Kulture Clash: Yesterday’s biker heroes

By Bob Kay

First off, we should define biker for it is a term that has become way overused. Next comes understanding what a hero is and whose hero are we even talking about. I do want to point out for this conversation I am talking about influential bikers that are no longer with us and to be more specific, heroes of mine. Luckily, there are many biker heroes still with us that have a daily influence on our direction and beliefs. While I intend to focus on the influence these heroes have had on my life, I will, of course, speak in the broader sense on their influence over the entire motorcycle industry. I would be lying if I said the recent passing of Arlen Ness didn’t cause me to pause and look back at all my heroes that are no longer with us.

You are not a biker just because you ride a Harley or wear a black leather jacket. Conversely, you can be a biker even if you ride a Kamasuki and wear a Cordura jacket. A biker does ride a motorcycle but also exudes a certain air of confidence. He or she—yes I know plenty of hardcore biker women—does not have time for bullshit and would rather tell you straight up and deal with the consequences face to face. Bikers have the highest integrity, which is best illustrated when they don’t win a race or a custom competition and reach out proudly to shake the hand of the winner and congratulate them without hesitation or remorse. A biker is defined by who they are, not what they look like or ride. Bikers, in general, tend to be heroes to someone for their unselfish acts of charity, giving and time spent with those in need. Bikers tend to be the first to jump in and help in time of crisis. Webster defines a hero as a person admired for their achievements and noble qualities.

Arlen Ness epitomized the definition of a hero. When it comes to custom achievements you would have to look hard and far to find someone that even comes close to Arlen’s accomplishments. To begin with, Arlen helped to define the meaning of custom in the world of motorcycles. If we believe the motorcycle performance aftermarket began around 1958 with S&S, you would have to seriously consider the custom aftermarket, which started taking shape around the same time, was in part largely due to the influence of Mr. Ness. Known as the King and Godfather of Custom, Arlen’s never-ending quest to push the boundaries had an everlasting effect on all of us. When it comes to noble characteristics you will be hard pressed to find a biker with more class and poise than Arlen Ness. He had time for everyone and made everyone feel like they were his best friend. He genuinely cared about what you were doing and wished you the best.

Not too long ago we lost another great man, Bob McKay. Bob was able to do what so few could with combining a successful Harley-Davidson dealership while putting his creative skills together to produce some very influential custom bikes. Bob and I had a unique relationship because of our namesakes. You see for years the industry would confuse the two of us and we would get each other’s calls. We both had fun letting this play out over the years and there was never an issue because we always made sure that any business got properly taken care of. Bob was also a man of great integrity and will be sorely missed. Cyril Huze was another dear friend that passed not so long ago. Cyril was a customizer, but his claim to fame was his blog. He unabashedly produced a weekly motorcycle industry news blog bringing out as many different opinions as readers by allowing an open forum style. Cyril made no apologies and I loved him for his straightforward, never back down style. Of course, this conversation must include Indian Larry. While Larry definitely had a unique style to his custom bikes, his unique approach to life set him apart. There could be no truer biker than Indian Larry. He lived life with an abandon many only dreamed about, but he maintained a true sincerity and never took his freedom for granted. His story was one of legend and lore.

The list is many and if I had one hundred pages I could not begin to do justice to these biker heroes that have left us with such a great legacy. When we sold Nempco, Ron Trock pulled me aside and said, “Good for you, Bob; one of us made it.” This was a man that I admired for the reputation he built on integrity and quality parts. He was a pioneer in the Harley aftermarket and he took the time to make me feel special. Mel Magnet was an entrepreneurial type of guy that started selling SU carburetors in his TV repair store. He grew Rivera Primo, with the help of John Ventriglia, into one of the most important aftermarket performance houses in the history of Harley-Davidson motorcycles. When I first started out in the Harley aftermarket, Mel, this know-nothing guy from a race shop background, took me aside and explained the performance side of this game. When he was done, he stopped for second and said, “I like you, Bob, so please remember nothing is more important than your word. Don’t give it unless you can back it.” John Wyckoff taught me about the motorcycle apparel business, but more importantly, he gave me the confidence to move ahead when I believed in something. Going back to the beginning of my career, it was my best friend John Bettencourt, who gave me the chance to work in the motorcycle industry. John was an artist, a racer extraordinaire and a true biker with a thirst for adventure. There are many others, but the guy I owe my deep embedded love for the biker lifestyle and motorcycles to is my grandfather. While I never was old enough to ride with him, he left behind enough stories and desire to lead me into the world of motorcycles, which has been all I have ever done and will do. I just hope I can leave one small part of me so future bikers can carry on the tradition of my biker heroes.

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