dust and mud. Clara Wagner was to become one of history's most renowned female riders.
    Then there was Katherine Kelly for whom, in 1911, B.F. Goodrich sponsored a promotional ride across the country to tout the superiority of their White Tread Large Stud Tires. Kelly left Philadelphia on a Flying Merkel Twin and rode 1,382 miles in a little over eight days.
    If you're thinking that's not such a big deal, consider that she rode this distance in a below-the-knee dress on little more than a bicycle seat at modest speeds over unimproved roads. She had none of the modern improvements we enjoy on our road trips today, such as a windshield, eye protection, rain gear and leathers. No sir, these gals were tough!
    Long-distance riders, racers, hippodrome daredevils — anything men did, a handful of adventurous women tried. True standouts may have been the minority, but female riders were growing in number all over the nation. They rode a wide variety of bikes — The Flying Merkel, Indians and Harley-Davidsons — and often were featured in issues of MotorCycle Illustrated and Motorcycle News.
    Simmons' book was painstakingly researched and lovingly crafted. From recreation to transportation to competition, it takes us through decades of little-known and illustrious female riders. The pages are filled with phenomenal vintage photographs, advertisements and articles of the day that provide a rich and vivid history of women who paved the way for today's female riders.
    It is a must-have for any woman who loves motorcycling.
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