30 Cultural Icons on Motorcycles

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Motorcycles have long been symbols of freedom and adventure, so it’s not surprising that many cultural icons have owned and enjoyed bikes. Few hobbies or passions can capture the comparable thrill of the spotlight than motorcycles, though we imagine many have taken to the open road for a stretch of solitude and highway zen. Check out the cultural icons who became road warriors, below.

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Andy Warhol created several prints featuring motorcycles. However, this photo of the artist on the back of a bike outside Hollywood’s famous Mel’s Diner (formerly Ben Frank’s) in 1967 trumps all.

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Marlon Brando rode a bike before he was famous. He would cruise the streets of New York City before the sun came up. “It still pleases me to be awake during the dark, early hours before morning when everyone else is still asleep. I’ve been that way since I first moved to New York,” the Wild One star wrote in his memoir, Brando: Songs My Mother Taught Me. He continued:

“I do my best thinking and writing then. During those early years in New York, I often got on my motorcycle in the middle of the night and went for a ride — anyplace. There wasn’t much crime in the city then, and if you owned a motorcycle, you left it outside your apartment and in the morning it was still there. It was wonderful on summer nights to cruise around the city at one, two, or three AM wearing jeans and a t-shirt with a girl on the seat behind me.”

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Here’s baby Bob Dylan on his 1964 Triumph Tiger 100SS, which he enjoyed riding around upstate New York. The musician suffered from facial lacerations and several broken vertebrae after a 1966 crash, although mysteriously, no ambulance was called, and Dylan was never hospitalized. “When I had that motorcycle accident… I woke up and caught my senses, I realized that I was just workin’ for all these leeches. And I didn’t want to do that. Plus, I had a family and I just wanted to see my kids,” he later said of the incident.

Photo credit: Passim Archives, the Betsy Siggins Collection

Folk legend Joan Baez enjoyed riding on the back of a bike, as pictured here with Charles River Valley Boys member and former Janis Joplin road manager, John Byrne Cooke. She also accompanied Bob Dylan for rides through the Catskills. “He used to hang on that thing like sack of flour,” she wrote of Dylan’s cycling skills. “I always had the feeling it was driving him, and if we were lucky we’d lean the right way and the motorcycle would turn the corner. If not, it would be the end of both of us.”

Photo credit: M+B Art

“California, Labor Day weekend… early, with ocean fog still in the streets, outlaw motorcyclists wearing chains, shades and greasy Levis roll out from damp garages, all-night diners and cast-off one-night pads in Frisco, Hollywood, Berdoo and East Oakland, heading for the Monterey peninsula, north of Big Sur… The Menace is loose again.”

Hunter S. Thompson wrote these words in 1965 when he got his first journalism break with The Nation. He lived with the notorious Hells Angels for almost two years and captured life on the road in a series of fascinating portraits.

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Clark Gable was obsessed with motorcycles and meticulous about caring for his prized possessions. Always wanting the latest technology, the Gone with the Wind actor would regularly trade old models for new ones. Gable enjoyed racing bikes with pals, especially his celeb-filled motorcycle “gang” known as the Moraga Spit and Polish Club — named after a Beverly Hills street. Members included directors William Wellman, Howard Hawks, and Victor Fleming.

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British army officer T. E. Lawrence (“Lawrence of Arabia”) was an ardent motorcyclist (just like friend George Bernard Shaw). In his poetic account of a ride, he wrote: “The extravagance in which my surplus emotion expressed itself lay on the road. So long as roads were tarred blue and straight; not hedged; and empty and dry, so long I was rich.”

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Sid Vicious rode a bike in his video for “C’mon Everybody.” He asked to be buried in his leather jacket, jeans, and motorcycle boots.

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Forbes magazine publisher, Malcolm Forbes, gifted Elizabeth Taylor with a purple Harley (nicknamed the “Purple Passion”) — reportedly to match her eyes. Dig the jackets.

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The man who talks to chairs, Clint Eastwood, appeared in numerous car and motorcycle ads during the 1960s and ’70s, which complemented his tough guy image. Word has it that he favored British motorcycle marque Norton.

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Buddy Holly and the Crickets were their own motorcycle gang. The young singer picked up his 1958 Ariel Cyclone after a successful tour with the band. This video shows a giddy Holly acting out a scene from Rebel without a Cause with Crickets members Joe Mauldin and Jerry Allison.

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Smiths fans will recognize this image of an adorably nerdy James Dean on a bike, snapped by his classmate Nelva Jean Thomas. The photo appears on the cover for the “Bigmouth Strikes Again” single. This was the icon’s first real bike: a 1947 CZ 125-cc, given to him by his uncle and guardian, Marcus Winslow. The Rebel without a Cause star was nicknamed “One Speed Dean.”

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Blixa Bargeld on a BMW motorcycle in Berlin around 1985. Yes.

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A windswept Mick Jagger on an old Honda.

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Ann-Margret modeled for several motorcycle companies during the 1960s. She became passionate about bikes at an early age, thanks to her uncle in Sweden. “I have always loved speed. You know the feeling that you have in a convertible, with the elements and everything, the little bit of danger, the speed… ” she told Larry King. As of 2000, she was still riding.

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The manliest of manlies, Steve McQueen epitomized everything motorcycles stood for and rode bikes throughout his entire life with confidence, skill, and utter cool. He performed many of his own stunts with cars and motorcycles on film.

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There is so much to love about this photo of John Lennon posing with his bike during a road trip between Las Vegas and Los Angeles.

In 1965, Paul McCartney had a motorcycle accident. He chipped his tooth and scarred his lip. Two years later he crashed his car, leading to the start of the “Paul is dead” rumors.

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English actress Jane Asher rode bikes with former boyfriend Paul McCartney.

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Avid biker Peter Fonda repped the counter culture and the Harley-Davidson brand when he rode the iconic motorcycle in Easy Rider and The Wild Angels.

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Elvis loved motorcycles. Here’s the King taking a break with Barbara Stanwyck during the filming of 1964’s Roustabout. He also took Natalie Wood for a spin one time.

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Jerry Lee Lewis with his, ahem, 13-year-old wife (and cousin), Myra.

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Brigitte Bardot sang the Serge Gainsbourg-written “Harley-Davidson,” posed on a motorcycle, and made the world swoon. Bardot had a genuine interest in bikes, however. She reportedly owned a Harley, while ex-husband Gunter Sachs rode a Münch Mammut.

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Nancy Sinatra starred as Peter Fonda’s biker girlfriend in Roger Corman’s The Wild Angels in 1966, but bikes made an appearance in her personal life as well. She’s pictured here with record producer Mickie Most on the back of a BSA A65 Lightning motorcycle. They were on their way to record “The Highway Song” in 1969.

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Tina Turner used to be a Harley enthusiast.

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Ian Astbury with former girlfriend Renee Beach.

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Jimi rode a 1964 Chopped Harley-Davidson Panhead. Also, daisies.

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Jerry Garcia riding sidecar.

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Sportsman Arthur Conan Doyle on an early motorcycle, outside the home he designed and built himself in the UK.

Bonus/Fun Facts

A photo of Roald Dahl on a motorcycle seems to be elusive, but it bears mentioning that the children’s author became passionate about bikes early on. He mentions a motorcycle in Boy and Going Solo and some suggest that the title of his story The BFG (Big Friendly Giant) is a play on the name of tire company BFGoodrich.

We’d also love to get our hands on a photo of George Orwell and his motorcycle. The author reportedly preferred a Royal Enfield 350. Stories say he learned to ride an American military motorcycle while in Burma, which he sat atop while tiger hunting.